KTN report identifies wide-ranging innovation opportunities from industrial waste
Industrial waste materials are are no longer tipped and forgotten about, but instead are now categorised as a feedstock and an important part of the circular economy.
If you think about innovation, it is likely to bring to mind sexy technologies such as driverless cars, connected devices, robotics or the latest advances in biomedical sciences. Waste is probably unlikely to make your list. But nonetheless there has been a revolution in the waste management sector over the last 20 years. Waste companies are redefining themselves as materials suppliers because the “collect and tip” model is no longer economically, environmentally or socially viable. Instead, waste is now considered a feedstock – a precursor of higher value products or energy and an important component of the circular economy.
74% of the UK’s waste is generated by business activity, with the largest fraction by weight generated by the construction sector. By far the most effective way to save costs and reduce environmental impact is to eliminate the production of waste. Where this is not possible, there are opportunities to convert waste into a feedstock for other industries (industrial symbiosis) via recycling, reprocessing or re-use. Over the course of a one-year investigation, KTN have looked into these opportunities. The response from industry stakeholders to this investigation clearly indicated economic potential for the valorisation of industrial waste into high value chemicals, materials and products. Our ‘Innovation Opportunities from Industrial Waste’ report identifies a long list of innovation opportunities that have the potential to be exploited by UK companies.
It is worth noting that waste itself is not a static commodity. As products and technologies continually evolve, so does the composition of waste, with a lag time corresponding to the product-use phase. Current electronic products demand a plethora of exotic metals and materials that were not used 20 years ago. Cars of the future will contain large batteries, novel propulsion systems, composite materials and ever-increasing amounts of electronics. Some novel and smarter materials, such as lightweight composites in vehicles or permanent magnets in wind turbines, pose problems when their whole lifecycle is considered. On their first use they offer potential energy savings — but without ways of recovering them from mixtures of materials, or of reusing components made from them, they are likely to end up in landfill.
Innovation is required at end of life to keep pace with innovation in product development. The end of life opportunities and risks posed by novel materials were examined recently in a special edition of environmental SCIENTIST, edited by KTN’s Carolyn Roberts. Practical action is beginning to explore these issues. A review of end of life options for carbon fibre, bio-derived plastics and additive manufacturing materials is ongoing by Green Alliance, supported by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and Innovate UK. KTN is a partner in the Critical Raw Material Closed Loop Recovery project, which aims to ensure valuable materials — essential for the latest technologies to function — are recovered at end of life.
Our investigation into innovation industrial waste has highlighted the broad range of exciting innovation expected and already ongoing in the waste sector. KTN hopes that the content in this report will help companies to identify opportunities for innovation and to stimulate ideas for technology development. KTN will continue to work with UK companies to exploit these opportunities, accelerating the UK’s transition to a resource-efficient and resilient economy.
Dr Catherine Joce – Knowledge Transfer Manager, Circular Economy