Apr 6, 2023
No Time to Waste: UK Must Embrace Waste Exporting Now to Achieve a Circular Economy
- Only 7.5% of materials used in the UK are reused, creating a significant circularity gap and hindering the country’s efforts to achieve a circular economy and net-zero emissions.
- Adopting more recycling-based circular solutions could reduce material use by up to 40% and carbon footprint by 43%, but the UK’s lack of domestic recycling infrastructure is a major obstacle.
- Connecting UK waste producers with reputable overseas recyclers through the WasteTrade online marketplace facilitates the increase in circularity of materials and reduces the country’s reliance on landfill, incineration, and illegal waste exporting.
The UK’s Lack of Recycling Infrastructure
At just 7.5%, the rate of material reuse in the United Kingdom is concerningly low. The concept of a ‘circular economy’ might be something we often hear being discussed in the media, but such disappointing levels of material reuse suggest it is still a very long way from becoming a reality.
This figure comes from the ‘Circularity Gap Report’ by Circle Economy, alongside accountancy firm Deloitte, which revealed that the UK population consumes a staggering 15.3 tonnes of materials per person every year – 20% above the global average of 12 tonnes. This means only 7.5% (1.1 tonnes) of the 15.3 tonnes of materials we all use every year is getting reused.
David Rakowski, circularity partner at Deloitte, stated that only 7.5% of materials flowing through the UK economy being reused points to a glaring circularity gap. While this presents a sustainability challenge, it also offers an opportunity for businesses to learn, adapt, and grow. He called on industries to implement strategies that ensure products are created with recyclability in mind, facilitating greater rates of material recycling and reuse.
The report argued that adopting more recycling-based circular solutions for how we handle waste could reduce material use by up to 40%, which would subsequently reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 43%. As well as the advancement towards a circular economy this would bring, it would also be a significant step towards the UK’s net-zero emissions target.
However, the UK is struggling to achieve this desired circularity of material use due to a lack of domestic recycling infrastructure. This lack of circular infrastructure is why around 80% of the raw materials the UK uses are imported and, according to the most recent data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), around two thirds of the UK’s recyclable waste is exported. If more circular waste management solutions could be implemented in key sectors of the UK economy, such as manufacturing and construction, then these 40% reduction in material use and 43% reduction in carbon footprint targets would suddenly become a lot more achievable.
Global Material Use
Although the UK is 20% above the global average for material consumption, the Circularity Gap Report made it clear this is a global issue. The global economy currently operates on a linear model – ‘Take, make, waste’ – and is heavily reliant on virgin materials. According to the report, circularity is getting worse overtime; currently, the global economy is 7.2% circular, 1.4% less than the 8.6% circularity in 2020 and 1.9% less than the 9.1% circularity in 2018.
Not only is our use of materials becoming less circular, but the overall quantity of materials we use is also increasing. Globally, we extracted around 90 billion tonnes of raw materials from the earth in 2016, which rose to 101.5 billion tonnes in 2021. By 2050, it is predicted that we will be extracting 170 – 185 billion tonnes of materials from the earth every year. Material consumption going up and material reuse going down is a major issue that we must address without delay.
70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the use and handling of materials. This is why economically and technologically developed countries such as the United Kingdom must lead the way in the shift to a circular economic model. With the current levels of support and investment for recycling infrastructure, the United Kingdom is not going to have the capacity to reprocess the waste it produces any time soon. Even if this changed overnight and the money became available, it would still take a very long time to expand the country’s recycling infrastructure to the necessary size.
Therefore, if we are going to take transitioning the economy of the United Kingdom to a circular model seriously, then we must start thinking beyond its borders. If the necessary domestic recycling infrastructure is not realistic in the near future, then we must look to recyclers overseas. There are many reputable, fully accredited overseas recyclers who rely on UK waste streams to remain financially viable. We must make it as easy as possible for UK waste producers to connect with these recyclers to increase the rates of recycling, material reuse and the overall circularity of the economy.
At WasteTrade, we believe the Circularity Gap Report is an alarm bell ringing to remind us of the urgent need for more effective and more circular waste management and recycling solutions. Our online marketplace specialises in connecting waste producers with accredited and reputable reprocessors around the world, making ethical recycling solutions more widely and readily available. In doing do, we are facilitating the increased circularity of materials; not only is it easier for waste producers to connect with recyclers, but also for recyclers to connect with the manufacturers who need the recycled materials they produce.
The very fact that around two thirds of the country’s recyclable waste has to be exported is evidence enough of how lacking the UK’s recycling infrastructure is. Making it as easy as possible to match waste streams with the most optimal end users, and for manufacturers to source quality recycled materials, is the most achievable way for the UK to increase the circularity of its material use and therefore reduce its resource consumption and carbon footprint.
The United Kingdom is not going to be able to expand its recycling industry by enough to deal with all the waste it produces in the short or medium term; with the alternatives being landfill, incineration, or illegal waste exporting, we must not underestimate the power and utility of ethical waste exporting in achieving circular use of materials. It is this ethical, traceable, and circular movement of waste between producer and reprocessor that WasteTrade specialises in facilitating.