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Response to residuals will define us for decades

The recent and interesting articles on landfill bans by Paul Levett of Veolia address what will become one of the future defining issues in waste management with an impact on waste infrastructure for the next 30 years and more. The publication of the recent report by WRAP of The environmental, economic and practical impacts of landfill bans (Eunomia 2010) reviews the costs and benefits of banning a range of materials to landfill.  In context of the pending debate on landfill bans, I offer an alternative view to that of Paul’s.

We need to conserve existing landfill capacity to the maximum extent possible, while substantially reducing our dependence on it

With the issues of recycling and waste prevention now well and truly moving ahead in the UK, it is time to resolve the issue of residual waste for several reasons. Landfills will become increasingly difficult facilities to gain planning permission for. The UK planning system is increasingly sensitive to the concerns of local communities. We need to conserve existing landfill capacity to the maximum extent possible, while substantially reducing our dependence on it. We also need to achieve three specific outcomes with landfill bans, working in conjunction with the landfill tax - powerful but indiscriminating instrument - and other downstream policy instruments.

Firstly we must extend our ability to recover material resources embedded in residual waste. Anyone familiar with the recent Aldersgate Report Beyond Carbon: Towards a Resource Efficient Future (2010) or the work of Thomas Graedel and the UNEP Panel on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources will know of the growing crisis in international resource security and the implications this has for the UK economy.

We also need to reduce the passive emissions of methane from landfill. This is wasted energy and the source of odours which impact on local communities living near landfills. Given the supply shortage in the biomass sector for renewable energy production, a rare source of renewable heat and power, we need to start using the biomass resources that are going to landfill.

In terms of downstream policy instruments, we also need to challenge the dissipative nature of resource losses represented by mixed waste incineration. By introducing landfill bans for selected materials and certainly for biomass and metals, developing fuel standards for energy recovery from waste and requiring all residual wastes to be pre-treated prior to landfill or energy recovery, we will force further source segregation for the recycling of quality materials, increase the supply of other materials from residual waste, provide additional and cleaner fuels for energy recovery or materials for composting, substantially avoid landfill odours from landfill in the future and reduce the passive emissions of methane.

This is a compelling package of benefits and they far outweigh the practical but resolvable problems of such a policy shift. It will demonstrate that we really are, as a resource industry, a fundamental and central part of the circular economy that we have to become if we are to survive in a shifting global economy. It will also demonstrate to the public that we can fix the problems that concern them most, notably landfill odour and mixed waste incineration.  As the landfill tax hits £80 in 2014 the opportunity, with supportive measures, is now there to pay for the alternatives and deal at last with the vexed issue of residuals. How we deal with this challenge now will define the nature, capability and perception of our industry for a generation.

John Ferguson is a director of EcoideaM and Head of Strategy at Binn Eco Park, Tayside and ex-head of waste strategy at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency

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