Nutrient recovery from waste: Identifying the path to responsible innovation

Lead Research Organisation: CRANFIELD UNIVERSITY
Department Name: Sch of Applied Sciences


The defining characteristic of all waste treatment is the utilisation of energy and chemicals to render discharges safe for both humans and the environment. Whilst public and environmental health must remain at the heart of waste processing, a paradigm shift in perception with waste streams viewed as a resource rather than a pollutant, is increasingly evident. The most challenging example of the under-utilisation of waste streams relates to nutrients as many nutrient rich waste sources are poorly managed.
It is timely to take up the challenge of nutrient recovery with renewed vigour as new solutions are emerging that can effectively enable recovery through a number of different pathways based around either biological, chemical or physical transformations. These innovations exhibit variation in the balance between the effort required to recover the resource (technology, energy, chemicals), the recovered material's efficacy as a nutrient source (bioavailability, plant uptake) and the impact on soil-water systems (ecosystem services). Consequently, we argue that a more strategic vision is required to understand the most appropriate balance between the needs of industry, the environment and human health. Such insights will catalyse whole system solutions that both deliver commercial opportunity and value, and engender the kind of adaptive capacity that our communities need for a resource efficient future.

The overall aim of this initiative is to develop a risk based decision analysis tool that informs selection of appropriate (fit for purpose) nutrient recovery route/s. The resultant tool will incorporate a tiered risk framework that will (a) characterise risks and uncertainties; (b) integrate socio-economic, human health, technological and environmental assessments; (c) reflect stakeholder preferences; (d) make use of qualitative and quantitative data; and (e) can be designed to incorporate weight of evidence techniques, options appraisal and uncertainty characterisation methods. This will be set in the context of an ecosystems services framework. The aim is then to investigate options over 5, 10, 20 and 30 year horizons through a series of stress tests based on industry standard scenarios. Ultimately this tool will inform near and long term strategic visions of responsible innovation based on the principle of least regret.

The aim of the catalyst stage is to develop the research grant application based on the above overall strategic aim. The initial objectives are to:
(i) Identify the key elements of the decision process so as to establish the required expertise, input data, its availability and gaps.
(ii) Set up (adjust) the core team and establish roles and responsibilities in preparing the bid for the later call based on (i)
(iii) Establish the associated end users and stakeholder groups that will interact with the core team during the later project.

A core team has been identified that provides the diversity of skills and expertise required to undertake such an activity and a work plan has been devised to deliver the required objectives. A key feature of our initiative is engagement with the full range of associated stakeholders from researchers, regulators, policy makers and industrial partners to ensure that the academic, regulatory and industrial benefits of our contributions are properly realised.

Planned Impact

Our activities during the catalyst phase will effectively prime a core group of stakeholders and potential research partners with the aspiration and value of the full project. In terms of the full project our research strategy will deliver substantive guidance, socio-economic value, and business opportunities for a number of beneficiary groups. Those tasked with developing strategies, and interventions around waste management will be able to specify processes, technologies and schemes with greater confidence in their suitability and understanding of their behaviour and impacts. Project outputs are also applicable to the regulatory regime as a catalyst for new thinking about incentivisation and stimulation measures.

Recent years has seen significant interest and investment in the 'Green Economy' with entrepreneurs and SMEs acknowledged as the primary route for realization of the vision. The consortium will not only generate knowledge and analytical techniques for such actors but will adopt an assertive outreach strategy to ensure that our contributions are targeted at those who are best placed to generate economic and social value. New business opportunities will be created through the identification of solutions fitting the responsible innovation criteria in terms of service provision, technology supply and application of nutrient rich products. The project will inform policy initaitives by embedding the work in an ecosystem services framework, thereby ensuring its relevance to Defra's "Ecosystem Approach" which has pioneered a common language for policy and development proposals in a whole system context. Our work will also prompt an intensification of research activity around those modes of nutrient recovery and reuse which the methodology prioritises. Research teams across the UK and further afield will find new knowledge generation challenges in both pure and applied fields.

A central facet of the Communication and Engagement Plan will be regular interaction with all stakeholders. Importantly, engagement across the network will comprise stakeholder-to-stakeholder as well as researcher-to-stakeholder interactions. A key part of this will be the link between policy and business ensuring the benefits of legislation that promotes the value of responsible innovation are appropriately framed. The long term aspiration is to see demonstration of responsible innovative solutions on the ground and as such the communication and engagement plans will guide the development of the assessment tool through every stage of its development to ensure such aspirations are realised.

A project web site will be developed and managed by a dedicated IT resource. The web site will also serve as the interface for the data repository enabling public access to the data collected and generated during the project via read only access. The team will also engage in more traditional activities such as open meetings, seminars, workshops, conferences and news releases that will be forwarded to all interested parties and distributed across a range of publication titles to ensure coverage to all potential stakeholder sectors through the appropriate national and international trade magazines.

Dissemination to the scientific community will be through papers presenting the latest results and findings from the project. We will also organise seminars given by the PDRAs and investigators, particularly at the stakeholder's premises to reinforce engagement. Whilst the specific delivery plan included in the full proposal will be costing during the catalyst phase an indicative cost of £15,000 is anticipated in addition to the directly allocated costs associated with the dedicated IT support. Responsibility for delivery of the impact plan will be taken on by the PI who will co-ordinate regular reviews to adjust to plan as required.


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