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Big Interview goes live!

On September 14, Friends of the Earth (FOE) senior campaigner Michael Warhurst spoke to Paul about his views on energy from waste (EfW) from incineration and plastic recycling.

Paul Sanderson: “Do you believe in the waste hierarchy?”

Michael Warhurst: “Largely. There are always a few things which could be in different positions but I think the most important thing in the waste hierarchy is that it prioritises prevention, reuse, recycling in that order because once you get below that level you are not keeping things in the economy.

PS: “Why are you against combined heat and power (CHP) energy from waste plants when they are there as a way of creating low carbon energy?”

MW: “Well let’s go through a few different issues. The first is energy from waste, when I came into working full time on this five years ago, I thought energy from waste (EfW) meant getting energy from waste but what I have realised, despite all my best efforts, most people in the industry think EfW is another term for an incinerator. I think that’s pretty misleading as you can produce 100% renewable energy from waste through something like anaerobic digestion (AD) but most of the time when people talk about energy from waste it means incineration.

“Incineration is a very expensive technology and it requires big bits of kit which cost a lot of money which then has to paid off over a long period. So you are immediately dealing with a very impractical piece of infrastructure which will pull waste towards it for at least 25 years. You are also seeing a lot of European countries now with over-capacity. Consequently you will end up dealing with a situation which will freeze residual waste arisings meaning they will not be able to drop below a certain level.

“Also the actual emissions of CO2, compared with the electricity and heat you get out are not enough to make it a viable technology when you compare it with other methods of dealing with residual waste. If you look, for example, at Swedish research published last year if you stick plastics into an incinerator, you produce more fossil CO2 than if you put them into a landfill site.”

PS: “I am sure most people would agree that AD is a very important technology going forward but that only deals with the food waste. So assuming we are going to build a lot of AD plants around the country what would happen to the rest of the residual waste stream?”

MW: “The first thing is to look at what is in the residual waste. Most residual waste still contains some recyclates so you should make sure you have pulled all recyclates out of it, including the plastic. Any way of dealing with a residual waste stream should be flexible and looking to maximise recycling. What you are seeing is that there are actually some plants in the UK which are focusing on maximising recycling and removing it from the residual waste stream and then sending the remaining amount to landfill, which is much better than incineration.

PS: “What are we going to do with the plastics which we are still not able to recycle? Surely incineration is the best solution for them?”

MW: “A number of points. Firstly WRAP has been looking at mixed plastics and has said it is possible to develop markets for them. PVC has always been a problem and that is something which environmental groups have been saying for decades so you say ‘ok – what can you do?’ Well what we would do, rather than having a packaging recycling target for plastic of about 20% which is hardly going to redesign plastics recycling, you have to push that up. We have to make sure that packaging is recyclable and is being recycled. This system has been in place for a long time now. But as I was saying, if you have a mixed plastic which you simply cannot recycle you are far better putting it into landfill than burning it.”


On day two of the show, Paul interviewed Recyclebank (UK) managing director Sue Igoe together with Veolia Environmental Services deputy director Paul Levett about recycling incentive schemes in the UK.

PS: “In case anyone isn’t aware of it, tell us what Recyclebank is and how it works.”

Sue Igoe: “Recyclebank is a loyalty programme that motivates household recycling, based on a locally-based rewards programme. The majority of rewards in the programme are based in the local authority and therefore there is an additional benefit that your increased recycling is rewarded with things like gift cards that can be spent at local businesses so it is driving the local economy.”

PS: “Tell me why you think Windsor & Maidenhead and Halton councils have taken up the Recyclebank scheme?”

SI: “Well first and foremost I think both councils were looking at ways in which they could increase their recycling rates and then obviously reduce costs to landfill. They have both seen that, Windsor & Maidenhead has seen an increase in recycling of about 35% and Halton has had an increase in dry recycling of about 60%. In both councils also they were looking for something to give back and to recognise the residents within their councils for the work they had been doing.”

PS: “How do you measure its success?”

SI:: “Well success is measured in a variety of ways but we have some real core metrics that we look at. Obviously the increase in recycling is a big metric that we look at but we also look at things like participation in the programme. In the trials in Windsor and in Halton we are seeing upwards of about 60% of residents signing-up and also engaging, asking questions about recycling. So we do take into the metrics, the engagement levels. We also have metrics related to the reward partners that are in the programme.

PS: “Paul, Veolia have worked quite closely with Recyclebank on this project. How do you measure its success in terms of what you do within local authorities?”

Paul Levett: “One big measure of success is having an alternative to a penalty scheme. It is also about diverting waste from landfill and increasing recycling, as Sue said, and driving local authorities towards savings on landfill tax which finances the scheme.

PS: “How do you counter the argument that the scheme like this encourages more recycling at the expense of waste minimisation and re-use programmes which are higher up the waste hierachy?”

SI: “That is a theme which has come up recently and I think it is one that is very important to talk about. First of all the economics around the recycling scheme do not support waste consumerism. If you think about the value of an extra bottle of wine in terms of recycling that can never be matched by the reward points. But more importantly I think that when you look at the reward scheme and the way in which we are engaging residents and getting them to think about their actions it helps them think about what they are buying and consuming.

“Also these things work on a curve and that curve starts with rewards for recycling and making people aware of their consumption. But we do believe that the rewards programme works quite nicely with all elements of the waste hierarchy and if you look at what is going on in the States with Recyclebank you will notice that we work with re-use partners like Ebay and we also partner with people on the reduction site and we also launched our first waste minimisation scheme in Philadelphia this summer.

PL: “I would like to add that the cap on the number of points people can earn is a good deterrent to people cheating the system. They also act as a break on consumerism because if you did start throwing more away just to earn points then you would simply get to the maximum number of points much earlier on in the year and would then cease to earn anymore points.”

PS: “How soon might we see waste minimisation incentive schemes in the UK?”

SI: “I think as soon as we have partners here and local authorities that might want to see those programmes in their local communities then we are ready to deploy them.”

PS: “Do you plan to roll-out the Recyclebank programme with more local authorities?”

SI: “Yes. We have a very very strong pipeline and hope to announce more clients very soon.”

PS: “Paul when you are tendering for local authority contracts is Recyclebank something you automatically include?”

PL: “It is something we would automatically advocate and if local authorities were receptive to it we would tailor it to their individual needs.”

PS: “Is it right that governments should be promoting incentive schemes rather than letting councils decide whether to use the carrot or the stick?”

SI: “First of all Recyclebank is very appreciative to the amount of coverage the national government has given towards encouraging incentives but it is up to local authorities and we would look to them to see what works for them and that’s not always going to be Recyclebank.”

PL: “I don’t think this will be a party political issue going forward, we are always finding support for it at local authority level from all political parties.”

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