Resource Recovery From Waste: Challenges for the health of the environment

waste barrels

This £7·2 million, five-year programme aims to deliver the science needed to accomplish a paradigm shift in the recovery of resources from waste. This will be driven environmental benefits (integrated across air, soil and water resources, and biodiversity), and societal ones (including improved human health, informed decision-making, new business models, commercial and broader export potential), rather than by economics alone. The programme will also forge new thinking that goes beyond carbon to understand waste as a resource from the perspective of ecological rather than carbon outcomes.

In response to feedback from the catalyst grant phase of the programme, the potential to develop social and economic aspects in the research grant phase has been supported with the addition of an extra £600,000 in co-funding from the Economic & Social Research Council. Defra also joined the programme as a co-funder in this second phase with a contribution totalling £157,000.

Resource Recovery from Waste - Final conference

Closing date: 2 Jan

1 Nov 2018

Registration is now open to attend the Resource Recovery from Waste programme final conference on 16 January 2019 at One Great George Street, London.

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In 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated 11·2 billion tonnes of solid waste was collected. Even more waste went uncollected. The total amount produced is rising each year, and will continue to do so. Given a growing global population that is matched by highly dynamic product development for human needs, current solutions to waste management reliant on disposal are unsustainable.

Despite recent technological advances, however, there is limited recovery of physical resources such as nutrients, minerals from waste. Conversely, recovery of energy through incineration to generate heat and/or electricity, and anaerobic digestion to create biogas, are becoming commonplace in research demonstration projects, and this is filtering into commercial activities. There may also be opportunities to take advantage of natural processes for resource recovery from waste which have yet to be explored.

Decisions about the types of resources to recover and the processes used to manage wastes, however, rarely start from considering the best options for the health of the environment. This is partly because quantitative evidence on the impact of new technologies on which to base decisions is lacking at appropriate scales or across science disciplines. As a consequence, the anticipated environmental gains and their contribution to society (through benefits such as reduced air pollution and increased biodiversity) remain unclear.

With the demand for economic growth, there is limited knowledge about the future impacts of current practices for waste management and product development. Furthermore, new materials are entering the production cycle which means potentially significant resources are not being recovered and the residual wastes continue to change. All this means there may be unknown biospheric feedbacks and potentially hazardous contaminants may be being released. Not only are there products now which will become the waste of the future; there are also future products which may only be in the early concept phase, and there may be opportunities to anticipate future waste from these.

NERC aims to drive innovation for the green economy but resource scarcity is an increasing threat to future global economic development. This is a particular challenge for the manufacturing industries. Resource scarcity also sits in the context of changing climates and increasing issues surrounding food, energy and water security for the human population. Meeting global challenges around natural resource use depends on a twin-track approach that finds new ways to use existing natural resources coupled with new approaches to extract further use from waste materials.

Globally, the waste management sector produced 3-5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 from treatment and disposal - a relatively minor contribution. Yet the sector could potentially move from being a minor source to a major saver of greenhouse gases - recovering more resources from waste would avoid emissions from all other sectors. Beginning to see waste as a resource could have very beneficial effects.

There are a number of conceptual starting points relevant to the Resource Recovery from Waste programme, including the 'waste hierarchy', 'industrial ecology', 'circular economy', 'closed-loop' and 'zero waste'. Although progress has been made in researching these areas, much of our knowledge remains theoretical. Further advances are needed because the current conceptual framework fails to account fully for emissions to the biosphere during the resource recovery process, which might have major implications for the environment and human health.

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme addresses the 'Benefiting from natural resources' societal challenge in the NERC Strategy 'The Business of the Environment'.


2012 - 2018

Can I apply for a grant?

No, there are currently no open Announcements.


This programme has a budget of £7·2 million.

Programme awards

Catalyst Grants

Proposals were invited to provide catalyst funding in preparation for submitting a proposal for a larger Research Grant.

Catalyst grant evaluation panel membership (PDF, 65KB)

Fourteen Catalyst Grant proposals have been funded. Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web (GOTW).

View details of funded applications - external link

Research Grants

Research Grant proposals were invited from recipients of catalyst funding in November 2013. The moderating panel to assess these applications met on 19 March 2014. Details of the successful awards are included in the GOTW link above.

Research grant evaluation panel membership (PDF, 65KB)

Programme Coordination Team

A Programme Coordination Team (PCT) has been appointed by the PEB to deliver the strategic aims and objectives of the programme. The PCT comprises the six principal investigators and programme coordination officer, Anne Velenturf. Phil Purnell and the University of Leeds will act as the convenor and base for the PCT activities.

A range of activities to supplement the existing grant KE activities have been proposed including an early stakeholder identification and engagement workshop; a series of theme-specific workshops throughout the lifetime of the awards; placements within industry and policy-makers for project staff and placements for industry/policy within project teams.

Resource has also been allocated to 'mini-projects' to develop themes and ideas identified in the coordination activities. This could involve reciprocal placements for key staff at various institutions or reverse placements, visits to overseas leaders who may be performing related work or science-industry translation activities

Programme Executive Board (PEB)

The Resource Recovery from Waste programme will be governed by the Programme Executive Board, which is responsible for the strategic direction and management of the programme and delivery of the programme's objectives. The Programme Executive Board is currently comprised of:

Other individuals may be appointed to the Programme Executive Board as the programme progresses.

  • Beth House, NERC (Chair)
  • Audrey Sharp, Economic & Social Research Council
  • Andrew Woodend, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
  • Jim Wharfe, Independent Environmental Consultant
  • Rick Stuart, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Science Advisory Group

During the Catalyst Grant phase a smaller, more focused Science Advisory Group has been appointed to advise NERC on the scope of the programme and networking activities moving towards to the Research Grants phase:

  • Dr Jim Wharfe, Environment Agency (Chair)
  • Dr Ken O'Callaghan, Defra
  • Professor John Zhou, London South Bank University
  • Professor Adrian Boyce, Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre
  • Dr Phil Scotney, FCC Environment

Programme Advisory Group

A Programme Advisory Group was appointed following an open call that helped to define the science and implementation plan for the Resource Recovery From Waste programme, and supported the development of the subsequent announcement of opportunity for the Catalyst Grant phase. It comprised:

  • Professor Peter Guthrie, University of Cambridge (Chair)
  • Professor Lora Fleming, University of Exeter
  • Dr Jan Gronow, Imperial College London
  • Dr Mark Haffey, Scottish Water
  • Mr Keith James, WRAP
  • Dr Ken O'Callaghan, Defra
  • Professor Simon Pollard, Cranfield University
  • Dr Dave Spurgeon, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
  • Professor Ian Thompson, University of Oxford
  • Professor Mark Tibbett, Cranfield University
  • Dr Jim Wharfe, Environment Agency
  • Professor Paul Williams, University of Leeds
  • Professor John Zhou, London South Bank University

The following documents and links are related to or give more information about this programme.

Resource Recovery from Waste Science & Implementation Plan (PDF, 389KB)

Policy and practice note: Making the most of industrial wastes: Strengthening resource security of valuable metals for clean growth in the UK (PDF, 842KB)

Policy and practice note: The organic waste gold rush: optimising resource recovery in the UK bioeconomy (PDF, 988KB)

Resource Recovery from Waste - Workshop 24 July 2014, etc.venues Paddington, London

A one-day workshop for the Research grant holders of the programme was held in July in Central London. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together the Research Grant projects recently funded under the Resource Recovery from Waste programme in order to discuss how we will ensure that the programme goals are delivered.

The meeting provided an opportunity for the projects to learn more about NERC, ESRC and Defra's aspirations for the programme and the expectations for programme-wide coordination and Knowledge Exchange.

There was an opportunity for the project teams to learn more about the requirements for data management, both at the programme and individual project level, and the support that the Environmental Information Data Centre (EIDC) can provide.

Workshop agenda (PDF, 135KB)

Workshop attendees (PDF, 76KB)

The following introductory presentations were given:

Overview of the programme (PDF, 1.1MB), Jim Wharfe

Data Management (PDF, 694KB), Jonathan Newman EIDC

ESRC Energy-Environment-Food Nexus Network (PDF, 1.7MB) - Rose Cairns, Sussex

Programme-wide Coordination and Knowledge Exchange (PDF, 176KB), Lizzie Garratt

The following presentations were given by the project Principal Investigators:

In situ recovery of resources from waste repositories (PDF, 863KB) - Devin Sapsford

Beyond Biorecovery: environmental win-win by biorefining of metallic wastes into new functional materials (B3) (PDF, 618KB) - Lynne Macaskie

Developing a suite of novel land conditioners and plant fertilizers from the waste streams of biomass energy generation (PDF, 1.1MB) - Nicholas Ostle (Kirk Semple)

C-VORR: Complex-Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery (PDF, 847KB) - Phil Purnell

Resource Recovery and Remediation of Alkaline Wastes (PDF, 3.6MB) - William Mayes

Resource recovery from wastewater with Bioelectrochemical Systems (PDF, 1.5MB) - Ian Head

Resource Recovery from Waste - Workshop 25 June 2013, RSA, London

A one-day guidance workshop for the Catalyst grant holders of the programme was held in June in Central London. The purpose of the workshop was to inform the grant holders on the expectations for the Research Grant stage, to give grant holders an opportunity to ask NERC and the Science Advisory Group questions, and to provide a networking opportunity between the grant teams and invited stakeholders.

Workshop agenda (PDF, 104KB)

Workshop attendees (PDF, 291KB)

The following project posters were displayed at the workshop for each of the funded Catalyst Grants:

Nutrient recovery from waste: Identifying the path to responsible innovation (PDF, 216KB) - Professor Bruce Jefferson, Cranfield University

The potential to restore eutrophic freshwater systems in the UK with economic benefits (PDF, 683KB) - Dr Jagroop Pandhal, University of Sheffield

R3AW: Resource Recovery and Remediation for Alkaline Wastes (PDF, 1.8MB) - Dr William Mayes, University of Hull

Beyond Biorecovery: environmental win-win by biorefining of metallic wastes into new functional materials (PDF, 94KB) - Professor Lynne Macaskie, University of Birmingham

Bulk Use of Biomass and Co-fired Ash in Novel Binders (PDF, 998KB) - Dr Andrew Heath, University of Bath

ReBALAN:CE - Recycling Biomass to Agricultural LANd: Capitalizing on Eutrophication (PDF, 524KB) - Dr David Oliver, University of Stirling

Plant-mediated resource recovery-towards closing the waste water loop (PDF, 837KB) - Dr Andrew Singer, NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Recycling nutrient resources in waste for food security and environmental sustainability (PDF, 3.4MB) - Professor Stephen Smith, Imperial College London

In situ recovery of resources from waste repositories (PDF, 1.6MB) - Dr Devin Sapsford, Cardiff University

Resource recovery from wastewater with Bioelectrochemical Systems (PDF, 823KB) - Professor Ian Head, Newcastle University

C-VORR: Complex-Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery (PDF, 281KB) - Professor Phil Purnell, University of Leeds

Assessing the Environmental Costs and Benefits of Resource Recovery Approaches for Nanomaterials in Future Waste Streams (PDF, 650KB) - Dr Alistair Boxall, University of York

Transition of WEEE to the Circular Economy (PDF, 1.6MB) - Professor Susan Grimes, Imperial College London

Developing a suite of novel land conditioners and plant fertilisers from the waste streams of biomass energy generation (PDF, 1.1MB) - Professor Kirk Semple, Lancaster University

The workshop had three invited speakers, each giving a view from a different stakeholder perspective on recovering resources from a variety of waste streams so that PIs may understand where their research may add value and identify translation opportunities. Their presentations are available below.

Waste and resources, using the ecosystem services approach (PDF, 3.2MB) - Steve Albon, The James Hutton Institute

Waste and resources, a policy perspective (PDF, 775KB) - Ken O'Callaghan, Defra

Waste and resources, an industry perspective (PDF, 101KB) - Rod Kellner, Env-Aqua Solutions Ltd