Closing the loop on the circular economy

LondonEnergy is the new name for LondonWaste, which provides waste management services for the North London Waste Authority. The company’s energy recovery facilities provide enough to power more than 80,000 homes and businesses in north London, and in doing so, diverts more than 698,000 tonnes of waste away from landfill each year.
Environment Journal spoke to the company’s managing director, Peter Sharpe, about the firm’s new name and why the circular economy is more important than ever.

What was the main idea behind the recent rebranding?

There were several drivers to it. The main one was to have the company’s name more closely associated with what the company now does. The name LondonWaste accurately described what the company did two decades ago, when landfill played a very significant part in the services it delivered to north London. Now alongside a lot of other companies, which operate in the same space, things are very different. Last year, of the three quarters of a million tonnes of waste we received and collected, we diverted over 92% away from landfill. Increasingly, the company is looking to energy in the broadest sense as to what the company does: the generation of energy from waste as a sustainable energy source, and also what the company does putting products back into the secondary resource market.

The company now has a strapline about ‘powering the circular economy’. Why do you think it is important we move to a circular economy?

In very simple terms, there is a finite amount of resource in the world. We have lived in a particularly wasteful, consumer economy where products have been manufactured, consumed and then gone to waste. That is not a sustainable way to go about using resources. It’s important that we consider how we use resources and how we keep those resources in the useful economy for longer. That in essence is what the circular economy is about and there is a clear intent here that this company should be at the centre of doing that, both in terms of delivery and helping educate people about why this is important.

Are there any particular issues in the capital, which make the move to a circular economy easier or more difficult?

The collection of resources in a densely populated area is challenging, because people tend to live in apartments, rather than having their own houses with gardens and bins. In north London, we have quite a high churn rate, compared to the rest of the country. People come into the area, spend a short period of time here and move on. So getting the message across is a challenge. But clearly, there’s also an opportunity, because London is full of consumers and the economy can be largely driven by consumer choice. Consumers can choose to select certain products with a higher recycled content or a more easily recyclable.

Does there need to be a change in mindset and people need to stop thinking of waste as ‘waste’?

It is about seeing everything as a resource and how we keep these resources in the economy for as long as possible. It’s a change in mindset all around that circle. But it’s also no good just collecting materials. There has to be a secondary market for them. There has to be a closing of that loop. That may need some legislative support just to get that circular economy. But clearly the consumer now has choice. The ability to have shared ownership in an urban area is greater than in a rural area. There could well be a change of mindset to ‘do I need to own that? Can I just lease it or borrow it when I need it?’ so we get a greater use of the resources we already have.

Presumably as this country moves forward, exporting less waste or recyclate materials has to be good for ‘UK plc’ as well?

It has got to be good for jobs. There are two issues – there is exporting recyclates and exporting waste products as well for disposal. In terms of recyclates, it’s got to make sense that those secondary markets are created here in the UK, either regionally or nationally. That has to be good for UK plc. In terms of actual waste, which can’t be recycled, there is a large market at the moment for exporting of refuse-derived-fuels (RDFs) to the continent. Clearly, with the Brexit negotiations and the Euro/Sterling exchange rate, that is becoming more difficult. There always used to be the proximity principle that if you create waste, you should treat that within the area you created it. You should not just export it. But clearly you have to balance the proximity principle. For me personally, I think the proximity principle is a key part of the circular economy.

Do you get the sense in the industry that there is still a public appetite for recycling?

I think it waxes and wanes. I think if you speak to schoolchildren, they get it entirely. I think somewhere in the journey to adulthood, the message becomes slightly less clear about why recycling is important. It’s about making people understand why recycling is being done and creating that link in their minds that what they are putting in a collection bin is not going to end up in to landfill, it is going to be turned back into the economy. We went to a lot of trouble to take all our operatives to where we take our recycled products. So if the public ask them ‘what happens to this?’ they will know.

Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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