Recycling and the circular economy

Posted on: 29 November 2022 in Issue 4

Dr Rhiannon Hunt, Circular Economy Manager and Sam Hay, Waste and Recycling Officer

The University’s Sustainability Strategy sets out a number of key targets in relation to reducing waste by 50% and embedding a circular economy across all University operations. To help us achieve these targets, two new roles have been established in the Environmental Sustainability team in FRCS. We caught up with Dr Rhiannon Hunt, Circular Economy Manager and Sam Hay, Waste and Recycling Officer, to find out more.

New in-house expertise

Rhiannon and Sam bring a wealth of knowledge and experience with them from their previous roles.

Rhiannon worked as Circular Economy Project Manager at Manchester Metropolitan University, covering a range of national and international research projects focused on material recycling, bioplastics, repair, and low carbon technologies. Prior to this, she completed a PhD specialising in circular design and Industry 4.0 and worked in a variety of roles spanning eco-innovation, sustainable fashion and environmental management.

Sam too has experience working in the higher education sector, having been Waste and Recycling Officer at the University of Chester. Prior to this, he held numerous roles, including Quality Manager, at a recycling company specialising in cardboard and paper recycling. With over 10 years practical experience in waste management, Sam is looking forward to making a positive change to how we view and manage the waste we create at the University of Liverpool.

Understanding the circular economy

A circular economy is a more sustainable model of production and consumption. Instead of a linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy, where resources are extracted, turned into products, and then thrown away after use, a circular economy deliberately designs out waste. It does this by ensuring that resources used to manufacture products are renewable or recyclable, and that products, components and materials can either be returned to nature as nutrients or recycled into raw materials for the next generation of products.

Additionally, a circular economy aims to maximise the value and use of existing assets by adopting innovative business models, such as sharing, leasing and access, as well as using services that emphasise repair, refurbishment and remanufacture.

Rhiannon explains that embedding a circular economy approach will help the University to achieve other sustainability targets, such as tackling scope 3 emissions. “By reducing consumption, we also benefit from a reduction in embedded carbon associated with those products,” she says. “We’re taking a holistic approach, addressing sourcing and procurement, consumption and use, as well as waste and recycling. ”  

Discussions are now underway with suppliers to make sure the things we bring onto campus consist of resources that can be turned into new products or can go back into the environment to regenerate natural ecosystems. 

Rhiannon also wants to maximize the use of existing assets, from redistributing furniture throughout the University to repairing IT equipment instead of buying new. Leasing models will also be explored for items used only occasionally.  

Waste management

To understand how challenging it will be to reduce our waste by 50%, its best to think of the University as a ‘mini-city’, hosting a huge range of diverse activities creating lots of different waste streams, including paper, glass, plastic, food, electrical and hazardous waste. Current data indicates that over a year, the University typically produces 3,000 tonnes of waste, that’s equivalent to 500 African elephants.

“We will have to minimise or prevent the production of waste if we want to achieve our 50% target,” adds Rhiannon. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that any waste we do produce is stored, handled, safely transported and disposed of correctly or lawfully. This is a complicated operation as we have numerous specialist waste categories, such as contaminated waste and electrical equipment from laboratories, to deal with across the University.”

Alongside increasing recycling and reducing waste production across the University, Rhiannon and Sam want to ensure that any remaining waste is then sent for incineration, where the resulting heat produced is captured and turned into energy.

Sam explains that in order to do this “a key first step will be to establish robust baseline data, as this will give us a clear picture of all the waste currently generated on campus. This will help to ensure the actions we take to increase recycling and reduce waste are targeted and effective”.

Managing our food waste is also big on the agenda. While food waste collections are already in operation in some of our student accommodation buildings and catering outlets, there are plans to roll these out more widely.

“When organic matter, such as food waste breaks down in the absence of oxygen it produces methane gas,” Sam says. “This is collected and used as biogas, a sustainable form of energy. The nutrient dense sludge left over can then be used as fertilizer. It’s important to make the most of these valuable resources.”  

Embedding change

Going forward, Rhiannon and Sam will be looking at opportunities to partner with service and technology providers to support the reuse, redistribution and resale of existing assets, such as furniture and lab equipment.

The pair are optimistic that embedding a circular approach, not only on campus, but also within teaching and education, will affect behavioural changes across the University that will help us achieve our Sustainability Strategy targets.

Rhiannon and Sam are keen to raise the awareness amongst staff and students on how the University is performing in terms of waste and pollution, and data for individual sites and buildings will be published in the future to help to encourage positive changes.  

 “We want to make our systems convenient, accessible and straightforward,” says Rhiannon. “Ultimately, we want to ensure that the circular option is the easy option.” 

If you would like to find out more, email, remembering to add ‘circular economy’ to the subject line or visit the Sustainability website for updates.