In parliament: Barriers to the circular economy

7th August 2014

The circular economy is in vogue again in parliament.

I have no doubt that this interest will, among other things, produce some good guidance as to where we ought to be going on circularity. But all this is likely to founder on the fact that it means joining together various processes to produce circular rather than linear outcomes, and Whitehall does not do joined-up very well, particularly when it comes to regulations.

Take energy-from-waste (EfW), for example. I remember how the 2007 energy white paper contained initially no reference to the possible contribution that EfW could make to the UK’s energy mix. That’s largely because energy and waste are dealt with by a different government department. That omission has largely been rectified but, even so, regulatory silos continue. I was reminded of this by a report on the burgeoning anaerobic digestion (AD) market. It warned that the built capacity of digestion plants is likely to substantially outstrip available food waste feedstock over the next few years.

That sounds potentially disastrous for the industry, except that AD is doing very well in the water sector, which is increasingly hoovering up sewage sludge. In Southampton, a large sewage AD plant is being developed. On the other side of Solent, useable feedstock is being incinerated and, in Dorset, a farm-based AD plant is contributing electricity to the grid. So perhaps the answer to warnings about scarce feedstock is to combine farm manure, sewage sludge and food waste. Except you cannot do that because the regulations say no. Combining feedstock in this way will require a comprehensive overhaul of regulations, quality protocols for digestate and so on.

So water companies will continue to build AD plants, and waste firms and farms will each build theirs – and some or all will run out of feedstock in the process. Not very circular.


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