Lottie Macnair, senior consultant, sustainability & innovation, at Useful Projects, discusses the West Midlands Combined Authority’s route map to a circular economy.
Transitioning to a circular economy has become a more established strategy for moving towards sustainable inclusive growth and supporting the green industrial revolution.
However, on a regional level, this transition presents specific challenges when taken from theory into action. Many barriers are systemic, and some are specific to businesses, local authorities, and other stakeholders. But if you build an effective long-term strategy and action plan, the opportunities at a regional level can be great.
West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) recognised a need for a strategic approach. In early 2021, they started this journey and commissioned a circular economy route map to transition the West Midlands to a circular economy.
The West Midlands has great potential to benefit from a move towards more circular economic systems. Its central location puts it at the heart of England’s travel network. It’s also part of the golden triangle of logistics and remains the manufacturing hub of the UK.
It’s also one of the biggest educational clusters outside London and has a strong business and professional services sector with a technical-driven manufacturing base, especially in the automotive and aerospace sectors.
The region has developed strong grassroots community groups that are involved in peer-to-peer exchange and reuse networks. But from a circularity perspective, it has a way to go. The region is 3.8 times more reliant on non-renewable materials than renewable ones and consumes over 26.3 mt of minerals and 5 mt of natural resources each year.
Although 58% of these resources do not go into landfill or incineration, over 7 m.t of waste does. If this was reprocessed or reused, it could generate six times more gross value. An estimated £2 billion could be generated each year if even half of the West Midlands’ population had access to and participated in reuse and sharing networks.
Putting a circular strategy into action
To build on West Midlands’ strengths and research findings, and capitalise on existing projects and regional expertise and capacity, three areas – construction, food, and manufacturing – were prioritised and 14 associated strategic interventions were proposed for consideration.
Key enablers were identified including the role of WMCA as a facilitator with procurement power to leverage circular activity, the acknowledgement of regional SME activity that needed support to enable the adoption of circular practice, and a high concentration of higher education institutions leading to circular economy research that required better linkage into regional commercial applications.
The WMCA route map was the first step towards this regional transition. Compelling as it was, it was still a strategy on paper. In order to realise benefits, investment cases for two specific interventions were further developed: a region-wide industrial symbiosis programme and a zero-waste construction hub.
These investment cases delve deeper into the technical and economic feasibility of each, looking at market opportunities and barriers, delivery mechanisms and operating models.
Region-wide industrial symbiosis
Industrial symbiosis has become a more popular term, and its model of clustering industries (often unrelated) together where the waste product of one becomes a resource for another is seen as an approach that can realise a circular economy.
Our research indicated many opportunities for mutually beneficial exchanges of materials, by-products, waste products and resources within the West Midlands, specifically building supply chain resilience in metals and battery manufacturing.
Previous knowledge and experience with industrial symbiosis programmes were used to understand the needs of the region and extensive engagement with businesses, non-governmental initiatives, and policymakers was carried out to ensure work was tailored to the region.
Building on this, a delivery programme that looked to match regional businesses supported by an ICT platform that enabled these exchanges was developed.
A hub for construction material reuse
The construction, demolition and excavation sector is the largest producer of waste in the West Midlands and formed one of the three key focus areas in the route map. As in the UK, this market is not currently incentivised to enable the consistent reuse of these materials, so potential reusable construction waste goes to costly landfill or carbon-intensive recycling.
To tackle this, a series of “Zero Waste Construction Hubs” were proposed, which are locations where unused construction products could be assessed and resold, supported by a service which would quickly collect reusable products from construction sites.
Contractors, waste experts, and local authorities in the region were engaged to understand the market needs, opportunities and barriers, operating models, expected benefits, and route to implementation, based on engagement with local authorities to tailor the case to their strengths.
The power of the local authority
The WMCA are now further developing these cases and carrying out wider engagement in the region to secure funding and find partners to implement these opportunities on the ground.
From both business cases, a key insight was how local and combined authorities could capitalise on their influence and power to enable a circular economy transition.
Both cases represented multiple barriers – policy issues, a lack of collaboration, increased or perceived complexity, or a lack of knowledge – that led to market failure. The WMCA, in its role as a convener, is ideally placed to invest in initial solutions to address these barriers and kickstart new businesses.
Ultimately, the success of these cases has been enabled by the WMCA and the consortium taking an integrated consultation-to-action approach. That approach begins by building a well-informed case for interventions to drive the circular economy transition and engaging with stakeholders to build momentum and ensure that the case is robust and locally informed.
From this it is possible to develop clear, tangible cases for investment into each intervention, helping the WMCA to take action to bring those interventions to reality.
Consultation as collaboration
Both the route map and the investment cases that followed were delivered by a consortium led by Useful Projects, with project partners SOENECS, International Synergies and Metro Dynamics. This consortium brought together expertise in economics, circular economy practice, waste management and materials science.
All work benefited from a collaborative and consultative approach both within the delivery consortium itself and through extensive engagement with local stakeholders. Regional work needs local input to ensure recommendations are tailored to the specific needs and circumstances.
This meant the success of the interventions and possible operating approaches were heavily influenced by the strengths and capacity of the location where they might take place. Such an approach also enables the interventions to be built on existing investment, capacity, and motivation, and aligned (as opposed to competing) with ongoing initiatives.
Regional work needs local input to ensure recommendations are tailored to the specific needs and circumstances.
In developing cases for investment in the specific interventions, the consortium carried out continuous engagement with industry, research, and local authority stakeholders in the West Midlands, as well as engagement with subject matter experts nationally and internationally.
Research work included a detailed analysis of the current state of circularity (waste back into resource) within the West Midlands, mapping of industries, businesses and expertise, mapping of material flows, learnings from best practices in other regions and cities, and interviews with stakeholders across the West Midlands.
This developed a robust case for investment that can be used to build awareness of the opportunities and potential benefits of strategic interventions and programmes.
For local and combined authorities, this approach will be critical to leveraging their power as conveners, to ensure road maps and their recommendations do not “sit on a shelf”, but instead are taken forward to enable the transition to a circular economy and its benefits of social value, job creation, and carbon reduction.