The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is a regional government body under the responsibility of the mayor of Greater Manchester working with the 10 leaders of Greater Manchester councils to make the region fairer, greener and more prosperous.
It is a devolved public body responsible for the health and wellbeing of its 2.8 million residents and management of local infrastructure and the GM Net Zero plan. Which aims to see it become the first regional authority to reach Net Zero by 2038.
As part of its commitment, it developed an innovation fund to pilot new Foundational Economy innovations in 2 phases.
Helical economies are an alternative approach to circular economies that radically increases the amount of resource the use and reclamation come up by loosening the requirement to maintain intra-sectoral circularity. This works because across all three GHG scopes as different energy consumption make different products out of different materials that travel different distances when manufactured for different sectors.
Unfortunately, this means most conventional thinking around circular economies has been suboptimal for some time. As pure circular implementations limiting emission savings and Doughnut potential.
Helical economies avoid this limitation but allowing material to be mean manufactured into other sectoral products in adjacent sectors come on which are ordered by risk. Meaning a medical plastic used for inhalers could then become a reusable pill splitter used for partitioning tablets, which if it breaks, can become a pair of forceps for use in the electronics etc.
Worked Example: medical plastics.
Medical devices are a strict industry that supplies medicines and medical products to the health and social care sectors. UK medical device legislation and policy requires these products to be manufactured and packaged in facilities controlled by European business and facilities. This invariably means the product travels a fraction of the distance of long distance household plastic "commodities" like coat hooks or retail packaging.
Transportation emissions are embodied emissions comprising up to 50% of the total lifecycle emissions of conventional products. Also, the quality of medical plastics is always significantly higher and remains higher than those used for commodity plastics even after 2 generations of remanufacture.
Coupled with the fact medical uses forbid recycled material for all intents and purposes (meaning this material would normally be incinerated) and would remain so in conventional circular economies, as circularity cannot be made to work here.
Instead of incinerating it, the waste material can safely create higher quality commodity products than would otherwise be created from virgin plastic that has had bulking agent added.
In contrast to 3 sets of emissions from manufacture, transportation and disposal, lower emissions are achieved simply manufacturing commodity products from the waste medical plastics. Which remain the only thing created from natural resources several generations upstream, not a set each for each of the 3 industries.
The nature of UK municipal waste contracts sees operators sign 15 to 35 year contracts with city councils. Contractually binding public authorities into long service contracts that are expensive and risky to change or exit without a change in statute forcing compliance.
In the face of mounting domestic pressure and international commitments to reach Net Zero, city councils are finding it increasingly difficult to operate under global cost constraints in light of cost-of-living pressures, energy demands, supply chain disruption caused by climate change and Brexit. Meaning achieving Net Zero continues to be a tertiary concern for most councils. Leaving those solutions niche and conscious residents with limited outlets for more complex plastics that are either limited in geography or expensive.
To engage the public, ReallyRecycle.com was built to gather plastics through the use of its bags, which were remanufactured through Automedi’s Circularity-as-a-Service platform, to demonstrate the feasibility of engagement through cheaper bag recycling schemes and events.
Helical Economies are a more modern economies model that expands on the ideas of Circular economies to allow maximal emission savings and resource reuse. It works by nurturing the reuse of resources across different sectors that are ranked in a particular way. The most common being risk. This makes them a great and faster way to move towards Doughnut economies.
Our project deployed Circular "Microeconomies" to manifest our own cradle-to-new-cradle Helical economy. These structures are composed of clusters which combine a recycling "hub" to turn plastic waste into filament and then deploy these as consumables into Automedi's 3D additive vending machines. Allowing consumers to create only as many products as they need, not more, and do so in front of them. Removing conventional transportation, almost all warhousing and reducing the emissions of energy by 99.75%
See the following video for a conceptual explanation:
ReallyRecyle.com aimed to collect 1.5 tonnes of material from 700 residents and small businesses during the trial and examine the circular value-add activity by how much product can be made from this waste.
We collected 1.44 tonnes of plastics and were comfortably able to produce over £1,000 of product per day per cluster hub for the wholesale market, while saving 6 tonnes of CO2 for that mass.
Retail orders for the downstream product proves to be the bottleneck to realising full value.
A small number of organisations appeared confused by our offer and wished to provide us with waste “for free” despite paying conventional organisations for collection, but still take the carbon reduction and marketing kudos. This surprisingly included companies who were both B-Corp and GM Good Employment certified.
Also, for older residents (over 65s) the technology underpinning the platform remained a challenge. Indicating drop-off locations or co-collections would be a useful avenue to experiment with.
Applying the principles of Doughnut Economics via a practical implementation of distributed cradle-to-cradle circular economies has been demonstrated to deliver significant, enduring emissions savings without the need to rely on offsetting. The GMCA foundation economy project showed what modern enviro-economic theory has been saying. There are spaces where commercial gains can be made while also enhancing social and environmental aims.
However, this was not without its challenges. The project also disproved widely held assumptions of a “green premium” that engaged communities are willing to pay to save the planet. Ethical consumer behaviour at this moment in our history, is statistically no different from existing human behaviour. This has been matched by repeated studies showing behaviour change, activism and green marketing has proven ineffective at changing behaviour in the general public, often at great cost. When added to our other public sector results across the UK, this is similarly borne out. Given the low capital expense of our model, it is far cheaper not to tell the public you are fixing the climate and just do it, than place the burden on the general public to change their behaviour. Meaning ethical businesses only have one route to doing better by planet and that is to do so covertly.
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