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Atkins: what the global water sector can learn from the circular economy

Image: circular economy Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Mat Toy, international water director at Atkins, examines the circular economy and what the water industry could learn from it.

As international water client director of Atkins, member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, Mat Toy is also technical advisor to the Sustainable Financial Collective Asia – a consortium that’s looking, amongst other initiatives, at how industries, including the water industry, could gain from embracing the ethos of a circular economy.

Mat Toy: There are many good reasons why we need to move away from the ‘take, make and dispose’ approach to modern life and move towards creating models for long-term sustainability. Not least, because largely speaking, the way the world works at present is not just incredibly wasteful, it also doesn’t make good business sense.

As the saying goes, where there’s muck there’s brass; and so too do we need to grasp the opportunities that sustainable thinking brings. We need to recognise that in every industrial process, there’s going to be inherent value in waste that can be put back into the value chain.

This thinking has prompted an economic model, built on the principles of sustainability, known as the circular economy. That is, moving away from the linear model of industrial production, to one that is circular. And in my view, it holds huge benefits. It means becoming less reliant on an uncertain and ever-more expensive, volatile supply chain, to becoming more energy efficient and self-reliant – and therefore saving not just money, but also the world’s precious natural resources.

While the circular economic model prompts new thinking here and now, when you consider it, it’s basically common sense. It’s a centuries-old premise that was the only model, pre-industrialisation. Our ancestors may have had less, but they also wasted nothing.

Water itself is naturally recycled, from evaporation to clouds and rain, to streams and the sea. Nature makes sure nothing is wasted – and it’s a good model to be inspired by. It just so happens that the water industry is fast becoming one of the best exemplars of how a circular economy can work in practice, too.

Raw water scarcity is our industry’s main challenge. By extracting water from rivers and the ground we’re depleting our resources and supply is becoming ever-more limited. We can’t wave a magic wand and create more water, so how do we maximise this precious resource using the circular economic model?

As things stand in many developed countries, we use expensive potable water to do the same job that grey water could do just as well; and here, effluent reuse is key.

Instead of returning our effluent back into the environment, we should be moving towards a model where we reuse where it’s efficient to do so. In Ajman, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, a new waste-water treatment plant recycles 35% of its effluent for immediate reuse in irrigation or for industrial use, and the aim is to boost this figure to 100% reuse over time.

The circular economy also means harnessing the power of nature to do some of the heavy lifting for us, as two current projects – in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Sturminster Marshall, Dorset, England – demonstrate.

Both now generate enough energy to significantly subsidise the power needed to operate their water treatment plants, by recovering energy from the incoming raw-water supply. The basic physics of gravity push the flow of raw-water into the treatment plants from much higher supplies, and as the water gathers momentum its energy powers turbines to operate the treatment process. In effect, gravity is helping the entire process to do something for nothing.

Changing the shape and culture of many industrial sectors to adopt this new way of thinking, whereby immediate profit isn’t the only motivating factor, won’t happen overnight. Circular economy solutions can point the way to less volatile supply chains and more stable market valuations. But the wheels are in motion and the big guns – including major global banks – are not only taking notice, but helping to lead the way.

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