Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery from Waste (C-VORR)

Our modern industrial society produces increasing amounts of waste. Yet many of these wastes might either contain useful materials (perhaps metals or nutrients) or could themselves be used as an input for another process (maybe as a fuel or raw material). Recovering these resources from wastes is an important part of waste management and normally involves collecting wastes from an industrial process, organisation or community and then carrying out sorting, reprocessing, recycling or incineration.

All these activities have benefits and impacts in many different ways, for example: * the economy: benefits come from selling the recovered materials, while the impacts are the costs of collection, processing etc; * our society: providing reprocessing jobs is a benefit, at the cost of harsh rules on rubbish collection; * the environment: preventing harmful materials from being dumped helps the environment, but reprocessing may involve carbon emissions or use of more resources; * our health: keeping the streets clean prevents disease, but some recycling jobs may be dangerous.

When choosing which resource recovery system is best, it is difficult to weigh up all these factors. Often, we simply 'bolt on' a piece of technology to the end of the process, worrying mainly whether it is cost-effective and often assuming that because we are recovering resources, the environmental impact is automatically good. But many recovery systems have 'hidden' impacts that require complex analysis to untangle.

Studies have shown that in some cases, collection and recycling of plastic bottles produces more carbon dioxide and uses more resources than simply making new bottles; a hidden environmental impact. In fact, much of our plastic waste is exported to the Far East, where it is reprocessed by workers in unhealthy conditions paid very poor wages; a hidden social and health impact. Until we have a method for weighing up all these factors, poor decisions driven by faith in simplistic ideas such as 'the waste heirarchy' will continue to be made. In the C-VORR project, we will bring together scientists, engineers, mathematicians and economists to help build this method.

Working with our industry partners and international experts, we will look at processes that produce waste; not just at the 'end of the pipe' , but upstream and downstream throughout the whole system. We will examine the flows of materials through these systems and see how their 'complex value' - the balance of their economic, social, environmental and health benefits and impacts - changes as we adjust the system. This will allow us to identify the adjustments - perhaps a change in the way a product is made, or a new recycling process, or using the waste from one system as the input to another - that give us the best value overall; not just in terms of money, but also in terms of the effect on our health, happiness and environment.

To do this, we will need to combine scientific and engineering methods that measure flows with ways of measuring benefits and impacts, checking how these vary with time and space. We will have to completely redefine value, using unorthodox economic thinking to help us. If we get this right, then we can completely change the way that we look at recovering resource from waste, and instead talk about preventing value from being dissipated into waste in the first place.

We will have a tool that will not only let us decide which recovery technology - or change to the process - is best for society and the environment, but that can also identify business opportunities to recover previous hidden value. It will allow us to move away from simplistic ideas about recycling and reprocessing that may have unintended consequences, and give us all a more sophisticated understanding of how to best preserve our scarce resources, our precious environment and the quality of not just our lives but those connected to us; in this globalised world, that's everyone.


The commercial private waste management sector - at first those represented by the C-VORR stakeholders but in time the industry as a whole - will benefit by having access to tools and expertise that can be used to assess the effectiveness of multiple proposed interventions into their waste producing systems and ensure that the right decisions are made for economic, social, health and environmental reasons.

C-VORR will also help to identify how real industrial symbiosis can be achieved by maximising the multi-dimensional value for all companions, not just a subset, in order to increase the likelihood that such arrangements can be carried forward. It is likely that applying C-VORR analysis to wider systems may well identify 'hidden value' that is current being dissipated, and thus new business models and opportunities would arise leading to increased employment in the sector.

C-VORR will have wider appeal to manufacturers and service providers - the waste generators - for whom the benefits of reduced waste disposal costs, added value of resource recovery and new markets for by-products will be further supplemented by reduced environmental/health risks, well designed incentives and improved societal benefits, all of which will contribute to strengthening UK plc. The methodology will also help policy makers to make more objective decisions, ensuring that environmental waste legislation does not inadvertently cause upstream or downstream impacts elsewhere in the system, or lead to unethical 'problem shifting' of environmental, health or social impacts to less economically developed countries.

Some current legislation is driven by dogma or lobbyists who either do not have the analytical tools to fully assess their proposals, or have an agenda; the C-VORR methodology should prevent these voices from gaining the upper hand. We would expect the methodology to be adopted by the regulators in many instances in order to inform regulatory practices that maximise multidimensional benefits. Adoption of common, independent tools by the commercial and regulatory sectors would promote more effective communication between the two and reduce the conflicts that often arise from a mutual misappreciation of motives.

The clamour for robust valuation methodologies that can incorporate social, health and environmental factors into 'cost-benefit' analyses comes from far beyond only the resource recovery sector - infrastructure specifiers and regulators in particular are actively seeking such methods - and thus this is a chance for the NERC/ESRC community to take the lead in demonstrating that such holistic assessments are not only possible but also practical across a wide range of fields.

We aim to additionally produce a set of relatively simple public-facing tools. As well as providing user groups (communities, schools, NGOs etc) with analysis capability, these will also demonstrate that reliance on environmental dogmas without assessing the bigger picture can occasionally have unintended consequences. This will provide the public with a more sophisticated view of waste management issues in general and in particular, how their activities can help aid resource recovery from waste, reduce our environmental impact and preserve scarce resources.

The principles developed in C-VORR are not UK-specific and indeed our 'systems of provisions' approach necessitates a global analysis; thus the expertise and tools developed in the project will become valuable exports for UK plc, reinforcing Britain's reputation for applied scientific expertise across the world in the commercial, regulatory and political arenas. The staff employed on the project will gain a unique set of increasingly valuable interdiscplinary skills and are likely to become highly sought-after not only by the waste management industry but across academic, commercial and policy-making sectors around the world.

Publications and outputs

  • Anne P.M Velenturf (2017) Co-producing a Vision and Approach for the Transition towards a Circular Economy: Perspectives from Government Partners. publication icon
  • Anne P.M Velenturf (2018) Participatory Situational Analysis: How can policy and regulation support resource recovery? Synthesis workshop report publication icon
  • Brown A (2018) Exploring the 'Systems of Provision' Approach as New Paradigm for Assessment and Appraisal of Resource Recovery Systems?
  • C. Velis (2017) Get good value in Chartered Institution of Wastes Management journal
  • David C. Wilson (2018) Revaluing Recycling in Chartered Institution of Wastes Management journal
  • E. Iacovidou (2019) Multi-dimensional value assessment of compost oversize production and management from open air composting
  • E. Iacovidou (2019) Compost Oversize: A Valuable Resource Left Unused in Waste Management World
  • Eleni Iacovidou (2016) Complex-value optimisation of power plant systems co-firing coal with biomass and SRF
  • Eleni Iacovidou (2016) Smart technologies: Enablers of construction components reuse?
  • Facchini E (2018) Food flows in the United Kingdom: The potential of surplus food redistribution to reduce waste. in Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association (1995)

Project website