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A flexible future

Mike Webster

Think back to 1985: a world without the internet, Duran Duran topping the charts and the miners’ strike. The waste sector’s focus was on cutting costs, with privatisation of collection high on the political agenda, and co-disposal to landfill still the option of choice for most municipal waste.

Things have changed a lot during the past quarter of a century, with the mainstreaming of recycling and a host of new collection and disposal technologies. So how easy would it be for a waste manager from back then to predict where we are today?

With the lifespan of new waste infrastructure being around 25 years, this is effectively the question that is being asked today. This shift to a ‘predict and provide’ stage of waste to resource management is seeing a growing need for accurate forecasts of the volumes and composition of future waste streams.

As we move towards a resource economy, where waste is not simply discarded but is either a raw material for secondary manufacturing or a fuel for energy-from-waste solutions, specifications begin to matter much more than they ever did before - whether in terms of levels of contamination, volume, calorific value or other measures.

But there are already indications of the difficulty of this kind of forecasting. Modelling by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)already predicts that, by 2020, there will be an overcapacity of municipal residual waste treatment capacity by 715,000 tonnes a year. This prediction could even be an underestimate because it assumes waste growth which currently is not happening, and a maximum recycling rate of 50%. South Oxfordshire is, for example, currently claiming a rate of almost 70%.

Other commentators share this view. At a meeting of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group in July, director of consultancy Eunomia Dominic Hogg suggested that we might already be getting there: “If the Government says it wants a zero-waste nation, we need to understand how much residual waste treatment capacity that will require. And if more is done to enhance recyclability of materials, there will be even less residual waste treatment capacity needed. We have to ask the question ‘when will we have too much?’ because we might get there soon with what we’re planning.”

“What will feed our anaerobic digesters and keep the lights on?”

This overcapacity has already been reached in a number of European countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, where waste is routinely imported. According to the Dutch Waste Management Association, Dutch incinerator operators face a 500,000-tonne waste shortage this year due to the recession and the recent commissioning of new lines. The government has responded by reclassifying nine incinerators as recovery operations as under EU waste shipment rules. Countries cannot import or export waste for disposal but they can for recovery.

Meanwhile, in recent months, several ministers in our coalition Government and the devolved administrations have underlined their commitment to zero waste. The highest profile of these was Defra environment minister Caroline Spelman, who said the Government wanted to create a “zero-waste economy” and hinted it would set a higher recycling target for England than its current 50% by 2020.

So what is zero waste? A term that can mean different things to different people, it is neatly summed up by Jo Knight of Zero Waste New Zealand: “I often describe the aiming for zero as a total quality management term - it’s like zero workplace accidents and zero road deaths. People need to set their face towards zero [because] without that target, everything suddenly lands in the ‘too hard’ basket.”

This emphasises zero waste as being fundamentally a dynamic, ongoing process of movement up the waste hierarchy, where opportunities to reduce, reuse or recycle more of what is currently being disposed of are always being investigated through means such as the developments of new end-markets or new reprocessing technologies, eco-design or policy instruments.

So the stage is never reached where you are recycling ‘enough’, have reduced overall waste arisings ‘enough’ or are recovering ‘enough’ energy. Theoretically, this approach should be strengthened by the enshrining of the waste hierarchy in the Waste Framework Directive and the transposition into UK law.

But is there a conflict between the shift towards this resource economy and the zero-waste agenda? It is, ironically, a question largely absent if landfill has a greater degree of flexibility as to what goes in and no ‘need’ for tonnage: the more waste produced, the more quickly it fills; the less produced, the slower it fills.

But the evidence from Europe supports what could be described as the well-rehearsed ‘feeding the dragon’ argument: incinerators create a demand for residual waste and hold back progress towards zero waste. And perhaps this argument could even apply on the way up the hierarchy. If prevention and reuse are preferable to recycling, then we should always be looking for opportunities to substitute the latter with the former, as well as moving away from disposal and recovery.

There’s an argument that any type of waste or secondary resource plant, built under contract on behalf of a municipality, creates a demand not only for residual waste but also for recyclate, either through minimum tonnage requirements or equivalent minimum payments - and this disincentivises waste prevention. And might this even include materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and composting sites?

Centralised composting sites, in many cases, depend on garden waste that could be better dealt with at home. MRF operators, ultimately, depend on the level of householders’ consumption: the more they consume, the more recyclables they produce. And it begs the question - what is our waste for? Looking forward several years, what if a future ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign magically abolished all food waste from the nation’s bins? If anaerobic digestion, alongside incineration, becomes a foundation of the nation’s electricity generation mix, in a future where energy security is key, then do we prevent the waste or keep the lights on?

Are waste prevention campaigns currently tolerated by the waste sector simply because it sees them either as fundamentally ineffective or because we are still so far away from zero waste that any waste prevention is seen as making no real difference?

So zero waste dictates that we can never rest and declare that we have found sustainable resource nirvana. But having a range of technologies and solutions at various points on that hierarchy might increase friction in that eternal push to the top of the waste hierarchy - technological lock-in, if you like. We could end up in a situation where a certain amount of waste is simply acceptable, and the interests against zero waste are simply too great to result in any meaningful driver for further reduction in arisings.

But enough of this blue-sky thinking. We still live in a country where each inhabitant produces their own weight in household waste every seven and a half weeks, with much still going to landfill, looming targets to reduce this and ever-tightening budgets.

Cost-effectiveness and reliability will remain priorities for those at the sharp end, so perhaps flexibility should be the watch-word, with a preference shown for technologies that can scale down capacity as recycling rates increase (for example, as food waste collection spreads) or waste volumes decrease (as has happened in the recession), with approaches based on the best resource efficiency and climate performance.

This will probably be more expensive, but perhaps it is a premium worth paying to ensure that we do not end up stuck with white elephants in the future. And to ensure that we are able to choose the best environmental options for dealing with our waste
now, and in the future.
This is Mike Webster’s final column as Waste Watch senior consultant, as he moves to textile recycler TRAID mid-September to take up a role as development officer

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