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Jacobs Delivers Collaborative Research with UK Water Industry Research Providing a Vision and Pathway for a Circular Economy in Water

Jacobs has delivered two collaborative projects with UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR), exploring challenges and opportunities related to a circular economy water industry.

Responding to UKWIR’s call to deliver collaborative research to answer one of the 12 Big Questions, namely how to maximize recovery of useful resources and achieve zero waste by 2050, Jacobs worked with Brunel University London and Allied Waters, to provide a vision and path forward for the water sector’s circular economy journey.

What is circular economy?

A circular economy describes an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design (The British Standards Institution, 2017). It eliminates waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use and regenerates nature (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2021).

A circular economy is a lower-carbon economy that preserves, restores and enhances the ecosystem services and biodiversity upon which all life depends. The principles of circular economy are foundational to delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, and key to the delivery of other United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Alternative economic models such as ‘Doughnut economics’ from economist Kate Raworth and the ‘Wellbeing economy’ actively progressed by governments and cities also incorporate circular economy concepts.  

The natural and urban water cycles are inherently circular: we take water from the ground and from rivers, we make drinking water, we use that water and dispose of it through wastewater treatment back to the natural water cycle. However, a circular economy water industry is more than this and is underpinned by renewable energy, provides stewardship of urban and natural water cycles, and offers benefits for citizens across all six capitals.

Six capitals

A vision for a water circular economy

There are many benefits for water companies to transition to a circular economy approach, including for customers, wider society, climate action, environment and generally to become more resilient, sustainable businesses. Companies have started this journey for a transition to circular economy, and approaches in the water sector have been implemented successfully in the U.K. and more widely in the world.

However, much greater pace and transformational change are required. Building on best practice and informed by current guidance, such as the British Standards and emerging ISO standards on circularity, Jacobs has produced a report, providing a vision for a circular economy water sector.

The report, provided by UKWIR here free of charge, aims to promote discussion and support for the water sector’s transition. It provides a summary of existing circular economy principles already being adopted by the water sector, including a focus on water efficiency, generating biogas, recycling nutrients and carbon to land, as well as using catchment- and nature-based solutions and bioresource recovery trials for materials and energy. It includes an analysis of the blockers and enablers of a transition to circular economy, with insight into political, economic, social, technical, legal and environmental drivers needed to make water businesses more resilient, prosperous and sustainable. Detailed analysis of approaches to developing circularity metrics, aligned with ongoing work developing the ISO standard, was provided by our project partner Brunel University London. The report provided a vision for a circular economy water sector – illustrated below.

circular economy

Sustainable economic resource recovery

Jacobs was also successful in winning another UKWIR circular economy project, focusing on near-term resource recovery in the water cycle in the U.K. and Ireland.

Numerous materials, energy and nutrients can be recovered from the urban water cycle – nitrogen, phosphorus, water for reuse, organic carbon for return to soils, green hydrogen, even precious metals! Jacobs reviewed over forty resources recoverable from waste streams produced during the treatment of drinking water and recycling of wastewater – drawing on global practice and technology readiness level to assess most viable resource recovery opportunities.

The report provided initial screening then a multi-criteria assessment of shortlisted resources, taking a six capitals approach, to consider ‘most sustainable economic’ resources for focus by water companies in the near term.

The report, also provided by UKWIR free of charge, highlights and draws on progressive work on circular economy, particularly in  the Netherlands through our project partner, Allied Waters, shortlisting current opportunities. These include the enhancement of existing recovered resources and resource conservation, such as water demand management; recycling nutrients and soil carbon in biosolids; and energy recovery through biogas and biomethane in the U.K. and Irish water sectors. The project also highlights bioresources not yet recovered widely in the U.K. and Ireland, however recovered elsewhere, including drinking water sludges, fit-for-purpose water, storm water and grit.

As part of Jacobs’ work, a multi-criteria analysis was undertaken, adopting the approach in Jacobs’ in-house MODA™ multi-objective decision analysis tool and – in a key development of historic studies - this included semi-quantitative six capitals scoring criteria, a business-as-usual weighting, and three speculative weightings with different focuses on carbon, water quality and resource recovery.

The top-ranking resources providing maximum benefit across all criteria have been identified as being: household water efficiency, electricity and heat from combined heat and power (CHP), heat pumps, biogas from advanced digestion, biogas from co-digestion and continued biosolids recycling to land.

In conclusion

A circular economy water industry will look different to the current water industry. The U.K. and Irish water sector can build on key elements of circular economy which are implemented every day: regenerating catchments, returning carbon and nutrients to soil systems, and recovering value from used water.

Research on innovation, from addressing barriers to resource recovery, and drawing on the learnings from others, will allow the greatest progress. In the reports, Jacobs provided near- and longer-term research priorities, including priority work on demand management, as well as catchment-, nature- and place-based solutions required to transform our cities to thriving, low-carbon communities.

Wider value assessment frameworks across all six capitals and aligned carbon standards are critical to the implementation of circular economy, which must be supported by regulatory transformation and the adoption of relevant circularity metrics and performance commitments.

There are significant opportunities to work across sectors, across all water users- including industry and agriculture, and to align with cities which are embracing circular economy though participatory approaches. Increasing cross-company, -sector and -discipline partnerships will deliver the transition to circular economy and greatest value for citizens.

“We were delighted to be able to bring experience from over 25 years of circular products from the water cycle and our more recent work on a 2050 Circularity Strategy for the Netherlands water sector for this project,” said Allied Waters Director Jos Boere. “We have no doubt that with collaborative approaches recognizing actual risk and reward, sustainable, economic business models founded upon circular products from the urban water cycle are possible”.

“Circularity in the water sector and across sectors is critical to progress towards the sustainable future we require,” said Brunel University London Professor Evina Katsou. “Our team is currently developing the most progressive ISO standards yet on circular economy metrics. Developing indicators aligned to circular economy principles, which can be operationalized by water utilities and companies, is critical to measuring and implementing this. We have greatly enjoyed delivering this project with such a collaborative team.”

“The reports highlight priority areas for collaborative research and trials on resource efficiency and resource recovery within the water cycle, and provide themes for work in PR24 (Price Review 2024) and beyond,” said Jacobs People and Places Solutions Europe, Head of Process Delivery, Water - U.K. and Ireland, Amanda Lake. “Transitioning to a circular economy allows us to unlock the value of bioresources in the urban water cycle – from next generation water efficiency, to soil carbon and fertilizers of the future, to community heat and hydrogen. Critically, it requires us to apply wider benefits assessment frameworks and life cycle analysis, looking beyond infinite resource consumption and economic growth to more holistic solutions that deliver wider benefits. Best of all, transitioning to a circular economy means a climate-safe, lower-carbon and better future for current and future end users.”

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