Why we must all commit to creating a true circular economy and stop our most important shared resource being the biggest waste

Water is the most important shared resource of all across the world, but also a vital resource of which collectively we consume – and waste - more than is sustainable. We also could reduce use, recycle more and re-use water in a much more sustainable way eg we do not consider the potential to use water treated to different standards for different uses enough.

Continue as we are and it is predicted demand could exceed supply by 50 per cent in just over two decades’ time. It is a quite alarming statistic, and one that must act as a call for major change.

Put simply, we are not careful enough – and certainly not clever enough – about how we use this all so precious commodity.

The importance of a Circular Economy

The question many ask is how can we change a world-wide mind-set and approach to water management? For large water-based privatised utility companies currently making steady profits, where is the drive to change things now?

Similarly, for UK citizens who on average use around 152 litres per person per day to consume, cook, wash and provide heat, but view water as an endless resource, how can the need for immediate change to protect long term environmental needs be made apparent and relevant?

It was an issue I considered when recently presenting at the Stockholm World Water Week in August, the annual focal point of global water issues, where the theme this year was “water and waste – reduce and reuse”. System-based thinking across the water cycle is absolutely fundamental to more sustainable water management.

It presented me with a great opportunity to address experts, practitioners, decision-makers, business innovators and young professionals from a range of sectors and countries, and share and foster together new ways of thinking to develop solutions to the most pressing water-related challenges of today.

As Director and Global Water Business Leader at Arup, I am responsible for all water-related business activity across the group and I passionately believe circular economy thinking – where intentional restorative and regenerative processes are designed and introduced to consider conservation of water, reuse, recycling, reduction of waste, renewable energy and elimination of toxins - is key.

I took the opportunity to explore with this influential audience how we may be able change the mind-set of water management from a linear to circular approach, providing real benefits across the food-water-energy nexus.

The current ‘end-of-life’ concept of water management certainly has to come to an end itself and more enlightened ‘circular’ based thinking is emerging across and within the water cycle.

Time for organisations to use a ‘water lens’ and examine processes and systems

Developing the circular economy in the privatised and public water sector requires a coherent vision and understanding of how it can deliver value, and at Arup we are urging the organisations we work with to apply a ‘water lens’ when examining their own processes and systems. By this we mean that they must always look at how they reduce water usage and reuse it, looking at whether they can introduce improved design of materials, products, systems and business models which help reduce the use and waste of water.


When speaking in Stockholm I took the opportunity to highlight how we at Arup have forged a global strategic partnership with the Ellen McArthur Foundation, a British registered charity which aims to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a positive future through the framework of a circular economy.

With the Foundation’s steer, we are currently undertaking research to develop such principles and practices, specifically developing a focused water element to help plug knowledge gaps.

We are also drawing on a number of existing business models and frameworks (such as the Resolve Framework) to help give context, usability and practical applications for our clients in the built environment. This is happening on a large investment project for which we are working with University College London (UCL), for the development of their East Campus, where we are applying the broad application of water circular economy principles.

Our own Design With Water Framework has also been developed to highlight how water management now has to be considered and integrated as part of the water cycle. It addresses critical issues relating to resilience, flood risk, water supply and wastewater treatment and focuses on the benefits of placing a re-integrated water cycle at the heart of sustainable planning, design and delivery. We believe water management can be much more sustainable across the world.


Could this be what a water circular economy process looks like?

The drive towards greater sustainability

Private Sector Water companies wishing to remain profitable in a world with scarce resources need now start focusing on redesigning their business model to reuse as much materials as possible. They have an important role to play and the opportunity to review their products and services in line with what can be achieved. Where water is in the public sector these same drivers apply.

To do this they must all engage more fully with their local communities and other stakeholders across the water cycle who also have an important part to play, as the water cycle is a natural system, usually heavily modified by human socio economic activity, such as agriculture, urbanisation and the wider impacts of climate change.

Of course, the need for a clear understanding of the business case around developing a circular economy and water must be clear.


Water may not be the primary driver for all stakeholders in the planning and development of future community projects, and water-related actions may come forward as a result of other priorities, such as delivery of green infrastructure, improved amenities or climate change adaptation. But by formulating joint projects it can be possible to develop a scenario where objectives are aligned and costs are shared in proportion to the benefits returned.

Through this process of collaboration and joint-working, an overall shared case for action and investment can be created, and deliverable projects which maximise benefits to investors, the environment and wider society can be achieved.


It is, of course, important that whole life costs are considered when formulating projects and investment plans to ensure adequate budgets for ongoing operation and maintenance across the asset life cycle.

Great examples of circular economy thinking

A circular economy is an industrial system that considers conservation of water, reuse, recycling, reduction of waste, renewable energy and elimination of toxins.

The development of such systems fits hand in glove with our work and beliefs at Arup, as we focus our attention on helping to shape a better world through innovative design and engineering solutions, and what can be a better outcome than improving quality of life, reducing waste and protecting our most vital natural resource whilst creating jobs in communities across the globe?

We recently worked for Del Monte in the Philippines to create a new plant which treats wastewater  from pineapple washing and processing with an anaerobic reactor. The anaerobic plant now ensures waste water from the pineapple washing and processing areas is treated to lower the contaminant levels. That water is then passed to the existing plant, where further treatment takes place before being discharged, and gas generated from the anaerobic process is captured for future use. The gas is then fed to new combined heat and power engines to produce electricity. This has enabled Del Monte to stop using their existing coal fired power station, enhancing robustness of their plant during the frequent periods of power outage, reducing operating costs at the same time.

There are already many other great examples of best practice from across the world, where ‘district-wide’ approaches are reaping the greatest benefits.

Take the Solaire building in New York, which recycles 750,000 litres per day of its wastewater, reducing water demand by 50 per cent, water discharge volume by 60 per cent and significantly lowering the building’s energy demand.

VCS, a utility company in Denmark, has built a wastewater plant that produces 110 per cent of the electricity required to run its processes, with the excess electricity sold back to the grid.

In Singapore, a circular economy is evident on a city-wide scale, as 30 per cent of the water demand is provided by recycled wastewater, whilst The Celsius City Project, in Cologne, is using technology to extract heat from water flushed down the drain into the city sewers. This heat is being used in local schools and gyms and it is estimated that the first plant will generate enough kilowatt hours to heat 70 family homes.

On an industrial scale, the Pearl gas-to-liquid plant in Qatar recycles 450,000m3 of water a day, equivalent to 50 per cent of the total demand of the country, whilst at product level, the company Aquafresco, a Boston-based start-up, has created an appendage to a washing machine that recycles 95 per cent of its water and detergent.

All are living and working examples of the circular economy in use, but this is very much still very much an emerging discipline.

It is no longer an ideal, it is an economic, environmental and moral necessity.

The next steps

There is a great opportunity to take advantage of emerging technologies and best practice examples for organisations to adopt a circular economy approach to help to conserve water and importantly increase efficiency significantly.

There are glaringly obvious issues to tackle at national and local levels first. Agriculture accounts for around 70 per cent of global freshwater use, yet only 40 per cent actually reaches water treatment plants, whilst an estimated 3.3 billion litres of water are lost daily in the UK due to leaky pipes - a common problem faced by most water companies with ageing infrastructures and an opportunity to rethink design with saving and reuse in mind.

But on a wider scale, utilities could not just purify, deliver, collect and treat water, but could also extract and sell resources from wastewater. Wastewater plants could become bio-refineries accepting a wide variety of organic materials converting them to useful products.

At Arup, we are committed to helping shape a better world and are keen to see collaborative and innovative approaches deliver best practice to ensure the precious resource of water becomes ever more sustainable.

Water management needs greater governance and regulation

Whilst design and engineering expertise is key to change, so is clear governance and regulation, as many existing frameworks for water management fail to offer specifics on how natural and man-made assets should be developed, procured, designed, constructed, operated, maintained, repurposed and integrated to help shape a better world.


We believe a dedicated water framework of understanding is needed, together with a set of guiding principles for the design, engineering and construction in the sector as well as the integrated management of existing natural and man-made water infrastructure across the water cycle.


This will need to focus both on the economic business case and the opportunities to develop new ways to design and deliver projects. Such a framework would also help to drive innovation opportunities across industry.  In doing this, governments and organisations that invest in future proofing and protecting the interests of all will also achieve significant efficiencies.

It is my firm belief that our wasteful economy can be replaced by a circular, restorative approach where we no longer consider anything to be ‘waste’ and in which we value water and manage it in a much more sustainable way.


Water is key to our future prosperity, and together, with longer-term thinking, we can achieve a water wise world.

By Dr Mark Fletcher (FICE, FCIWEM, FGS), Director and Global Water Business Leader, Arup


Mark featured here with a portrait of Arup’s founder – Ove Arup


About Mark

Mark is responsible for all water and flood risk related business activity across Arup and has advised at a regional, national and trans-national level. He has delivered key note speeches at Stockholm World Water Week, International Water Week in Amsterdam, Singapore International Water Week as well as CoP21 in Paris and CoP22 in Marrakech.


He was appointed by the Royal Academy of Engineering as Visiting Professor in Engineering Design for Sustainable Development and in 2014 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Bradford University for his work promoting sustainable water management.


Mark is on the Leadership Council of UK Water Partnership. He was also Project Director for the BCIA Award Winning Bradford City Park. He has been responsible for Amp Frameworks with UK water companies from Amp2-Amp6 as well as national frameworks with the Environment Agency.


He is also a Board Director of the Water Industry Forum and is on the Policy Group for the Alliance of Global Water Adaptation (AGWA). AGWA includes US State Dept, Dutch Govt, World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, UNFCCC and Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) amongst its members. He is on the Organising Committee for Singapore International Water Week 2017.


He won the Engineering Council Natural Environment Award and the Leadership Award for Outstanding Contribution to Water Efficiency from the World Water Leadership Congress.


He has presented to the senior executives across the Australian water sector on the issue of public and private governance around water. He is also actively engaged in the shaping and messaging of adaptation implementation around the CoP22 agenda and advises on the development of blue and green cities and the Future of Urban Water including London, Leeds, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Manila, New York and Los Angeles.

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