Going with the Flow: Opportunities in Leicestershire’s nutrient streams

John Ingram and Aidong Yang facilitating a breakout session
John Ingram and Aidong Yang facilitating a breakout session

One of the first Sprint projects of the Agile Initiative at the Oxford Martin School explores opportunities for nutrient recovery from ‘waste’ products in the UK, with a focus on Leicestershire County.

As part of this 12-month collaborative effort between the University of Oxford, Leicestershire County Council, Brunel, Lancaster and 3Keel, and other local and national stakeholders, the Sprint held an initial consultative meeting on 5th July 2022. Attendees from across Leicestershire County’s ‘nutrient space’ met to determine priority nutrient flows, examine the current waste management situation, and discuss opportunities and potential trade-offs to transformation.

The consultative process resulted in a greater understanding by the Sprint team of the rich and complex nature of the County’s waste management profile across multiple nutrient flows from sources such as farmyards, households, manufacturing, and the retail environment.

Discussions focussed on the potential to divert nutrients from landfill and incineration, who the end users of nutrients might be, and the incoming and outgoing flows from the county. The complexity of the system was clear from the conversation. . The wealth of technical and business strategies that could be adopted in the organic waste management space that are both economically beneficial and more environmentally and socio-economically benign were also highlighted.

The shift towards reconfiguring waste from risk to resource was a central point of the consultation. Changes in the global food supply chain driven by factors like climate change and conflict are inviting a rethink of food-related policies at national and regional levels. This vital shift will help drive transformation in how the vast amounts of waste produced by humanity’s various endeavours is managed.

Concerns like difficulties in institutional coordination, misalignment of policies across scales and process changes in light of regulatory limitations were also examined, alongside the technicalities of managing vast amounts of nutrient-laden material.

The outcomes from the day demonstrated that not only is ‘waste’ a value-ridden and contested word but that there is great opportunity in complexity. Understanding the opportunity spaces in nutrient recovery will not only deliver gains across the UK’s bio-economy, but also be an essential component of re-orienting food systems in a more resilient, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable direction.