Circular Economy Pathfinders

We know that the UK is at the cutting-edge of sustainable recycling and resource management services. That is why we wanted to highlight some of the most exciting examples of companies and councils who are working together to push forward the UK's circular economy. This is just a small selection of some of the most exciting pathfinders in the sector right now.

Berry Global has long been a leader in the delivery of sustainable plastic manufacturing solutions.  To achieve this they operate their own polymer recycling facilities and are always driving the development of circular solutions. They are playing an important role in helping the UK move towards a circular and net zero economy. As part of this, Berry Global has targeted to achieve 30 percent circular plastic use across its consumer goods packaging by 2030.

The Berry Circular Polymers recycling division has two rigid plastic facilities in the UK, located in Cambridgeshire and Royal Leamington Spa.

Their new Royal Leamington Spa recycling facility makes use of world-leading, mechanical recycling processes, utilising their CleanStream® technology to process domestically recovered household waste polypropylene back into food-grade packaging. The packaging produced through this process can be used for food contact applications and can help the UK accelerate and increase the delivery of more high-quality recycled materials and sustainable solutions.

Berry Global demonstrates sector-leading innovation and is one of the largest plastics recyclers in Europe, with the ability to handle around 200,000 tonnes of material annually.

For many local authorities, achieving sustained high recycling rates at household waste recycling centres can be difficult. However, Hull City Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council have proved just how important it is.

After both Councils declared a climate emergency, Hull in 2019 and East Riding in 2021, their officials were keen to consider initiatives that could influence positive change. While the two councils already had very commendable recycling rates, with 77% of all waste deposited in their household recycling programmes being sorted properly, there was opportunity improve these rates further.

To do this, the two councils collaborated with the sites’ operator FCC Environment to analyse waste deposited by the public in black bags/sacks. Despite providing the public with good recycling services, a lot of recyclable waste was still being sent to landfill.

In response to this, the Councils and FCC ran a trial at selection of sites to run further bag-splitting operations to understand how to improve local recycling. 

The councils have sought to educate the public on how to more effectively sort their waste and to split their black bags before disposal, providing them with sorting tables, litter pickers, sanitisers and wheelie bins to support this mission.

Today, the Council’s have improved recycling performance by 3.7%. While this may seem like a small step forward, it meant that in 2022 alone, the two Councils’ bag splitting programme resulted in 736 tonnes of waste being diverted into recyclable streams – equivalent to four Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Improving every UK Council’s recycling rates by 3.7% could have a significant impact on national waste.

The Midlothian area has embarked on an exciting new venture between Midlothian Council and Vattenfall Heat UK to deliver low-carbon heat to homes and businesses. This project will explore the possibilities of capturing waste heat from industrial processes to supply customers with heat in the town at Shawfair.

The initial construction on the district heating network is well underway and will supply approximately 3,000 homes, education and retail properties with homes by 2024, expected to save over 2,500 tonnes of CO2 per year. To put it in perspective, this is the equivalent of taking 1,200 cars off the road.

This reliable source of heat could see up to 30,000 homes benefit in the next 5 years. This innovative project will capture heat that would otherwise be wasted from the Millerhill recycling and energy recovery centre (RERC) and use it to heat homes. With 86% of Scottish homes currently relying on fossil fuels to keep warm, the plan to deploy this across the 170,000 homes in the Midlothian, Edinburgh and East Lothian areas by 2050 could influence significant carbon reductions.

Not only will the project contribute to the decarbonisation of home heating, but the substantial economic investment will stimulate the local area. The project will see up to £7.3m deployed from the Scottish Government’s Low Carbon Infrastructure Transformation Project.

Cory has announced plans to develop a major carbon capture and storage (CCS) project following the Government’s commitment to support CCS for the waste sector. Cory intends to apply CCS technology to its Riverside energy from waste (EfW) operation in Bexley. By 2030, this could deliver 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 savings per annum – providing a significant contribution to reducing the carbon emissions of the several million people Cory serves in London and the South East.

Joining Cory in exploring CCS is enfinium, who have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to collaborate on the development of the UK’s first ‘Rail to Zero’ carbon capture rail corridor, that would enable dispersed industrial sites to permanently store their emissions. This project would transport carbon dioxide (CO2) captured at enfinium’s Ferrybridge waste facilities in West Yorkshire to Navigator’s storage facilities in Teesside using rail freight. The CO2 would then be transported safely offshore for permanent storage. Bechtel, a global leader in engineering, construction, and project management, has been selected to support the feasibility work underpinning the concept.

The pioneering project would enable enfinium to decarbonise the UK’s largest, and one of the most efficient (R1) energy from waste sites in the UK. By permanently storing the biogenic emissions captured from its waste stream, the Ferrybridge site would also generate over 700,000 tonnes of ‘negative emissions’ or ‘carbon removals’ every year – making a significant contribution towards the UK Government’s target to produce 23 million tonnes of negative emissions per year by 2035 to remain on track to achieve a ‘Net Zero’ economy by 2050.

The UK provides thousands of highly skilled job opportunities each year via its waste and recycling sector. James Coward is one individual who is excited to be starting his career in the sector, working as a Graduate Process Engineer at the Viridor Ardley ERF in Oxfordshire.

After graduating from Coventry University with an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and a postgraduate degree in Advanced Mechanical Engineering, James is pleased to be part of the Viridor Graduate Programme.

“The development training and support we have been given is a highlight of the graduate programme for me, as it helps me grow personally and professionally allowing me the opportunity to develop further within the business.”  

Currently, James’ main role is to support the engineering and performance managers on plant issues and operational reports to quantify site performance. In his role he is involved with the refractory grate assessment and maintenance, and high combustion temperature investigation.

Although he’s based in Ardley, James often has the chance to move to different sites in Viridor’s ERF fleet and work across a variety of projects. Not only has he built valuable skills in this role, but James feels a sense of fulfilment from working in this important sector.

“I would recommend a career in the resources sector, as you get to apply your knowledge and skills to help build a world where nothing goes to waste.”

At Sherbourne Resource Park in Coventry, Sherbourne Recycling Limited (SRL) is set to open a state-of-the-art Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) this summer, which is expected to process 175,000 tonnes of dry mixed recycling from kerbside collections annually.

This first-of-a-kind facility will combine the latest in sorting equipment integrated with AI-powered robotics to provide unparalleled levels of accuracy and efficiency when sorting recyclables.  The processing equipment is all designed, built and supplied by Machinex, a Quebec-based company, which has specified 14 SamurAI sorting robots alongside optical sorters and other cutting-edge technology.

This exciting project also demonstrates fantastic public / private collaboration as SRL is owned by eight local councils in the West Midlands.This technology allows for more productive and proficient recycling, as the machines can identify and pick out different types of materials which enables ongoing efficiency improvements.

This innovative approach also future-proofs the facility, as the equipment can be programmed to target new materials in the future as the waste market and regulatory landscapes change.

This unprecedented approach to materials recycling should serve as a model for other MRF projects around the country and beyond.

What was once a landfill site in Shropshire, is now a restored landscape that is thriving with native species, breathing life and biodiversity back into the area for generations to come.

A partnership between the Veolia Environmental Trust and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust  has created a powerhouse for the local protection of biodiversity.  By expertly enhancing the land following the completion of restoration works they have succeeded in transforming the area into a full nature reserve, for the benefit of wildlife and the local community.

A grant of £38,804 was provided by Veolia together with a 15-year lease to continue maintenance on the land. Work focused on encouraging biodiversity on the reserve through the installation of bird boxes and creating a suitable habitat to increase the range of amphibians, mammals and birds on site.

Veolia also sought to engage the public, putting up information boards to inform visitors about the history of the site and help people identify native species.

Today, the Shropshire Wildlife Trust is responsible for the monitoring and upkeep of the site until at least 2030. The reserve is fully accessible, including for those with disabilities and a number of protected species have reinhabited the area, including kestrels, owls, great crested newts, field voles and other mammals.

This site is a great example of environmental restoration and education that the whole community can enjoy.

Used coffee pods are a challenge for waste collectors. While they are made from materials that are recyclable, their small size and the coffee grounds they contain make them unwelcome in most dry recycling collection systems – indeed, they may even contaminate other recyclable materials if they split open or leak.

Coffee pods might be considered a niche waste stream, but recent research found that c. 5.3 million UK households own a coffee pod machine – so there are potentially millions of pods going into the waste system every day. That’s a lot of potentially recyclable material that’s being lost.

However, some councils are stepping forward to provide their residents with a way to recycle used coffee pods. One of those leading the way is Chichester District Council. As part of their commitment to deliver best practice in waste management, Chichester partnered with Podback, a non-profit funded by industry to establish a pod recycling service for the residents of Chichester District.

Chichester began its coffee pod service In July 2021, covering 75% of households in the district. Using a dedicated van, it also offers residents collection of small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and textiles using the same service. So far, more than 2,800 households have signed up, with more than eighteen tonnes of coffee pods having been collected, diverting nearly 2 million pods from general waste, as well as additional electricals and textiles. The strong take up was achieved through a 12-week marketing campaign that informed local households about the new service through leaflets, press and advertisements.

This scheme is an exemplary case study of how promotional campaigns and local-first creative solutions can be deployed to improve local waste management.

Northern Ireland-based, Re-Gen have been handling commingled recycling at their MRF in Newry since 2004. They have progressed from the usual manual and mechanical sorting used in MRFs to the use of visual recognition systems (VRS) linked with artificial intelligence (AI) and are now exploring the use of robots to maximise the quality of the recyclable materials recovered.

Being able to positively or negatively target desired recyclables through the use of optical sorters, and with exacting quality control to meet reprocessors’ specifications, their continued research and development means their high-quality outputs can always find off-takers willing to pay the best prices. 

Quality is king and Re-Gen believe that advanced technology and investment in R&D can deliver the infrastructure needed for the future challenges of ever-evolving packaging materials to be collected and recycled, aligned with with the policies for consistent collections and EPR. 

Re-Gen will also be able to identify leakage of drinks containers out of DRS. With AI using a cloud-based worldwide information database they can quickly identify new items appearing in customers’ recycling feedstock and modify the performance of the MRF lines to deal with them and gather rich data on packaging in the recycling mix. Re-Gen will make changes in real time through the technology employed in their MRF to continue to produce the highest quality recycled materials.

FPF FlexCollect the UK’s most extensive pilot for household collection and recycling of flexible plastic packaging launched in May 2022. The £2.9m project, managed by SUEZ recycling and recovery UK working with WRAP, RECOUP & Ecosurety, and funded by the Flexible Plastic Fund, UKRI SSPP, DEFRA and Zero Waste Scotland, brings together partners from across the value chain. It seeks to understand how to incorporate flexible plastic into existing collection services across different demographics and develop best practice and cost data ahead of the introduction of consistent collections and Extended Producer Responsibility reforms across the UK. 

In its first year, the project has rolled out collections to a combined total of over 20,000 households in five collection authorities - Cheltenham Borough Council, South Gloucestershire Council, Maldon District Council, Somerset Council and Newcastle City Council. Spanning urban, suburban and rural communities and incorporating fully comingled, twin stream and source segregated collections, the pilot authorities are providing a range or experiences and valuable insights on how to effectively incorporate flexible plastics into regular household collections in different areas.

A further four local authorities are set to join the project that will run until 2025.

Biffa is leading the way for sustainable waste management through the electrification and up-cycling of one of Britain’s largest fleet of bin lorries, paving the way for emissions-free collections.

In their new partnership with Lunaz, Biffa is working to transition their existing diesel refuse trucks over the next decade to clean-air electric powertrains. By upgrading rather than replacing a vehicle, each ‘Upcycled Electric Vehicle’ (UEV) emits zero tailpipe emissions and saves 21 tonnes of embedded carbon. With an initial order of up to ten 26-tonne UEV refuse trucks, this will save up to 210 tonnes in embedded carbon.

This is a key milestone in progress towards Biffa’s 2030 UN sustainable development commitment to reduce emissions by 50% and minimise the purchase of fossil fuelled trucks.

Not only does this transition support Biffa’s environmental commitments, but it also benefits the local economy, supporting over 300 jobs at Lunaz. Each UEV also represents significant savings for the taxpayer - totalling more than £1 million in public savings for every 20 vehicles upcycled and electrified instead of purchasing new EV equivalents.This project is just one example of what is capable, as Lunaz’s home facility in Silverstone England has capacity to up-cycle more than 1,110 industrial vehicles each year.

Viridor has continued its investment in next-generation plastics recycling with a UK first in Avonmouth by co-locating plastics reprocessing and an energy recovery facility (ERF) in one building. This investment has enabled Viridor to fully recycle in the UK over 90% of the plastics it had previously exported. The Avonmouth Resource Recovery facility will cut UK plastic waste exports by c. 8% and is integral to delivering Viridor’s commitment to end plastic waste exports and invest in British recycling infrastructure. 

The ERF treats 320,000 tonnes of (previously landfilled) non-recyclable household waste every year, generating over 300 GWh of electricity per year, enough to power 84,000 homes. The plastics reprocessing facility can reprocess over 80,000 tonnes of plastic every year - more than 1.6 billion bottles, tubs, and trays – creating high grade recycled raw materials to return to the economy.  

Plastics recycling at the facility will save 126,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking over 67,000 cars off the road. It has created 125 new jobs and over 500 people were employed onsite at the peak of its construction. 20 principal contractors were engaged during the build, with 40% of orders being placed with firms from South West England and Wales, making a substantial contribution to the regional economy.

Recycle Your Electricals launched “HypnoCat”, a pink fluffy cat on a mission to hypnotise the nation into recycling their small old electricals. Building upon its initial launch in 2020, over 80 local authority areas are now participating. The campaign was launched in response to waste electricals becoming one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK.  

“HypnoCat” the fun character has been designed to hypnotise the nation into recycling their electricals. He will be issuing a series of rallying calls to local residents across social media, radio and billboards, including ‘Don’t bin them, recycle your electricals!’.  Local authorities will be participating by promoting the campaign messages across their social media channels.

The Recycle Your Electricals campaignis making recycling small old electricals easier than ever before by providing an information hub for the UK on how to recycle electricals, and a postcode locator with details of over 2,500 recycling, repair and reuse points across the UK.