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Cash for collections revives the industry conundrum

Jonathan Short

….on the Government’s changing position on waste collections

I heard with dismay that the Government is changing its position on waste collections. The main achievement of the waste review was the fact that Defra resisted calls to provide financial support for a return to weekly collections.

After recent news that no longer appears to be the case, and community secretary Eric Pickles’ soundbites about chicken tikka masala seem to have won the day and grabbed the headlines. The arguments against weekly collections are well publicised. Not only will they increases costs, but they will also materially damage recycling rates.

Our industry is at a crossroads. While companies continue to export a lot of waste to the Far East in the medium term, we all know that this will not be sustainable further down the line. We are going to need to develop a comprehensive and robust infrastructure, capable of processing all the UK’s waste - a full 360° industry.

Business is ready to invest in the technology that will make that dream a reality, but it clearly needs the financial returns to do so. Weekly collections will fatally undermine this process by moving resource out of the recycling bin and into the rubbish bin instead. For all the Government’s talk of its determination to move the UK to a low-carbon economy, this announcement screams otherwise. The recycling industry could be the foundation for a raft of growth in other sectors, but that future now appears uncertain.

“With new MRFs, it would be madness to ignore technology and separate collections”

The other great debate surrounding collections is segregation and, on this, opinion is far less united. At a recent meeting I had with a senior council decision-maker, he was unconditional in his belief that commingled collection represents the best solution. He pointed out that not only are consumers strongly in favour, but it will also save money - to the tune of £200m a year.

I’m told that 50% of councils have now moved to commingled and many others are considering following suit.

In those areas which have a new and sophisticated MRF, it would be madness to ignore technology and revert to separated collections. But not all areas have the most modern machinery, so having commingled collections where the MRF is not up to scratch can contaminate the waste stream.

All this suggests the solution would be to have a localised collection infrastructure, tailored to different MRF capabilities. But this creates confusion. Neighbours could find themselves working to contrasting regulations, recycling different items, all resulting in a loss of faith in the process.

A middle ground might be to move to an arrangement which uses a limited number of collection systems. This would provide
the greater standardisation needed by the industry while still allowing councils, waste management firms and residents some flexibility and choice. As the UK’s MRF capacity develops, the collection system can then be simplified.

Such standardisation need not be incompatible with localism. WRAP is working on developing five interlinked collection processes, while groups of councils are also starting to collaborate. Both are initiatives that the private sector will welcome with open arms.

Jonathan Short is founder and chief executive of ECO Plastics

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