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Everyone needs to know their place in a zero-waste economy

Steve Smith

Steve Smith discusses what the influx of new reports mean for the materials sector.

A flurry of reports and strategy documents reached our desks mid-June highlighting plans to improve recycling and move towards a zero-waste economy. There was much advanced discussion about the waste review which, we now know, contains a number of commitments by the Government to support local authorities, business groups and other organisations but with little indication how these commitments are to be met.

Promoting the real value of products, and how we deal with them once they have finished their primary function, is essential. Getting people to understand that waste is a resource and treating it accordingly will require a significant public awareness campaign and attitude change - any spare cash around for that at the moment?

Quality is another issue. The development of long-term growth in multi-material markets will require generating consistent, high-quality output that satisfies reprocessors.

Last September I mentioned the Environment Agency’s new approach in auditing MRFs: improving the process to find out more information on the quality and quantity of input and output, and where different waste streams go and what happens to the waste streams when they get to their destinations.

“Understanding that waste is a resource will require a significant attitude change”

This is an attempt to reduce waste that includes poor-quality, contaminated or badly sorted materials. Poorly sorted waste streams are more at risk of being sent to landfill or illegally exported, and often there is a missed business opportunity with this sort of waste. This approach is to be developed into a Code of Practice by Defra to give confidence in the quality of UK recyclates and contamination levels. Defra officials are identifying ways to maximise uptake of the Code and it may be made mandatory.

The quality of materials also featured in the Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP) annual report, which was released on the same day as the waste review and was somewhat lost in all the other discussions.

Of the ACP’s 12 recommendations, a number highlight potential ways to achieve a consistent quality output. While the ACP recognised the need for councils to decide on the system and frequency of collections, it highlighted the importance of considering the needs of the industry in their specifications, particularly in respect to the quality of materials recovered.

WRAP has been asked to develop generic tender clauses to assist in this process. As around 75% of council collection contracts are to be re-tendered between now and 2020, this could provide a better way of attaining quality materials.

Another subject I have referred to before is the need to educate the whole supply chain when designing products or packaging. Getting manufacturers and retailers to specify the function of particular packaging should encourage designers to think of a wider range of designs and material use. But it does need sufficient input in the discussions from those at the end of the supply chain - the reprocessors - to ensure the most effective and efficient material recovery.

If we are to create a zero-waste economy, there needs to be greater commitment, guidance and direction to ensure that everyone involved knows how they can contribute effectively.

Steve Smith is director of SCA Recycling and president of the CPI’s recovered paper sector

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