Imagine a world where ‘waste’ doesn’t exist – where products are designed and optimised for a cycle of disassembly and reuse. Dan Epstein writes about why the Circular Economy offers a fantastic opportunity for businesses to grow, whilst reducing our resource footprint.
During the final week in January 2017, London set records for the most polluted air it has ever experienced. Kings College London estimate that about 10,000 people die prematurely every year in London from pollution related diseases. Air pollution is not the only issue facing businesses and residents across the city. Loss of biodiversity and green space, the threats of climate change, including flooding and overheating, are challenging our way of doing business. Many of these issues are directly connected to the way we consume, move, live, do business, power and heat our industries and cities. The disconnect between the economy and environment is all too clear. However, innovation in new greener business models offers an alternative that could decouple growth from our impact on the environment.
Innovative business models
The circular and sharing economy models represent new ways to do business. The circular economy is an alternative to the traditional ‘make, use and dispose of’ model, in which very little material is recovered from goods at the end of their useful life. The circular economy seeks to design goods and services in a way that deliberately challenges built-in redundancy and waste, by ensuring products and goods retain their value for as long as possible, and allows the embedded materials to be recovered for reuse by industry when they are no longer useful.
The authors of Cradle to Cradle, a concept that seeks to test the idea of circular economy, have eloquently described how we can keep products and materials in the economy by separating biological and inert (technical) materials from one another and ensuring that each group of materials can be reused through careful design.
Applying the circular economy in West London
Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) have recently been looking at the material and waste flows that will occur once London’s largest regeneration project at Old Oak and Park Royal is complete. The estimate is that over 700,000 tonnes of material will be imported each year to support the economy; 30% of this will be biomass, 30% fossil energy and 30% non-metallic minerals. At the same time, 160,000 tonnes of waste is produced by industry and consumers. The waste that is generated is both expensive to dispose of and represents a significant loss in value to the economy.
Park Royal is home to one of the biggest food sectors in the UK, resulting in an enormous amount of organic waste and creating a major problem for waste collectors. Innovation in food waste management, such as anaerobic digestion, or other forms of nutrient extraction, could generate valuable heat (CO2 gas) for use in power generation and nutrients and fibre that could be converted into building products or other uses. Imagine if the food waste was taken to a refinery within the area to be converted and the valuable materials then returned to greenhouses on the roofs of existing buildings to grow tomatoes, salad, and pulses for use in sandwich production. The CO2 could be used to increase yield, along with heat, whilst waste water rich in nutrients would provide irrigation, thereby relieving pressure on Counters Creek and the River Brent, which cannot cope with more runoff.
Linking waste to local energy generation
These sandwiches could then be sent to Heathrow by a new fleet of electric barges using the electricity produced by photovoltaic cells or other renewable sources, or from energy generated from the gas from the anaerobic digestion plant, all created at the same refinery. The waste food could also be returned as part of a reverse logistics process, to be treated and turned back into new produce.
Virtually all the heat required to provide hot water and warmth for the Park Royal community could be generated from ‘lost’ heat including energy from waste, heat from the sewers and the Grand Union Canal, heat from the underground aquifer or waste heat from local data centres. Our demand for carbon intensive heat and power could be significantly reduced with these new methods, thereby helping to meet the Mayor of London’s zero carbon waste target, whilst potentially generating new income for local businesses. These concepts are being tried elsewhere and offer real potential to the area. What is needed is collective commitment to a local energy strategy, with a power and heat network that could be owned by those people who live, work and thrive in the area.
A greener, cleaner, circular economy could be part of a new, more profitable and collaborative way to do business in London. It needs leadership and partnership but the technology and innovation is here. Virtually every business in the area could benefit from such an approach.
Find out more
Useful Projects have practical experience and strong expertise in investigating circular economy opportunities and defining solutions for different stakeholders across the supply chain. Our clients include High Speed Two, The Green Construction Board, The Great Recovery, Zero Waste Scotland, Samsung and RS Components.
Dan Epstein is the Sustainability Lead at OPDC and Consultant Director of Sustainability at Useful Projects.
A version of this article was published in the Spring 2017 edition of West Londoner.