OPINION: Brian Gist, head of TOMRA Sorting UK, shares his views on the potential impact of Brexit on the UK’s waste and recycling sector.
Michael Gove comes in for a great deal of flack, but he and his department deserve some credit for managing to launch the government’s new Resources and Waste Strategy – the first in more than a decade – against the volatile backdrop of Brexit negotiations.
Having digested the strategy, we now know that the launch was the easy part of the process. It’s how we, as a nation, achieve the strategy’s targets that will be the greater challenge. And doing so will be even more difficult because of Brexit – and almost impossible if we face a hard Brexit.
The UK is one of the EU’s top waste exporters, sending more than three million tonnes of refused derived fuel (RDF) a year to other EU countries who rely on it as feedstock material for Energy from Waste (EfW) plants. We also export an estimated 15 million tonnes of material annually for reprocessing, a significant volume of which is sent to EU countries. This is because at present there is not enough reprocessing capacity within the UK for this material and treatment costs are currently lower abroad so it makes sense from a financial perspective.
Alternatives to export
Whatever the outcome, Brexit may result in reduced export markets for both RDF and recyclables. If Brexit results in an export ban or if tariffs make exporting material more expensive, the UK will immediately have to find alternative avenues for the RDF and recyclables currently sold to EU countries.
The implications of this are vast. There certainly isn’t enough capacity or demand from domestic markets to deal with this volume of material here in the UK at present. So, do we send it to landfill, divert it to EfW plants, or simply stop collecting it in the first place? None of these routes will get us closer to achieving the new recycling targets set out in the new Resources and Waste Strategy!
So, what can the UK recycling sector do to prepare? In the short term we need to ensure that existing plants have access to replacement parts to keep them working at optimal performance. With almost every UK waste and recycling facility built using equipment that has been imported into the UK, it’s quite likely the supply of spare parts for these plants will be affected by Brexit. As 80% of the sensor-based sorting equipment in the UK is supplied by TOMRA Sorting, we have taken steps to address this threat.
Currently when our UK customers require spare parts for their sorting equipment, these are delivered to the UK from mainland Europe, with TOMRA historically holding only a small stock of spares in the UK. In preparation for Brexit, however, we have invested in brand new UK premises where €1m worth of spare parts will be available for immediate delivery to our customers, thus ensuring continuity in their operations. Our new premises are due to open in July.
In the longer term we need to enhance the UK’s recycling infrastructure to boost both capacity and output quality, but the uncertainty surrounding what will happen post Brexit is impacting on inward investment and plant building. The UK has a significant number of MRFs that are nearing the end of their expected working life and these plants will need to be upgraded or replaced by new plants if the UK is to meet exiting targets let alone meet the new targets. Only by investing in new plants will the UK be in a better position to significantly improve both the quality and recovery rates of municipal solid waste (MSW) and commercial wastes, where the capture rates required to hit the targets could be as high as 80%.
We need to accept that while upgrades to existing plants can – and do – result in significantly improved plant performance, the UK will have no option but to also invest in new plants to ensure we have the capacity to hit the new recycling targets set out in Gove’s strategy. But it’s not just about the volume of material we can reprocess. If an export ban or export restrictions mean we’ve got nowhere for the material to go, we need to find reprocessing markets here in the UK which will require the latest technology to deliver the very highest purity levels of recovered material for a rapidly developing UK reprocessing industry.