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Transforming urban waste into sustainable material and energy usage: the case of Greater Manchester (UK)

Networked infrastructures such as waste, energy, water and transport are integral to sustainable urban transformation. They are closely linked to urban growth and underpin the economic, social and environmental performance of modern cities. At the same time places shape the transformation of such complex infrastructural systems. Effective waste management contributes significantly to public health, environmental sustainability and economic development and it is an inherently urban challenge. Combining insights from urban studies with research on ‘systems innovation’ and ‘sustainable transitions’, this paper deals with a transformation towards a more sustainable waste management system in an urban setting. More specifically, the paper describes how Greater Manchester (UK) underwent a transformation from a relatively simple landfill model to a highly complex, multi-technology waste solution based on intensive recycling and composting, and sustainable energy usage. The case is relevant because the UK has long been seen as a laggard when it comes to sustainable waste practices. The 1999 EU landfill directive exerted great pressure to change waste practices in the UK. Against the national trend of incineration with energy recovery, Greater Manchester opted instead for a solution that was deemed more innovative and sustainable, but which involved overcoming significant technological, political and financial challenges. The paper investigates the process that led to this purposive transformation, characterized by a mix of political vision, stakeholder engagement, economies of scale, and the ability of waste disposal managers to gather expertise, resources, political influence and commitment at multiple levels of governance.