What goes around comes around: how the circular economy can reduce waste and address climate change

This week, the crucial COP26 summit gets under way in Glasgow. The meeting will bring together government leaders, climate experts and campaigners with the aim of agreeing coordinated action to tackle global climate change.

The discussions will be wide-ranging, covering major themes such as deforestation, renewable power generation, and electrification of transport. But although it might not hit the headlines, there’s another issue that could play a critical role in meeting climate change goals: the circular economy.

Producing, consuming and disposing of the products we use in our everyday lives accounts for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting those emissions means upending the conventional “take-make-consume-dispose” model of growth, and designing waste out of our economy altogether.

In advance of the COP26 meeting, The Economist magazine hosted a webinar which focused on the potential of the circular economy for emissions reduction.

The challenges of going circular

Introducing the event, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor, explained that the essence of the circular economy is about keeping materials in circulation and maintaining their utility. But how much of a Utopian dream is this, and what are the practical challenges that need to be overcome if this elegant theory is to become a reality?

In response, Federico Merlo, managing director of member relations and circular economy for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, explained that, while changing business models to extend the life cycle of products would not be easy, the economic benefits of using and wasting fewer materials should drive business in the direction of the circular economy.

Jim McLelland, Sustainable Futurist at SustMeme, was concerned about possible resistance from consumers in changing their behaviour. Because many people equate consumption with ‘shopping’, they don’t consider the emissions generated during the journey of materials from design to finished product. This could result in friction in the transition to the circular economy.

But Kai Karolin Hüppe, sustainability & circular economy lead for Arthur D. Little management consultants, suggested consumers were becoming more curious about how the materials that made their products came to be in them. And once they know the impact of consumption, people can make informed buying decisions. 

She went on to explain how this is getting easier, thanks to new tools from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and the Science Based Targets  initiatives, which can help to identify, measure and manage emissions throughout material life cycles. When the Kraft food company mapped out the sources of its own emissions, it discovered that over 90% were not directly generated by the business, but by indirect sources, such as suppliers and distributors.

Making plastic circular

In recent years, there has been much greater awareness about the environmental damage caused by plastic. One of the world’s biggest plastics manufacturers is Dow, and the company’s commercial vice president for packaging and specialist plastics took part in the webinar to outline how it’s addressing the issue.

Marco ten Bruggencate explained that, while Dow is taking sustainability seriously, the company needs to go much faster. Doing this means making sure the whole production process is addressed, from the way factories are powered to the use of renewable feedstocks to make bio based plastics. And now, Dow is looking at how to make plastics part of the circular economy by making sure that valuable waste is looped back into new packaging structures.

Raising awareness

Education has a vital role to play in the circular economy, and Jim McLelland highlighted an initiative that is providing the construction industry with greater understanding of sustainability issues.  The Supply Chain Sustainability School is funded by major construction contractors, and provides free access to training for suppliers and subcontractors in a range of disciplines, including common standards for sustainability. Jim noted that construction is responsible for 38% of global emissions, and a typical supply chain involves large numbers of materials and many microbusinesses in different countries and regions. The collective approach offered by The Supply Chain Sustainability School is an important contribution to a sustainable built environment.

Reversing the trend

Jim is one of the authors of the Circularity Gap Report, an annual progress report on the journey to a global circular economy. The first report, published in 2018, established that the world was only 9.1% circular. But the most recent report put the figure at 8.6% circularity.

It appears that the world is going in the wrong direction, but there are now signs that businesses are moving forward with their own ideas.

The packaging sector, for example, is exploring digital technologies that could drive a truly circular economy – such as blockchain to help with tracking material flows, and digital watermarking to enable better sorting of packaging waste.

And achieving circularity doesn’t mean a company has to completely rethink its business model. Global sportswear giant Nike was able to reduce the waste generated by one of its running shoes by 80% simply by talking to their supply chain.

Final thoughts

COP26 has been described as world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control. For all of us, the stakes could hardly be higher. Failure to limit global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius risks greater pressures on water and food supplies, increased hunger and poverty and more frequent flooding, storms and heatwaves that threaten plant, animal, and human life.

Yet if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.

Whatever the outcome of the talks in Glasgow, it should now be clear that the circular economy is a vital element in fostering low-carbon growth. And it might even tip the balance in the battle against global warming.


Further reading on waste management from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Image: The Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow: location for COP26. Photo by Stephen O’Donnell on Unsplash

Lift-off for the new space economy

Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS“Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It may come as a surprise to learn that Scotland is on its way to becoming a space industry superpower. The country is home to over 130 space businesses, with a combined annual income of £140m. Glasgow is building more satellites than any other city outside Houston.

Scotland’s booming space sector was the focus of a webinar that was part of last month’s Digital Leaders Week.  Leading the event was Tom Soderstrom, former Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab, and current Global Lead for Chief Technologists at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Tom explained that Scotland’s increasing involvement in the space sector is part of a wider growth in the ‘space-for-earth’ economy, which includes telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities and national security satellites.

The factors driving the new space economy

Falling costs for building and launching spacecrafts have attracted greater investment in the commercial space industry. Space hardware is cheaper because it has become much smaller – these days, a miniature satellite (or ‘cubesat’) is typically about the size of a shoebox.

In recent years, the number and range of applications relying on satellite technology has rocketed. From smartphones and GPS devices to broadband access for developing nations, demand for space-based infrastructure has never been greater.

Data is another important driving force behind the new space economy. Scientists and governments need reliable data in order to understand how our planet is changing, and satellites can be used to take vital measurements of things like ice thickness coverage, deforestation, and ocean surface temperatures.

Cubesats are also used for monitoring shipping lanes, keeping a record of crop yields, and for protecting communities. Tom gave an example of an Australian company which uses satellite data for the early detection of wildfires, enabling emergency services to respond before lives and properties are put at risk.

Scotland’s place in space

Scotland is well placed to make the most of the booming space economy. According to Scottish Development International, operating costs for space companies are 40% lower in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

Another of the webinar participants, Professor Marion Scott from the department of mathematics at the University of Glasgow, highlighted the importance of Scotland’s skilled workforce. Nearly 20% of  all UK space roles are filled by Scotland’s 7,500 person strong talent pool. And Scottish universities have been quick to fill the gaps in different sectors by providing new courses, training and collaboration.

Meanwhile, Phil Cooper, AWS’ regional manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, pointed to the burgeoning reputation of companies in the Scottish space sector. AAC Clyde Space, for example, has become a market leader in providing spacecraft design, satellite operations and data delivery to governments, businesses and educational organisations.

But Scotland’s space boom is far from over. Phil forecasts that another 30 start-ups could be up and running by this time next year.

Another exciting prospect is the arrival of vertical launch capabilities. Five space hubs are currently under development around Scotland, and last year a site in Sutherland received planning permission from Highland Council to develop the UK’s first space port. By next year, it’s hoped that the vertical launch pad near Melness will send its first satellite into space.

Cosmic congestion: the problem of space junk

While there are lots of positives associated with the space economy, it’s not all good news. There are currently almost 7000 satellites orbiting the Earth, and the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that figure could double in 2021. As space becomes more congested, the problem of debris from old spacecraft and satellites has grown.

There’s a growing need for collaboration and internationally-agreed regulations to ensure that today’s satellites don’t become tomorrow’s space junk.

Tom Soderstrom highlighted research by Fujitsu, in collaboration with Astroscale, the University of Glasgow and AWS, to develop a proof of value to make space debris removal missions more commercially viable using its open innovation technology. The UK government has provided funds for this and other projects aiming to track space junk and monitor the risks of potentially dangerous collisions with satellites or even the International Space Station.

The space economy: tackling climate change

Environmental issues will be dominating the headlines later this year, when Glasgow plays host to the critical United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). One of the questions raised at last month’s webinar was how Scotland’s space sector can address the Earth’s climate challenges.

Marion Scott explained that there is now a network of universities and research centres working together to consider some of the climate challenges in advance of the COP26 meeting. At the same time, Marion stressed the importance of earth observation data in helping assess the scale of the problem of climate change.

Phil Cooper agreed that data was vital, and highlighted a competition launched by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Commonwealth Secretariat in April which aims to stimulate discussion around the development of new concepts relating to ocean sustainability, incorporating satellite data and technologies.

The only way is up: the future of the space economy

In 2019, the World Economic Forum reported that while heavyweights like the United States, China and Russia have the greatest number of satellites in orbit, more and more nations – including the UK, Canada, Germany, Argentina and Luxembourg – have been developing their own space programmes. The Economist recently highlighted the growing number of African countries joining the commercial space race – last month the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius became the latest country to launch its first satellite.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Phil Cooper expressed great optimism about the future of the space-to-earth sector, which can involve not only scientists, but people working in manufacturing, digital, marketing and many other industries. And, as Tom Soderstrom observed, the opportunities being generated by the new space economy are almost unlimited:

“The space bubble will grow faster than even I can imagine!”


Further reading: more articles on innovation from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Heating Clydebank via the Clyde: renewable heat in the COP26 host city

Image: West Dunbartonshire Council

In less than ten months’ time, the eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, as the city plays host to the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26). Leaders from across the world will come together to discuss enhanced ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take steps to mitigate the effects of climate change. This is a process known as the ‘ratchet mechanism’, which envisions signatories of the Paris Agreement, stepping up their commitments to reduce carbon emissions every five years. This year’s conference in Glasgow is the first time that this mechanism will be in play, and expectations surrounding a significant acceleration of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are high.

With an eye on climate change and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries are already discussing how they can take advantage of the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality. A key element of this transition will be the decarbonisation of the housing stock, and the Climate Change Committee has highlighted the significant role that the implementation of renewable forms of heating will play in reducing the amount of carbon emitted by our homes.

Queens Quay, Clydebank

An example of a project which will take advantage of a variety of modern renewable technologies to create the “greenest town in Scotland” is the Queens Quay development in Clydebank, a site which is only five miles from the Scottish Event Campus where COP26 will take place.

Queens Quay is a £250 million regeneration of the former John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. Designed to take advantage of its waterfront location, the development will feature a variety of mixed-use spaces and a pioneering district heating system. This system will utilise Scotland’s first major and the UK’s largest water-sourced heat pump. The heat pump will extract heat from the River Clyde, and after a process of compression, the heat will be pumped into the development using a buried modular district heating system. It is estimated that this innovative combination of heat pump and district heating technology will cut more than 4,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

But just how do these technologies work? In this blog, we will take a look at how heat pumps and district heating systems operate, and their application in the Queens Quay development in Clydebank.

Heat pump

In simple terms, a heat pump is a form of renewable heating system that is able to move thermal energy from one location to another. There are a number of different types of heat pump which can extract thermal energy from different locations. At the Queens Quay development, a water-sourced heat pump will be used to extract thermal energy from the River Clyde.

Water-sourced heat pumps use a network of submerged pipes which contain a working fluid that absorbs the heat within the body of water. This working fluid then undergoes a process of conversion that increases the temperature of the heat generated. Once at an appropriate temperature, it can then be used to provide heating and hot water. 

Naturally, as not all developments are located near a body of water, the use of water-sourced heat pump is relatively uncommon. However, water-sourced heat pumps are able to operate more efficiently than ground and air-sourced heat pumps, as heat transfers more efficiently due to the stability of the temperature of water.

District heating

Once heat is produced, it’s vital that it is transferred to buildings in an efficient and reliable manner that prevents heat-loss. A system of district heating is often the most reliable way to utilise energy produced by any form of heat pump, and analysis conducted by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (now the Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy) found that this combination offers “large CO2 emissions reduction potential”.

A district heating system uses a network of insulated pipes to deliver heat from a centralised energy centre direct to connected buildings. Instead of a boiler, each building will have a heating interface unit which will enable individuals to control the temperature of the heat and hot water they receive without impacting other connected properties.

On top of helping to lower overall fuel costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, district heating systems are also easily expandable and new properties can be added to the network as required. This ensures that district-heating systems are future-proofed and are able to respond to the heat requirements of developments as they evolve over time.

Queens Quay implementation

The implementation of a water-sourced air pump and district heating system in the Queens Quay development provides Clydebank with the opportunity to become the “greenest” town in Scotland, and sets an example of how new developments can be created in a way that supports Scotland’s ambition to become net-zero by 2045.

By linking each property in the development to the network, and establishing a council owned energy company as operator, residents of Queens Quay will benefit from reductions in both the cost of energy and their overall carbon footprint. The success of a renewable heating project at this scale could be a significant development in Scotland’s transition to net-zero, as it may prove that renewable heating systems are an effective means to tackle climate change and fuel poverty.

Additionally, as a key benefit of a district heating system is its modularity, there is scope for existing buildings within Clydebank to be connected to the renewable heating network. West Dunbartonshire Council have set out their desire for the nearby NHS Golden Jubilee National Hospital to be added to the network and are also considering if all future developments should be required to join the district heating system.

Final thoughts

The dual threats posed by climate change and Covid-19 have provided the world with a rare opportunity to undergo a truly revolutionary process of recovery. With expectations high that this year’s COP26 will result in countries accelerating the transition to carbon-neutrality, the development of a pioneering renewable heating system just five miles from the conference may offer us a glimpse of the way homes will be heated in the future.

Decarbonising the housing stock is vital in the battle for carbon neutrality, but concerns have previously been raised about the impact this may have on people in fuel poverty. Ensuring that the transition to renewable forms of energy does not exacerbate existing inequalities will be key to ensuring that everyone benefits from the journey to net-zero.  

As a result, the success of the roll-out of the water-sourced heat pump and district heating system in Queens Quay, and the expected reduction in overall energy costs for residents, may prove to be a major stepping stone in Scotland’s journey to becoming carbon neutral.  


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