Imperial scientists show policymakers how UK can benefit from circular economy

How to transition to a circular economy, a topic rising up the economic and climate agendas, was the focus of The Forum’s latest policy workshop, the Imperial College London’s policy engagement programme.

Dr Pelin Demirel and Dr Leila Sheldrick, both of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial, and researchers from across the College led discussions with partners from government, think tanks, charities and industry to address many of the strategic decision-making challenges faced as we transition towards a circular economy.

Challenges in the circular economy

Dr Pelin Demirel co-led the workshop

Dr Shedrick introduced the workshop, highlighting the need to develop dynamic, forward-facing policy which focuses on a sustainable future. She also highlighted the need to consider the role of designers and engineers at the start of a product’s lifespan, rather than solely focusing on waste disposal at the end.

Dr Demirel then outlined her work on aligning companies’ decision-making towards circular outcomes, particularly given the need for urgent innovation in response to new environmental regulation. She highlighted the role of corporate social responsibility and the need to expand the timeframe companies use to evaluate internal changes.

The presenters and attendees were invited to outline the biggest barrier to sustainability in their policy area. These included time-frame issues, older companies’ resistance to change and concerns over the financial cost of a circular economy, particularly regarding end-of-life materials.

Circular economy in context

Dr Weston Baxter

Dr Mike Tennant, of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, outlined his work in redeveloping the social aspects of the circular economy. While the waste perspective is important, he recommended building industrial systems around human needs, prioritising aims like tackling poverty and promoting health and wellbeing.

The role of possession in a post-ownership economy was the topic of a talk by Dr Weston Baxter of the Dyson School of Design Engineering. He argued that advocates of the sharing economy can underestimate the role of psychological ownership and that manufacturers need to mitigate the risk of consumers viewing products as ‘contaminated’.

Professor Bob Shorten of the Dyson School of Design Engineering outlined the digital infrastructure needed in the circular economy, including to protect ownership of physical assets, and introduced Imperial’s Transition to Zero Pollution initiative. The attendees then discussed the presentations and questions they pose going forwards, including on net carbon emissions targets.

Circular economy in practice

Elena Dieckmann of the Dyson School of Design Engineering explained the barriers to the circular economy from the perspective of a start-up, highlighting her development of the world’s first feather-based thermal packaging material, Aeropowder.

James Close of the London Waste and Recycling Board described the role of the circular economy in the climate emergency. He stressed the huge rise in energy related emissions and consumption in recent decades, how this can be tackled through innovations such as carbon capture storage and the potential for more equitable growth in the future circular economy.

Julia Hunt of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation introduced her organisation’s work in measuring benchmarking circularity at the company level, known as Circulytics. Since launching in January 2020, the programme has already signed up around 500 companies. Dr Shedrick concluded the event by encouraging participants to continue to collaborate and share ideas on the future of the circular economy.

The Forum: Connecting our researchers with policymakers 

The Forum is Imperial College London’s policy engagement programme, connecting Imperial researchers with policy makers to discover new thinking on global challenges. This workshop was part of The Forum’s sustainability series, in conjunction with Imperial’s new Academic Strategy. Please get in touch if you would like more information:

Author: Joe Dharampal-Hornby, Communications and Public Affairs, Imperial College London. 

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