Scaling up resource efficiency

Business is frequently accused of being interested only in profit, and consuming natural resources without considering the long-term environmental impact or societal consequences.  

The discussions at the Veolia Institute’s 10th International Conference in November belied that stereotype. Business speakers from the likes of Rolls-Royce and Veolia emphasised their firms’ desire to find solutions to material problems of resource availability, as well as some of their technical and business-model innovations. At the same time, they also pointed out the barriers they faced, such as financial or regulatory disincentives.

So which innovations promise to encourage and maximise resource availability? And what can research, business, and policymakers do to help overcome barriers to scaling these up, while accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy?

There are business model innovations. Rolls-Royce has a performance-based ‘power by the hour’ contract model in which airline customers pay a fixed price for each hour that engines are working. Such contracts safeguard customers against equipment failure; they’re also an incentive for Rolls-Royce to maintain and service engines – and to design engines that are modular with parts that are readily replaced. But while rethinking business models can produce meaningful improvements in resource innovation, that sometimes leads to trade-offs with materials innovations. Newer, lighter and more fuel-efficient engine and aircraft designs made from composite materials and using distributed propulsion are harder to take apart and recycle, said Andrew Clifton, Rolls-Royce sustainability manager for engineering and design. Just 65% of an aircraft of such design would be recyclable, compared to 95% currently. Here, the challenge is that increasing material circularity seems to conflict with lowering carbon footprint.  

There are also technical solutions that currently lack scale. Veolia is developing recycled materials database that aims to organize and systematize a matchmaking process between the industrial need for a secondary raw material and a technical potential contained in waste. But as stream waste always evolve, potential secondary raw material rarely meet the volumes and predictability required by industrial customers, whereas conventional mining companies have the advantage of scale, processing millions of tons of ore each year.

A boost for circular-economy innovation

Some innovations, then, need a little extra help to get off the ground and be properly assessed. Speakers at the conference highlighted a few ways: 

First, analytical and modelling tools are needed (and to some extent available) to assess the criticality and sustainability of materials and investigate the impacts of new devices and technologies on materials demand. (In one model, a 100% renewable economy would have a cap of 12 terawatts of electricity generation, based on present reserves of materials like copper, lithium and nickel.) Tools can also help manufacturers and designers compare supply chain and environmental risks, optimise parts for remanufacturing, and identify promising circular-design strategies.

Along the same lines, collecting and managing data about built infrastructure, products, and waste could significantly improve how materials are managed over their lifetimes. Buildings, for instance, have very long lifetimes, explained Nitesh Magdani of the Royal BAM Group, a Dutch construction firm. “85% of what’s here now will be here in 50 years’ time.” Sure, demolition waste can go back into concrete. But having well-managed information about building materials might enable the next owners or occupants to reuse or recycle these materials in value-added ways.

And data can add customer value in ways that make certain business models more financially viable: for instance, a new generation of jet engines might be able to monitor and transmit flight data, suggested circular-economy expert Walter Stahel. Moreover, data and information management go hand in hand with deeper customer engagement; they strengthen and enable each other.
On the public sector front, publicly funded research and competitions such as the UK innovation agency’s Faraday Challenge, which seeks to redesign electric battery technology, aim to help new technologies and models scale up and become commercially viable. Public procurement is another powerful tool to give innovations a boost, said speakers, and it can work on various scales: municipal, national, and even regional, such as EU-regulated procurement procedures. More strident carbon pricing policies would also have a dramatic effect on the economics of a range of strategic materials and increase the competitiveness of secondary resources, and would accelerate the transition to the low-carbon economy.

On an even wider scale and in the longer term, Professor Paul Ekins of University College London outlined a proposed policy innovation whereby sellers are responsible for the materials in their products, and sell their products as a service. His proposal, which was selected as a top innovation in the recent LAUNCH competition, would nudge designers and manufacturers to think about the end-of-life fates of products.  

Speakers from both academia and business emphasised the need for new policies to reflect the state of available technology, and not be over- or under-ambitious. “We need bottom-up and top-down approaches to meet,” said Amir Rashid of KTH, who coordinates the EU’s Resource Conservative Manufacturing programme. “You can’t just say it’s business or technology or policy.”  

This story is drawn from sessions at the “Strategic Materials for a Low-Carbon Economy: From scarcity to availability,” a conference co-hosted by the Veolia Institute and Oxford Martin School in November 2017.