Diagram of National Launch figures, eg. no. of live attendees, community posts etc.

Landmark £30M UK National programme launched to elevate Circular Economy research evidence

On 24th May 2021, a visionary new Circular Economy (CE) research programme was launched, with the mission of harnessing the UKs leading CE research capability to drive transformational systems level change. The vision of this National Interdisciplinary CE Research programme – otherwise known as NICER – is to accelerate interdisciplinary research, innovation and impact to scale up a UK Circular Economy.

This pioneering programme focuses on 5 strategic resource flows: textiles, metals, technology metals, chemicals and building materials. The programme comprises 34 of the UKs leading universities, over 100 academics, 60 PhD students and over 200 industrial partners. Collectively the programme will accelerate understanding and solutions to enable the circularity of specific resource flows, provide national leadership, coordinate and drive knowledge exchange, and embed research by involving business, policy makers, consumers, and the wider community at every part of the programme.

The NICER programme launched online over the course of 4 days, with each of the 5 National Centres – each centring their research around one of the aforementioned resource flows – hosting a launch event. The final day – led by the National CE-hub, a project designed to unite the 5 centres, and the wider CE community – showcased the overall NICER programme, and featured keynotes speakers, panels, and workshops. For more information on the individual National Centres, please visit the centre websites: Textiles Circularity Centre; CircularMetal; Met4Tech; CircularChemicals and ICEC-MCM.

The final day of the launch was opened by the Dean of the University of Exeter Business School, Professor David Allen, who welcomed the attendees and highlighted the growing importance of working collaboratively to find sustainable solutions, and the relevance of CE research.

This was followed by a conversation with Dame Ellen MacArthur, who discussed the values and aims of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, sharing her insights from and reflections on the 10 year journey of the EMF, and the ways in which it is creating systemic innovation. Ellen went on to share her advice for the NICER project, and stated that the programme has the potential to “elevate the CE conversation”, connect academia with industry, and reach both policy makers and citizens.

Professor Fiona Charnley, Co-Director of the CE-hub, then set out the overall aims and objectives of the Hub emphasising the need for interdisciplinary and inclusive approaches to CE system design, and the ambition to create a collaborative UK CE community.

A presentation by Professor Sharon Baurley, Director of the Interdisciplinary Textiles Circularity Centre (TCC), then drew attention to the consumer in a CE. She focused on the question of how we can create relationships between producers and consumers to increase the life span of clothing and textiles, and how we can redefine the connection between well-being and consumption. Achieving this would require a whole system approach from the materials used and the ways that clothing is manufactured and designed, to the business models that support repair, upgrade, durability, and adaptability above disposal.

The Director of Circular Economy Centre for Technology Metals, Professor Frances Wall, went on to highlight the importance of a group of materials known as ‘critical metals’ to the modern industrial economy. These materials are essential to the operation of many renewable technologies, such as wind turbines, mobile phones and electric vehicles. However, the recycling and recovery rate for the majority of these materials is currently <1%. Professor Wall highlighted the ways in which the Centre for Technology Metals work programme is designed to create the foundations for a future circular critical materials economy, involving stakeholders across the supply chain from mining to manufacturers, retailers, end users, and the resource recovery industry.

Professor Julia Stegemann, Director of the Circular Economy Centre for Mineral-based Construction Materials, then described the work of her Centre. Their research will address materials such as concrete and soil, which form some of the biggest material demand and waste streams in the UK. Finding ways to re-use or improve the recycling of concrete for example, could make a significant contribution to reducing future UK construction and demolition waste, as well as demand for new concrete, a hugely carbon intensive product. Assuring the quality and health of these end of life materials presents a number of technical and scientific challenges, and the Centre is exploring the ways in which these can be overcome by connecting a wide number of players in the construction value chain, supported by enabling policy measures and incentives.

Professor Jin Xuan, PI and Director of the Centre for Circular Chemical Economy, highlighted the need for the sector to move away from fossil fuel feedstocks. This requires using alternative feedstocks such as capturing carbon dioxide or bio-wastes to create olefins – a core building block for chemicals found in many everyday familiar products such as paint, coatings, and plastics. Professor Xuan discussed the key research themes that the Centre for Circular Chemical Economy will be examining over the next four years – which include new technologies, whole system approaches, policy, society, and finance – as well as emphasising the importance of collaboration in the development of circular economy systems.

Professor Brian Cantor, Strategic advisor to Professor Zhongyun Fan Director of the Circular Economy Centre for Metals, presented a vision to create a fully circular metals economy by 2050, where all metals are continually recycled or re-used for productive purposes. This vision focused in particular on metals such as steel, copper and aluminium. To achieve a fully circular metals economy, many technical and engineering barriers need to be overcome, and the embedding of CE systems design, business models, and reverse logistics principles, relies on policy incentives, new regulations, and industry collaboration.

A panel session involving the directors provided a snapshot of their Centre’s ambitions and work programme. This Session is available to view here.

The morning continued with several workshops, exploring topics such as ‘Measuring Circularity: The development of a CE Observatory’ and ‘Framing the Circular Economy’.

In the afternoon, there was a second panel session, which focused on the topic of ‘Designing a Prosperous, Resilient, and Inclusive Circular Economy’. This session brought together international leading experts in Circular Economy to share and discuss experiences in transitioning to a CE. The panel, chaired by Professor Gail Whiteman, University of Exeter, included: Dr Hayaatun Sillem, CEO Royal Academy of Engineering; Professor Gideon Henderson, Defra Chief Scientific Advisor; Laura Järvinen, Senior Lead SITRA; Cliona Howie, Head of CE Climate-KIC and Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of resources and environment policy at UCL.

Hayaatun highlighted the need for an inclusive approach to circular economy to allow diverse voices to be heard and shape future directions. Gideon went on to stress the importance of CE to policies on resources and waste, nett zero, building back better and biodiversity. Laura then described how Finland had developed their National CE Roadmap and the importance of collaboration. Cliona reinforced the relationship between circular economy and climate change and lessons on how to bring about system level change. Paul stressed the urgency and scale of change required and the need for large scale transformations. All the panellists expressed the opportunity of NICER to collaborate across sectors, disciplines and stakeholders; to upscale the CE and inspire us all to be the agents of change. “NICER is unique… in that it genuinely is a systemic approach… and unusually it has a direct approach into government” says Hayaatun Sillem, and with our integrated approach we can be a catalyst to create change. To watch the discussion, click here.

The event attracted nearly 1000 registrations, with over 700 live attendees across the 4 days. The launch also garnered overwhelmingly positive feedback and support for the programme ambition, with attendees across the globe joining, interacting with, and contributing to the discussion, and simultaneously building and strengthening an international CE community.

All the event sessions including workshops and any slides can be viewed at the CE-Hub YouTube Channel.

Keep up-to-date with activities by signing up to Hub Newsletter.