A circular economy is one where all resources are kept flowing at their highest value for as long as possible. We currently live in a linear system, where we take-make-dispose and the move to circularity is often seen as either too complex or too simple: total system change, or a bit more recycling. Perhaps because it is understandable and achievable, recycling and reuse of materials get more of the attention, but this focuses mainly on the technical cycle. I’ve spent most of my career working in the water sector and while there is an important technical element, the biological cycle is the most important.
Water is the ultimate circular system and yet has been a little neglected until recently. Those of us in the sector understand the importance of water as a system and have been working in ways that are truly circular for many years. For example, the recovery and treatment of sewage sludge and processing it back on to the land is commonplace: not only a recycling practice, but a regenerative and restorative one as well.
Assets in the water industry are kept in circulation for as long as possible and much longer than they were originally intended in many cases, showing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people who work in the sector. And the scale of the problem of renewal: how to you replace a dam, for example? How do you replace hundreds of miles of water pipes that have new towns built over them? How long do you keep maintaining for before this is either uneconomical or causes problems in itself. For example, what do we do about lead pipes that carry drinking water?
Finally understanding the catchment has become an increasingly important part of any water business. We have always known the importance of understanding what goes on in our catchments; who is discharging what to where. But increasingly, the impacts on our water quality come from not just industry, but agriculture, and from our homes. In this way, water could be seen as an indicator of practices that may be OK now, but could be unsustainable in the future. If the products that we put in the sewers contain elements that are difficult to remove, then maybe we should reconsider the use of them.
Water is critical to life and should be considered at the heart of the circular economy. I look forward to seeing increased collaboration between water, resource management and energy - if we work together we have a better chance of innovating and transitioning to a more sustainable future.