OPINION: ‘Achieving waste and recycling targets through a zero-waste approach’

In this opinion piece, Chris Williams,  the chief executive of waste software company ISB Global, discusses how the government’s “uphill battle” to meet the next decade’s waste and recycling targets.

Chris Williams,  the chief executive of waste software company ISB Global

OPINION:  According to recent government statistics, the volume of waste recycled by local authorities in England decreased by eight percentage points between 2022 and 2023. This fall in recycling undermines the government’s own target to minimise waste and deliver a 65 percent recycling rate for all municipal waste by 2035.

In order to deliver the change necessary to create a fully formed circular economy, a complete cultural shift is required that overhauls how we think about and manage waste. This involves adopting a zero-to-landfill approach, placing greater emphasis on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and embracing the latest technological innovations.

Don’t just treat waste, eliminate it entirely

In the UK, the government uses the Waste Hierarchy model, which has been incredibly useful in helping us conceptualise how we can manage waste responsibly.

However, this structure has certain limitations, as it still accounts for instances where we cannot sustainably treat waste and disposal is the only viable course of action. We need to recognise that simply dealing with waste isn’t enough anymore – we have to aim to prevent any waste from occurring in the first place.

Replacing the current Waste Hierarchy with a model that prevents waste entirely would deliver by far the most benefit for the environment. Similarly, a zero-to-landfill approach – where all waste produced is either reused, recycled, composted, or sent to energy recovery – is easier to measure than a standard zero waste target and allows companies to manage their waste streams more effectively.

Make EPR a priority
If we are to truly transform the UK’s approach to waste management, placing strict regulations around EPR – legislation that requires manufacturers and producers to look at the entire life cycle of a product, from raw materials used to what happens at end of life – is an essential step.

In countries such as France and Germany EPR is heavily legislated, and in others (the UK for example) it’s more like ‘guidance’. We know that most businesses will only make the effort to change their practices when they face scrutiny – from customers, legislators, shareholders, or all three.

Therefore, the more that businesses are encouraged to take a more ethical and climate-driven approach, the more likely we are to have better, more sustainable and less wasteful products arriving on the market.

Transition to a more circular economy
According to sustainability charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy is upheld by three key elements: the elimination of waste and pollution, the circulation of products and materials, and the regeneration of nature.

This model can be applied to organisations of all sizes, and for individuals too, as it is regenerative by design. While the move to a fully functioning circular economy is a costly process, meaningful change is only possible with significant investment.

Ultimately, companies must look at all of their business and operating processes, from the raw materials they use to make their products all the way through to what happens to these same products at their end of life. Ensuring the final product isn’t simply discarded and can be put back into circulation is the first step to contributing to a more circular flow of materials.

Make use of new and emerging technology

There are a range of technological innovations that businesses and waste management and recycling companies alike can leverage to reduce the volume of waste they produce.

For example, waste management providers can rely on technology to weigh, sort and process the various types of waste, as well as sort the logistics of collections, manage secondary material streams and ensure compliance with local and national legislation.

None of the changes we need to make can happen without technology. Companies who want to reduce their waste must accurately collect, analyse and understand data to see where and how to make the necessary changes to their processes.

To do so, they must upgrade or replace their existing systems to provide more precision and in-depth analysis and insight. This improved granular visibility will enable them to cut waste levels and improve their efficiency as well.

Change needs to happen now
If the UK government is to stand any chance of meeting the waste targets set for the coming years, instant change is required. This begins by adopting a stricter legislative approach that incentivises both businesses and consumers to consider how they can reduce the volume of waste they’re responsible for creating.

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