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Cambridge cleantech sector talks trash as sustainable economy beckons

Alex Murray of Flit, the Cambridge electric folding bike company, outside the Trinity Centre for Cambridge Cleantech day. Picture: Vanessa Champion
Alex Murray of Flit, the Cambridge electric folding bike company, outside the Trinity Centre for Cambridge Cleantech day. Picture: Vanessa Champion

The annual Cambridge Cleantech gathering took place at the Trinity Centre last week against a backdrop of increasing commitment to a sustainable economy.

Around 160 delegates attended the fifth annual conference, titled ‘Futures 2019: The Role of Clean Growth, Innovation and Sustainability’. The day’s proceedings were divided into four topics: trends, smarter cities, clean growth opportunities and future opportunities.

The morning’s first keynote was an engaging appeal from the British Antarctic Survey’s Dr Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley to work towards a 1.5-degree future. “Is there one achievable next step you can commit to and lead on to achieve net zero?”, she asked the audience.

The trends segment looked at technology innovation for water, and the key role engineering design has to play in future technology.

The smarter cities section saw Dr Fabio Galatioto of Connected Places Catapult – a new organisation which combines the Transport Systems and Future Cities Catapults – suggest that all lorries should be dual-powered: petrol/diesel for longer journeys, electric for the city. There are commercialisation prospects in this space, of course – though the reality is that the haulage sector is going to have be radically reinvented to avoid all fossil fuels.

Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez Recycling & Recovery, then spoke about the opportunities waste offers. As long as it isn’t burned.

He said: “We’re burning nearly 1million tonnes of waste a year because you’re not recycling properly – CocaCola doesn’t want bottles covered in newspaper or gunk.”

Dr Read is a fan of the ‘Uber for trash’ model in the US – where technology is used to collect and track trash from pickup to drop-off at a local farm where it is then converted to soil. Dr Read also wants colour coding on every product sold to ensure that it gets recycled in the appropriate bin.

Karla Jakeman, connected transport innovation lead at Innovate UK, confirmed that the sector is in a good place. “For every £1 we’ve invested, we’ve seen a return of £6 or £7,” she told the audience. Innovate UK has £25million to spend in the sector in an open bidding challenge.

“Everyone here is so passionate about what you do, you can feel that,” she said. And indeed – other than the politicians, who were merely politely received – everyone at this event shared the passion of getting things done as a collective.

Speaking about the challenges in the UK at the moment – which include building global systems in a country flirting with a no-deal Brexit – Dr Read said in a coffee break: “We have to get on with the things we can control and not worry about things we can’t.”

Feedback about the event was enthusiastic.

“Struck by how much of the Cleantech Futures Day centres on such basic stuff – air, water, heat,” said attendee Elisabeth Klaar. “Behind the high-tech cleverness are some really fundamental – and exciting – problems.”

“It’s my first time at a CCT event, and I really enjoyed it,” said Chris Pointon of Cambridgeshire Climate Emergency.

“It’s a full house,” said Cambridge Cleantech chairman Hugh Parnell. “There have been a lot of questions from the audience, including what should we do about the climate emergency?”

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