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IMechE report frames possibilities for circular economy

© Shutterstock / PhotoByToRWaste management.

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has published waste management policy recommendations that could put the UK on a path to a circular economy.

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has produced a report that provides practical recommendations on how UK policy change could provide a more sustainable approach to waste management.

IMechE is advocating for its approach to replace the outdated perspective through which the UK Government develops its waste management policies.

Implementation of the report’s recommendations could set the UK on track to formalise its development of a circular economy.

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has released a report that envisions how changes in UK policy could help formalise the development of a circular economy.

The 2022 report, Waste as a Resource: A Sustainable Way Forward, is an updated version of IMechE’s 2009 report of the same name. It recommends prioritising different waste streams in a way that enables them to be perceived as resources rather than problems. 

How does the UK currently develop its approach to waste management? 

Currently, the UK Government bases its policy and legislation on waste management on the ‘Waste Hierarchy’ framework. The concept was first introduced in the 1990s, yet continues to dominate today’s approaches to managing the country’s waste.

The ‘Waste Hierarchy’ model orders methods for dealing with waste on a scale of preference, with waste prevention being deemed the optimal solution and disposal, such as landfilling or incineration through which no resources are recovered, as the least desirable. Intermediary levels include preparing for re-use, recycling and alternative approaches involving resource recovery. 

What changes does the IMechE report recommend? 

The IMechE report’s primary recommendation is that this model is replaced with an approach that, while still acknowledging the prevention of waste as the most beneficial option for the environment, treats unpreventable waste as a valuable resource rather than an inherent problem to be tackled. 

Such a framework would involve carefully considering how different waste streams, with extremely variable characteristics, could best be optimised for resource recovery. For example, waste metals and plastics could be used as new sources of material while biodegradable waste could provide a source of energy. 

The report suggests that setting a goal of achieving zero waste would be unrealistic, instead recommending that aiming for ‘zero-to-landfill’ offers a more specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound alternative.

Defining better targets could also enable measures to ensure transparency, such as the establishment of independent audits and public databases on the destination markets of recovered resources. 

IMeche has also criticised current legislation for focusing largely on managing household waste, which contributes just 12% of the UK’s total waste. Its report particularly recommends enhancing strategies for the management of construction, demolition and excavation (CD&E) waste and undefined waste, which contribute 61% and 8% respectively. 

Finally, the IMechE report outlines the importance of community involvement, especially in terms of the potential of local heat waste recovery, as has been seen successfully deployed across Europe. Such a scenario would see locally-produced waste used to provide heat and power, with the surrounding community holding responsibility for transforming its waste into commercial products including transport fuels and recovered materials as well as electricity and district heating. 

What would IMechE’s strategy mean for the UK? 

The recommendations of IMechE’s report provide practical policy recommendations redefining how we look at and manage waste. Turning waste into positive economic activities, in line with the principles of a circular economy, could be a benefit across the board.

With the UK, and the rest of the world, experiencing an energy crisis characterised by soaring costs and increasing fuel poverty, optimising recovery from waste could provide an additional, affordable and easily dispatchable form of energy.

As well as alleviating pressure on households, this would mitigate the need to transport waste, providing significant environmental benefits. Several countries have already committed to the expansion of waste-to-energy initiatives as a way to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, particularly imported resources from Russia.

The IMechE’s report outlines how this new approach could help address many 21st Century challenges. It says, “any competent waste strategy must also consider rises in global population and energy consumption expected by 2050, as well as the proposed phasing out of all types of fossil fuel combustion”. 

Establishing a nuanced approach to eradicating waste where possible and maximising unavoidable waste as a total resource could help the UK to develop a truly circular economy.

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