Accepted paper:

Treating waste for a circular economy? Limits of techno-market fixes


Les Levidow (The Open University)

Paper short abstract:

Since a decade ago the UK has promoted novel technologies to bring waste up the hierarchy, potentially towards a circular economy. Yet techno-market fixes have complemented the dominant energy system, while marginalising the circular potential.

Paper long abstract:

For the past decade the European Union has promoted the ‘waste hierarchy’ and more recently a circular economy. Incorporating the EU policy framework, the UK has promoted ways to treat waste as a resource for reuse through techno-market-fixes; financial instruments have been meant to incentivise private-sector investment in new treatment technologies to convert waste for more beneficial uses, bring it up the hierarchy and localise its management. This waste-management strategy extended the New Labour government’s broader policy framework of ecological modernisation (EM), aiming to create new markets for low-carbon renewable energy.

Consequent tensions can be seen by linking critical perspectives on EM with socio-technical imaginaries for two technologies, Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and Mechanical & Biological Treatment (MBT). Both had support from environmental NGOs; according to Zero Waste Europe, for example, MBT plants ‘can play a role in transitional strategies to reduce residual waste without having to depend on more expensive undesirable options such as incineration’. The UK government promoted both technologies for localising and converting waste for reuse. Yet such efforts have encountered difficulties in producing commercially viable outputs, e.g. compost improving soil, digestate replacing chemical fertiliser and ‘dirty’ plastics replacing virgin plastics. Moreover, subsidies have incentivised technological designs to produce energy (electricity or gas) for centralised grid systems, thus complementing the dominant socio-technical model of the energy system, dependent on longer-distance waste flows. Technological designs have been scaled towards ‘global goods’, distant from the feedstock source. Environmental NGOs have criticised the outcomes as contradicting the waste hierarchy and circular economy.

panel A09
Encounters with and for circular economy initiatives