Coming full circle

Wayne Hubbard is spearheading London’s drive towards a circular economy. He tells Huw Morris how the capital can be a standard-bearer in the war against waste

 Wayne Hubbard had worked in the waste sector for 16 years when he experienced his eureka moment.

It came during a conference in 2012, when he heard about the concept of the circular economy and how it was vital to accommodate the projected two billion consumers, predominantly in China and India, who would soon attain middle class lifestyles and demand the same material goods as people in the West. 

“That would be totally unsustainable, and I realised we needed to do something about it,” the chief operating officer at the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) says. “Suddenly the circular economy made absolute sense. Up to that point, most people in the sustainable development world tried to work within a contradiction. In order to reduce waste, we had to consume less – but if we consume less, we put economic growth at risk.”

It’s a tough problem and one Hubbard has grappled with for years. Now he has some answers – and they are desperately needed. 

Just 4% of China’s urban population was considered middle class in 2000, rising to around 30% last year. McKinsey and Company recently projected that this would be 76% by 2022. Elsewhere, a third of the food produced around the world is thrown away. If food waste were a country, it would be the planet’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China. Another mind-boggling challenge is that 60% of the world’s infrastructure needed by 2050 has not yet been built. “It’s a terrifying thought and a fantastic opportunity,” says Hubbard. 

 

From the top down

“We want to identify opportunities for collaboration across the supply chain and different organisations”

London is grasping this opportunity, hoping to be a standard-bearer in the charge towards a sustainable future. LWARB works with the Mayor of London and the capital’s boroughs to improve waste and resource management, and steer the city’s transition to the low-carbon circular economy on which its economic and environmental future depends. Its mission is to ensure businesses, boroughs and communities make the “best use of resources and materials”.

From the top, Mayor Sadiq Khan has embedded the low-carbon and circular economy in his environment strategy. This influences his powers for economic development, planning, and transport, as well as waste. He is committed to increasing recycling to a 65% target by 2030, as well as to making London a zero-carbon city by 2050. Hubbard sees LWARB’s work as accelerating the circular economy “from the inside out”.

First, LWARB is working to increase London boroughs’ recycling rate from the current level of 30%. A major part of the board’s role is “collaboration, communication and demonstration of the circular economy”, acting as “a hub, a network of networks” of organisations active in the arena. Its Circular London initiative has a broad remit to accelerate the circular economy by working with big corporates, investors, policymakers, business model pilots and small businesses. “We don’t want to control them, but we want to identify opportunities for collaboration across the supply chain and different organisations.”

LWARB’s Advance London programme aims to establish an innovation centre to act as an incubator for start-ups working with big corporates. This is backed by a £14m venture capital fund. Underpinning its work is business support to start-ups and other companies seeking to transition to the circular economy.

“This is harnessing London’s thriving start-up and tech community, and investing in businesses whose model is reducing waste but wouldn’t necessarily know it,” Hubbard says. “It’s not like you have to wear a hair shirt to use Spotify or Apple Music. Those kinds of business models appeal because you are getting a better level of service, but you don’t have to buy a material thing.”

 

Widening participation

“The smartphone enables us to take part in the circular economy by using eBay, Kindle or Spotify”

Hubbard acknowledges that ‘circular economy’ is a “nebulous term”. He prefers to see the concept through the lens of five business models: “Recycling, making stuff that is recyclable, the sharing economy, products and services rather than material goods, and making stuff that lasts longer by designing for durability.”

Ask the average person about the circular economy, though, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Hubbard does not see this as an issue: “Some people say there is a problem, but I don’t think it matters because nobody identifies as a circular economist. People say they are a passionate recycler or repairer, but they don’t say they are a circular economist.

“It doesn’t bother me, because these are circular economy disciplines without knowing it. The smartphone enables us to take part in the circular economy by using eBay, Kindle, Spotify or Apple Music. Almost always, recycling is a choice you have to make. You have to ask people to put stuff in a separate bin, whereas listening to Spotify, for example, is easier.”

Hubbard describes London as a “dense, complicated city” with multiple housing types, buffeted by massive consumption of material goods and crammed with “people who are less inclined to listen to authoritative voices telling them to recycle”. London’s population is projected to hit more than 11 million by 2050. This is intensifying pressure for a sustainable approach to housing, office space, products and critical infrastructure.

He depicts a busy population that “moves around the city a lot, is difficult to pin down – so you have to make things very simple”. Part of the challenge is the high level of rented properties, occupied by people who recycle less than homeowners. 

However, the challenge is bursting with opportunities. LWARB predicts that by 2036, the circular economy could provide the capital with net benefits of at least £7bn a year across the built environment, food, textiles, electrical and plastics sectors, as well as 12,000 new jobs in re-use, remanufacturing and materials innovation. LWARB’s route map, which will be reviewed in the coming months, identifies £2.8bn of those benefits to be delivered in the capital alone, with the remainder coming from the rest of the UK, Europe and the world.
 

Cross-sector effects

He cites research by Arup showing that the circular economy could reduce the London’s waste by 60% by 2030, a prospect he calls “significant”.  A look at the figures shows the sectors in LWARB’s sights. 

The capital produces 18m tonnes of waste a year – more than half from construction, with the bulk of the remainder from businesses and households. London creates 20m tonnes of construction material each year, with half going to waste. The construction sector employs almost one in 20 working people in the capital; Hubbard says this “is a real opportunity to create new jobs in areas like re-use, remanufacturing, repair and maintenance”.

Elsewhere, London could add £2bn-£4bn to gross domestic product by 2036 if it adopts a circular food economy. Textiles could add more than £1bn, particularly as London is a global leader in this area – from high street brands and retailers to high-end fashion houses. In 2013, its consumer clothing market was ranked third in the world after New York and Tokyo, and by 2030 is forecasted to be the largest, with a predicted value of £29.5bn.

Similarly, circular economy benefits for electrical goods – both consumer and business – suggest up to £900m could be available annually by 2036. This approach could also ensure plastics are used to their greatest potential and value, netting up to £200m a year by that date. 

Hubbard argues that London is among global leaders on the circular economy and sits comfortably alongside cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Barcelona, which gain more credit for their environmental initiatives. He is very optimistic about the future. This optimism informs how he sees his career before that eureka moment. “I didn’t choose a career in waste. Like most people of my era, you happen on to it and then become fascinated and slightly obsessed when you realise waste is the end-of-pipe for everything we consume. It gives you a view about society and economy that is unique.
 
“When we start to think about managing this material and how to reduce it, you suddenly realise it is about everything. I fell into it and then became fascinated by how I could help transform a system to produce less waste. That simple thing has massive implications. It’s about how we move from an economy that consumes stuff to an economy that uses services. The change from consumption to use is a good proxy of the circular economy.” 

 

Career Profile 

  • 1992 BA (Hons) in history, University of Sussex
  • 1996 Waste management officer, East Sussex County Council
  • 2001 MSc in waste management, University of Bedfordshire
  • 2002 Waste policy manager, London Borough of Haringey
  • 2002 Principal policy officer, Greater London Authority
  • 2007 Head of waste, Greater London Authority
  • 2009 Head of business development, London Waste and Recycling Board
  • 2011 Chief operating officer, LWARB

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

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