New report is a wake-up call for the future

Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says a clear mandate is needed to deal with the UK’s waste in a post-Brexit world  

Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management

Barely a day goes by without the topic of waste and recycling hitting the headlines in one shape or form.

From Swindon Borough Council asking residents to put mixed plastic items in with regular waste, to the Lincolnshire farmer’s field with the “recycling mountain” that can be seen from space.

Even our crisps have come under fire after snack firm Walkers succumbed to a public campaign with more than 330,000 signatures to persuade it to recycle its crisp packets.

Now people can post the used crisp bags in envelopes to a recycling company – but isn’t that slightly missing the point? You’re simply creating more waste in terms of those envelopes which will now need to be recycled!

Personally, I applaud Swindon council for being bold enough to take that decision – after all, if there is no market for something, then why go to the trouble and expense of collecting it.

We don’t want to put householders off recycling, but we have to focus on recycling the right things – like plastic bottles – for which there is a valid market.

Sometimes you just have to recognise that some things were never designed to be recycled and for the sake of the environment, the Energy from Waste route is surely a sensible one.

For some of the possible scenarios (and potential solutions) to the UK’s waste problems, I recommend a report on Residual Waste in London and the South East just produced by Tolvik Consulting, which specialises in independent market analysis in the waste and biomass sectors.

It considered the final treatment destinations for the 10Mt of residual waste that was generated in London and the South East in 2017, and has projected this figure forward eight years to 2025.

The consequences make interesting reading, especially given that come March next year we will be faced with the prospect of finding a home for the four million tonnes of RDF waste that we are used to waving off merrily to our European neighbours.

If we’re not careful, no longer will we be the “dirty man” of Europe, we will be the “eh what rubbish?” man of Europe the “nothing to do with me guv” man of Europe.

In a post-Brexit world (presuming we ever get there), whether or not RDF exports will face a major reduction or a modest fall we don’t know, but what we can’t do is bury our heads in the sand, which seem to be the favoured approach by politicians these days.

A Central scenario suggested by the Tolvik Consulting report assumes that if there are modest increases in household waste recycling rates, a reduction in RDF export of 37.5% by 2021, and “additional” EfW capacity of 1.4Mt in place by 2025 – we could still face a cumulative shortfall of 4.66Mt in non-hazardous waste landfill capacity across London and the South East.

For the optimists among you, it suggests that if RDF exports fall only modestly and most planned large scale EfW capacity is developed in these key areas, then existing landfill capacity is likely to last until 2025.

For the pessimists – I’ll let you consider which category I fall into – if there is limited additional EfW capacity and a major reduction in RDF exports, then the capacity shortfall for landfill could be more than double the Central scenario.

Let’s think for a minute what that might mean.

The report says that whatever the assumptions, the south area (South London, Kent, East and West Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire) will almost certainly exhaust its non-hazardous landfill capacity before 2025.

In the short term at least, this is likely to see waste convoys joining our favourite car park – also known as the M25 – to the north of London for disposal. Tolvik Consulting estimates the additional costs for local authorities and waste management companies could be £10-20 a tonne, with the equivalent of at least an additional 20,000 vehicle movements each year.

As someone who spends enough time on the motorway as it is, the thought of fighting through even more traffic thanks to a problem of our own making is rather depressing, and I won’t even mention its impact on our nation’s carbon footprint or indeed the quality of the air we breathe!

So is it all doom and gloom and what are our options?

Providing additional non-hazardous waste landfill capacity is one solution, but I suggest this is something neither politicians or the wider public really want to see and I can guarantee the NIMBY army will be up in opposition sooner than you can eat (and post) a packet of crisps.

Developing more EfW facilities must be an option.

The report considers if, for example, there was a “zero landfill” policy across London and the South East, in which no residual waste would be sent to landfill by 2025.

To achieve this, even its “middle of the road” Central scenario suggests 4.7Mt of EfW capacity would be required over and above that which is currently operational in London and the South East.

That’s quite a wake-up call.

Of course there will be no single solution and like many things, I’m sure that if we threw enough money at the problem, worked together and took a willing and sensible approach, we would find a way.

I’m rather hoping that some new direction will come out of the Government’s new Waste Strategy, due to be published later this year.

My wish list is for politicians to start getting their heads around how much waste they are prepared to continue dumping on the rest of the world (for the time being at least) and how high a price they are willing to pay to continue to do so.

For with neither the landfill capacity nor the EFW capacity to cope with such huge tonnages of waste – and no firm mandate to deal with this problem – this still appears to be their favoured route.

And each day, because the waste industry does such a good job with ever tighter budgets, and our politicians awake each morning to clean streets and empty bins, we see the proverbial (and recyclable) tin can kicked ever further down the road.

Let’s grab that can and reprocess it in our own way, by developing a waste infrastructure that is self-sufficient, fit for purpose and will take us to 2025 and beyond.

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