Thinking in circles: applying circular economy principles in London

Plastic scrap

Julia Halder, PhD Student in the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology (School of Public Health), discovers how circular economy thinking can inform redevelopment in London.

‘Circular economy thinking’ is the idea that we use materials and items (from small things like phones to large buildings and infrastructure) for as long as possible and then recover as much value and material from them as we can at the end of their lives. This is in opposition to making, using, and then disposing of products – a linear economy.

It was thoroughly interesting to see this concept applied at a recent practical session organised by the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB). The workshop’s aim was to generate practical examples of implementing circular economy principles to the redevelopment of the Old Oak Park Royal development area in west London.

Old Oak Park Royal is a large, previously industrial region with a lot of brownfield sites, set to undergo rapid change in the next few years. There will be thousands of new homes, new business premises, and transport links – Crossrail and HS2 are set to meet at Old Oak Common Station. The intention is to develop the area in a manner which will encourage long term sustainable behaviour for both businesses and the residents in the region, and to ensure that the built environment itself is more sustainable.

The focus for the workshop was on materials and construction of the built environment; not remotely my area of knowledge, but I could at least imagine changes to my home and local infrastructure that would enable me to live in a more ‘circular economy’ way, so it was easy to relate to what the professionals were saying on that front. It was also enlightening to learn that even buildings and the materials from them can be reused, and that there are ways of building which really enable this re-use as “materials banks” of the future. I found it encouraging that there is political will to change the way such areas are developed and also that many businesses are involved in more sustainable ways of building and maintaining infrastructure.

Visualising the circular economy

Our discussion generated some concrete examples of what a circular economy would look like for both housing and the commercial sector  One idea was that residential areas should provide space to store items which are to be shared or passed to others to reuse (a concept close to my heart). A common theme was the idea that living space should be flexible, perhaps modular; that a home could be adapted for different needs and stages of life. This applied to working and commercial space as well; ideas that businesses that might traditionally be seen as in competition could actually share some resources, and that businesses specifically involved in re-use could be encouraged by developing flexible warehouse space rather than just offices.

It was suggested that setting targets can help encourage circular economy development, for instance aiming for low landfill rates and energy use and high recycling rates. The technology and techniques for building modular and flexible space appear to be extant already as evidenced by one of the presentations by a company which constructs such structures.

Housing construction in London
Housing construction in London

Barriers to implementing the circular economy include the lack of (or confusion surrounding ) relevant legislation, and also issues of ownership: it was pointed out that maintenance of a housing development and individual housing is a tricky issue due to ownership models. Most people can relate to the idea that if you rent (or even “own” leasehold), you don’t have much power to change your accommodation. A large development may be difficult to maintain – either a community has to maintain collectively, or a managing body has to take charge while maintaining a good relationship with the residents. The transitory nature of the population of a city such as London also presents a challenge.

An end to waste

Overall, I found the day quite inspiring. There were many examples of successes and informative examples of difficulties in sustainable development. My take-home impression was of a real drive to change how urban sites are developed. However, as many participants expressed, the crux of the issue is that we are trying to change a particularly ingrained system.

Though disposing of materials seems like a terrible idea long-term given that we only have finite resources, it often seems like the default setup. However, I am optimistic that the development of this region will be more sustainable than previous developments and that circular economy principles will be applied to more similar projects in the future, resulting in healthier environments as well as less “waste”. In fact, if there’s one simple concept that embodies circular economy, it’s that nothing should be “waste” any more.

Find out more about the Grantham Institute’s work with the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB)

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