Two “big hitters” of the waste and recycling sector, David Palmer-Jones and Ian Wakelin, kicked off this year’s RWM event at Birmingham’s NEC on Wednesday (12 September).
The discussion started positively, with Suez’ chief executive, Mr Palmer-Jones, describing the current climate as a “fantastic opportunity” in terms of public and government awareness of issues affecting the sector.
“Never before have I been so optimistic for our industry,” he said.
And, Mr Palmer-Jones pointed to Blue Planet, and environment secretary, Michael Gove, for putting the environment at “centre stage”.
This optimism was shared to some extent by Mr Wakelin, chief executive of Biffa, who pointed to a “series of radical changes” for the industry. However, he was quick to raise concerns about waste treatment infrastructure.
In terms of the energy from waste “deficit”, he said: “Something desperately, desperately needs to happen and I think that reality as well is pressing on government policy to take some action.”
Citing Brexit, the Chinese restrictions and political uncertainty, Mr Wakelin said he believed the industry would undergo a “major transformation and be in a better place in five years’ time than it is currently”.
But, he warned that there is potential for the UK to “sleepwalk into a problem and then panic”. To counteract this, Mr Wakelin called for “clarity around what form of infrastructure this country needs”.
He also spoke of the “meaningful and necessary role” that landfill has in waste treatment infrastructure. Without it “we would be in absolute chaos,” he stated.
In terms of Brexit, Mr Wakelin raised the possibility that, if a hard Brexit is implemented, the UK could be faced with a surplus of refuse derived fuel (RDF).
“Frankly, if you can’t ship RDF to Europe after March next year, it will all stay here and the only place it can go is into a landfill.”
Both chief executives agreed that extended producer responsibility (EPR) has a “critical” role to play in improving the recycling of materials.
Mr Palmer-Jones called for “strong policy” and a “systematic change” to the way the recycling system is funded to feature in Defra’s resources strategy.
Describing EPR as a “game-changer” he said that due to the design of the packaging it is “too late” by the time materials reach Biffa and Suez, and that the companies “struggle” to deal with them.
“We have to move from the end of pipe policy that we have been obsessed with for the last twenty years,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by Mr Wakelin who warned that “unless something happens with extended producer responsibility I think recycling in this will go virtually nowhere.”
“Somebody has to pay for us to get from 45% recycling to let’s say 65% recycling,” he added.
Mr Palmer-Jones also raised the possibility of a “virgin plastic tax” to create demand for recycled material in the UK. This could stimulate demand for recycled content in the “short-term” he suggested, before EPR is implemented.
“We want those materials in the UK. I don’t want to send them abroad, and necessity has driven that, as we have offshored our industry and infrastructure.”
However, Mr Wakelin suggested that overseas markets are still important. “I don’t believe for most recycling materials, the UK will ever become self-sufficient,” he said.
“I just don’t think we’ll create enough manufacturing demand, particularly on paper, to consume all of the recycling paper that we generate in the UK.” And, he described the sale of recovered materials to global markets as “a very credible and right thing to do”.
However, he added: “On plastics, I think we can go an awful lot further on becoming self-sufficient.”
Currently, there is around 15-20% recycled content in milk bottles, a large amount of which comes from Biffa’s Redcar plastics plant, he said.
In terms of boosting the recycled content, he explained: “We can’t get our hands on the material at a commercial rate to compete with the overseas market. If there was an obligation on bottle manufacturers to put 40% recycled high density polyethylene as an example into milk bottles, all of a sudden the economics of that would change enormously.”
Mr Wakelin seemed optimistic that an initiative such as this “could happen”.