Measures of recycling should be changed from a focus on the quantity of recycling to one of quality of recycling, according to specialists in resource efficiency.
The call comes from Costas Velis, resource efficiency lecturer at the University of Leeds, and Paul Brunner, who invented material flow analysis, in a paper published in the journal Waste Management and Research.
The authors say the shift is needed because of an increasing global focus on climate change and resource efficiency, and it would be facilitated by “innovations, such as automated tagging and design for dismantling”.
Policy-makers have to take a more comprehensive view of recycling rates to make more informed choices, they argue.
The quantity-based measurement of recycling can be misleading, they claim. For example, in Europe much of what is recycled is exported to Asia, including almost 3.6 million tonnes of scrap plastic in 2012 and these exports disappear into a “sink” – as far as the EU is concerned. The paper claims the fate of the exported recyclate is unclear due to “poor law enforcement and insufficient quality control”.
Another issue is that quantative recycling measures are not specific enough. The authors want recycling metrics based on clear inputs and outputs, taking into account the fact plastics and metals are composed of different constituents.
They also call for harmony over metrics across the industry: “If you want to be fair and maximise the benefits to society and the environment, recycling processes should be measured over the same yardstick as all other waste management and resource recovery means,” the paper says.
It points out that highly efficient energy from waste plants can receive an R1 energy efficiency rating under the EU Waste Framework Directive which incentivises higher value recovery from waste. But, so far, the concept does not apply to evaluation of recycling.
The authors recommend certifying recycling once “a material stops being waste and becomes a commercially viable secordary raw material”. But they said existing legislation and voluntary agreements that could achieve this - such as EU end-of-wase regulations and UK Quality Protocols - were “excessively complicated”.
Alternative systems for certification should take into account the finite number of cycles of a secondary material, what happens to materials at the end of their recyclability, and the opportunity cost of other uses, such as in the nutrient cycle, they concluded.
Life cycle analysis and material flow analysis are seen as ways of taking these factors into account.