OPINION: In the wake of recent mentions of waste policy in Westminster, Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, reflects on the need for careful thinking and alignment in the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy.
They say a week is a long time in politics and so too it seems in recycling and waste management. Over the last few days we’ve had predictions of future figures evidencing a total “collapse in recycling rates” and the proposed suspension of recycling of some plastic grades by several councils. Added to this is a resumed debate, at a senior governmental level, over residual waste treatment infrastructure needs, and advice was also issued to local authorities about “direct-selling” secondary commodities.
This range of issues shows just how complex our sector is, and how connected it must be with a variety of other value chains and markets. Given this level of complexity, there is often the potential, however, that public discussion of the issues facing our sector can become a little simplistic, and fail to acknowledge the full context of the challenges we face.
At SUEZ, we have spent the last few months working through a series of workshops with the whole (or elements) of various value chains to understand what interventions are necessary and how they should be applied through the resources and waste strategy. At the same time, we have undertaken a piece of detailed data analysis to understand how some of these ideas might actually impact on the volumes and treatment routes of some of the high profile waste arisings.
For instance we have modelled, at an English district level, waste arising by material commodity (for example paper, metals and plastic) and by what is currently declared as ‘collected for recycling’, as well as our best estimates of the volumes of these key materials that still form part of the residual streams for each authority.
We have then considered the potential impacts of recycling targets applied commonly to all, as well as differential targets, based on each authority’s relative opportunities and constraints to recycle (SUEZ refers to this as a local authority “DNA”), which considers factors like rurality, ethnicity, density of housing etc.
Having done this, some key elements fall out, namely:
- By 2035 the sector will need to have added more than 6 million tonnes of new recycling capacity for municipal waste alone, with nearly half of this tonnage coming from new waste arising with population and GDP growth, and the remainder from better “harvesting” of materials that are currently in the residual waste stream;
- That much of this new recycling capacity will require strong offtake routes to support the market or create new ones;
That achieving an average recycling rate of 65% will require “over-performance” by a number of local authorities; as well as by much of the commercial and industrial waste sector, and a reduction in material losses throughout the whole value chain;
- That an average 65% recycling rate requires a reduction in waste production (prevention and minimisation) in excess of that achieved through the diversion of waste from residual to recycling;
- That we still need many millions of tonnes of new energy from waste capacity to be built to deal with current waste still going to landfill (which is closing and is becoming increasingly expensive) and new residual waste arising from population and GDP growth. These will be transition facilities helping the UK evolve over 20-30 years from our current performance to one where over 70% of our materials are recycled and only 5% is landfilled.
- That consistency in recycling materials collection needs more certainty in terms of value distribution and market offtakes which will require significant detailed thinking about the introduction of extended producer responsibility and full net cost recovery.
Not only do we need to look forward to 2035 and beyond, but we must do the hard thinking and initial work today to deliver a technically, socially and economically viable transition to where we need to be. So in the same way as making sure we don’t ask deprived inner city areas to try and achieve the same recycling target as affluent suburban ones, when they don’t have the uplift from green waste, we must also ensure that policy delivers offtake markets for recycled materials in parallel with increases in their harvesting from waste producers; and that takes strategic planning and clarity of policy and intervention.
For consistency in waste collection there needs to be more consistency in the products sold into the market as well as more certainty on where the recycled materials will be actually recycled and how the cost of collection will be balanced with producer responsibility, with coordinated communications and new infrastructure, and with the commodity value itself.
It’s clear that Defra’s waste and resources plan needs to carefully craft a system of integrated interventions, including those proposed by other Government departments and those that will arise from the consultation on Extended Producer Responsibility, deposit return schemes and new packaging recycling targets in the coming months.
It is paramount that careful sequencing is required to ensure that the various parts of the multiple value chains involved are aligned at the right times to prevent failures like materials collected for recycling not having a market use, or residual waste going to landfill because we don’t have the right EFW infrastructure operational in the right places or at the right times.
‘Whole system view’
Finally it is the responsibility of all sectors to take a whole system view, and consider the transition periods, to ensure that all those we seek to inform have the best context and necessary facts at their disposal when difficult decisions need to be made, and when behaviours need to become aligned. A week may be a long time in politics and waste, but sadly not long enough to resolve the many complex challenges facing, not just our sector, but all those who want to see the UK transition to a sustainable economy.