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Towards zero waste: The search for effective waste management policy to support the transition to a circular economy

Fletcher, Carly A (2019) Towards zero waste: The search for effective waste management policy to support the transition to a circular economy. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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The circular economy has been widely adopted to address the issues of unsustainable production and consumption associated with the linear economy. However, implementation has been limited by several factors. With many barriers linked to poor waste management, effective waste policy is vital in the transition to the circular economy. By prioritising landfill diversion and promoting the waste hierarchy, European Union (EU) policy has driven substantial regional advances in waste management. The EU has recently identified the transition to the circular economy as a key policy objective. However, critics highlight a continued emphasis on end-of-pipe strategies, which are often low on the waste hierarchy (e.g. targets focused on recycling and landfill diversion with no limits on incineration). Thus, to meet current targets, member states have increasingly invested in mechanical biological treatment and incineration; changing the nature of residual wastes and increasing the risk of lock-in. This thesis explores the adoption of EU policy by member states and considers these associated risks. While the EU sets overarching targets, members can choose to adopt the minimum requirements (copy-out) or seek to go beyond them (gold-plated). A document analysis of UK waste strategy found clear alignment with EU policy across the four home nations, albeit with different levels of implementation. Adopting a gold-plated approach, Scotland introduced a carbon metric and sought to limit incineration, while Wales promoted stakeholder inclusion. In contrast, England and Northern Ireland adopted the copy-out approach. Regarding the management of residuals (fines and incinerator bottom ash), current policy instruments may have unintended consequences. With regard to the use of landfill taxes to promote diversion, a stakeholder survey found that secondary legislation introduced to classify fines may limit material recovery and discourage investment, thereby creating a perverse incentive for landfill disposal. Additionally, analysis of EU waste management data found a growing dependence on incineration to achieve near-term targets that may disincentivise material recovery and increase risks of lock-in. Overall, to address barriers to the circular economy, and to realise future targets, future-proofing of waste policy is recommended. Presented as a first step to achieve this, the Circular Economy Readiness concept is introduced. Drawing parallels with readiness in the energy sector, a workshop identified the need to develop societal, as well as technological readiness, alongside mechanisms to address specific waste management issues.

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