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Where next for UK recycling?


  • Nick Cliffe, marketing manager, Closed Loop Recycling
  • Julian Heyworth, managing director, Meltog
  • Nicola Peake, managing director environmental services, May Gurney
  • Bevis Watts, head of business banking, Triodos Bank
  • Paul Sanderson, editor, MRW

Paul Sanderson: What is your overall view of the waste review’s terms of reference that was launched by the Government recently?

Bevis Watts: It’s very encouraging - there seems to be an emphasis on what I call ‘hearts and minds’. I think if we’re serious about acceleration, there needs to be a lot more resource put into that, and campaigns to encourage communities and businesses to recycle.

Nick Cliffe: The overall idea of a waste review is a great one, and most of the areas they seem to be wanting to focus on strike me as quite sensible. I think it’s a very laudable goal of heading towards a ‘zero waste’ economy, and the emphasis on making sure all the stakeholders views are represented is bringing together the good work done in the private sector, the great work that some local authorities have achieved, but also the emphasis on involving everybody, right down to individual householders.

Nicola Peake: The waste review talks about zero waste, and I hope we look at driving waste out at every opportunity. Once something is burnt via incineration we’ve lost it - although it’s recovered energy up to that point, I think we should look to drive waste down whenever possible. There is a value in the materials we recycle, and possibly one way to encourage more recycling is for waste management companies to offer free collections to businesses in return for collecting the valuable materials they currently throw away.

Julian Heyworth: It’s certainly very wide ranging, but I think where it’s a little light is in terms of helping smaller companies. They make up the largest part of the economy and I think that’s something we need to focus in on.

PS: One thing not mentioned in the review is landfill tax. Do you think we should consider whether landfill tax is effective and whether there should be an increase in the escalator?

NP: I think the landfill escalator is working. A few more rounds of escalation each year, and it will really start to force a mindset change among businesses and the public on what we’re doing with our waste and how to improve.

BW: But is it enough to motivate procurement of different services and get away from the ‘everything in one bin collected twice a week’ mentality?

“You almost want to make it a matter of pride to have these facilities in your area, particularly if you could link it back to the domestic economy”

NC: I suppose, from the perspective of business, you need the transparent information that allows you to see the economic benefits from doing a bit of work to reduce your waste bill as it gets higher due to the landfill tax. It would perhaps require some investment in how, as a business, you treat your waste stream, because then you can see the benefits that ‘I diverted x amount into my recycling bin’. Then, depending on the amount of work you put in as a business and volumes you produce, companies could potentially start to see their overall waste bills declining.

PS: Is the landfill tax set at the right level?

NC: Absolutely.

JH: If you’re a small business and you have half a tonne of waste per month, and you consider the costs of disposal, it’s not much. For most businesses, landfill tax is £20-£30 a month plus the cost of the wagon coming to take it away. Anything that costs sub-£50 a month is not worth bothering about. So there is further to go, but in itself just escalating it isn’t the answer.

PS: So should there be a communications campaign for SMEs to improve their recycling rates and, if so, who’s going to pay for it?

BW: That’s part of it, but it’s not enough. We’re talking about the need for mass communications at a much higher level than the ‘Recycle Now’ cartoon adverts that were aimed at the public. We need to make recycling at the workplace more prevalent because this will also encourage people to recycle more at home. But then we need something that will engage with SMEs. There have been a range of pilot schemes that haven’t worked and I don’t think subsidising collection schemes for SMEs is the answer. There needs to be a bit of stick and carrot, and the question for me is ‘what’s the carrot?’

JH: I think pure incentives are not the way to handle it. Like you said, communication and education - a lot of this is starting to come through anyway. Particularly as younger generations join the workforce, they are very much more aware of these sorts of things. Some of the things we used to dispose of 10-15 years ago, they wouldn’t dream of throwing away now. So I think there’s a social change in attitude coming through.

PS: If landfill tax is the stick for businesses, then is free collection the carrot?

NP: It’s an idea because I think it would tap into social responsibility policies for companies. We recycle at home readily, so why can’t we transfer that to work? Recycling collection must not cost a lot for a business in order to be an incentive. So if it’s easy for them and there is a price reduction incentive, plus the business is able to promote its social responsibility through saying what tonnages have been recycled and where it has gone to, then it is more likely to recycle. It is much like we’re seeing now in the collection of domestic waste with the end-use register, where we are able to say thank you to the householder for how much has been recycled and where it has gone to.

BW: If there is a very simple sort of logo or national emblem that could be ordered by contractors or SMEs to say ‘you’ve recycled 70%+ of your waste and you can stick that on your letterhead’, that would only be part of a wider package that would be part stick and part proof of achievement.

JH: I think that’s a very good point, because there’s an element of feel-good from that sort of thing by putting an emblem saying you are an excellent recycler on the letterhead. I don’t know if anyone particularly enjoys the act of separating recycling, but you don’t feel bad doing it and some recognition of that is all a business needs.

PS: One of the things that’s been under discussion for the past few years is getting local authorities more involved in collection of business waste. Should they?

JH: I think they should, because that’s the only way to collectively drive SMEs to engage more in the process. The problem at the moment is that business rates are completely divorced from waste disposal costs, unlike in the domestic side of things where you pay in council tax and as part of that for refuse collection. There could be a levy that could have some sort of decreasing scale depending on the amount that is recycled.

BW: Local authorities do have a role, because one of the major barriers to SME recycling is that it’s all individual - you’re all either reliant on an individual service or whatever the local authority provide. So I think they have quite a big role in providing a consistent service to industrial estates and so on.

NP: Having local authorities involved in collecting business waste would make a difference. Open spaces and dealing with the logistics of collecting in town centres is one of the things that come to mind. When you look at businesses, you have all manner of bin colours, shapes and sizes for their waste. Each business has a bin with a different waste contractor’s name on it, so more local authority involvement would help the quality of the visual environment.

NC: Walk down any street in London after six o’clock and it’s like a rainbow of different bags and services and multiple vehicles running down the same street. These are commercial waste collections from small companies. You don’t see that in residential areas, where economies of scale have been allowed to kick in. I definitely think there is room for a local authority to get more involved, if only because they’re responsible for the bins on the street that pedestrians are filling up anyway.

JH: Isn’t the problem what it would cost? And a hard-stretched SME is not going to be very willing to see a several percentage point hike in its business rates just to cover that. Someone’s got to pay for it at some point.

PS: We have made huge progress in encouraging recycling in the UK, but compared with the highest performing parts of Europe, we’re not at their level yet. How do we make that next step up to make sure we reach our 50% target?

NP: There are a lot of councils already achieving the targets, so I would question whether the 50% target by 2020 is challenging enough, but that’s another issue. I think there is an inconsistency of service and approach to collection across the country. I’m not saying we should give policy direction about exactly what councils should have as their collection schemes, but there must be some basic consistencies. An example is food waste. I think there’s only a third of district or collection authorities in the UK
that offer food waste collection and it’s not always separate. It might be mixed with green waste or cardboard, so we’re already losing value from the cardboard. We should make food waste collection mandatory and it should be collected separately.

BW: There are bigger issues around food waste and why the infrastructure isn’t happening, and I think it can be a laudable thing to do if we build the infrastructure that can actually deal with it. It would be pointless to have mandatory food waste collections with local authorities offering contracts to the private sector for the disposal and processing of it. The reason that market is not taking off is because local authorities are trying to offer contracts of three to five years for food waste processing, and they’re doing it without deliver-and-pay clauses in the contract. What you need is 10-year-plus contracts that have deliver-or-pay clauses and, when we get those, the infrastructure will be built nationally overnight.

NP: It’s interesting you say that, because where is the joined-up approach? If you are outsourcing collection contracts, which are typically over a seven-year period, there is an opportunity there. If you’re going to collect it for seven years, you might as well seize on that opportunity of an additional x thousands of tonnes, which can actually help to justify the financial viability and the feedstock of the infrastructure that we need.

“The problem at the moment is that business rates are completely divorced from waste disposal costs”

BW: The only way we’re going to build this great vision of a relatively localised, every 50-mile infrastructure of AD plants processing food waste, is to do it on a non-recourse finance ‘jelly mould’ basis - the facility just pops out in a location where there is the security from the future value of the revenue stream.

NC: I think we’ve done some incredible work during the past few years, and a large proportion of households in the UK now have access to recycling facilities. We’ve got to now place an increasing focus on the participation rate. One of the things that has caused us to raise our eyebrows with the new Government and its emphasis on localism is whether we run the risk of the types of collection systems drifting even further apart. We used to say ‘600 local authorities collecting waste, 600 ways of collecting recycling’, which makes it very difficult when you need big quantities of material.

PS: Do you think we’re more likely to be in a situation where, because of planning policy decisions going way down to even a ward level in a local authority, it would mean we are likely to have fewer AD plants?

NP: Nobody seems to want to have these facilities in their localities, so it comes back to communication, general responsibility and awareness of what it can mean. It means actually talking to communities about what these processes do, what the benefits are and showing they’re not as bad as anyone thinks they are.

NC: That is something that could be done. A lot of companies run into serious questions around planning permission and objection, and there seems to be very little that’s done at a national level to say ‘this is a responsibility for all of us’. You almost want to make it a matter of pride to have these facilities in your area, particularly if you could link it back to the domestic economy by building businesses and that it means jobs, new infrastructure, new contracts for suppliers and equipment.

BW: I’m not sure planning for AD is that big an issue, because where they end up are in places such as co-located with abattoirs. They’re not in places where there are lots of residencies.

JH: Talking to our customers, one of the biggest barriers is waiting on planning, and one county or one district council is completely different from another one. I think Nicola hit the nail on the head in terms of suggesting a PR campaign. It could say ‘if we build one of these in your area we are going to be putting electricity back into the grid - all our waste is going and it’s coming back to us in the form of heat and electricity to power your lights and TV’.

PS: There’s a bit of a battle over weekly and alternate weekly collections. Do you think that having mandatory weekly collections would mean that people know where they stand?

NP: I think if you have comprehensive recycling that takes food waste out of the residual waste stream and you take that away on a weekly basis, you can target 85% of what’s in a household bin. Take that away weekly and what you’re left with is the rubbish that can’t be recycled. I would argue that it then just becomes about quality and reliability and not frequency. If participation rates are where they need to be, then we should be looking at even less frequent collection systems of the bit that’s left because the rest has gone weekly.

JH: I think the strongest argument for weekly collections is around food waste. People say ‘it’s the smell, it attracts rodents’ and so on. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there.

PS: Nick, from a reprocessor’s point of view, would you prefer weekly or fortnightly collections?

NC: It doesn’t make much difference, to be honest - we don’t get that many bottles with residual liquid. We are already removed from the doorstep because it is coming from a MRF rather than directly. All I can think is that when you’ve only got a bin and limited space, and you know that when the recycling bin is full people are going to start putting plastic bottles into their general waste bin, it’s all a balancing act.

NP: You’re right. Giving people volume containerisation on a weekly basis so that they have ample space to recycle - you then limit the residual as well, so you’re driving behaviour towards recycling.

JH: I think there is a socio-economic angle to that, though. It’s all well and good us sat here saying ‘we can do this, we should do that’ but, often, these people can’t because they’re constrained by the environment.

PS: High-performing countries such as Belgium have pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) so the ‘stick’ is more important than the ‘carrot’. But we’re going down the road of incentives. Any thoughts on whether we should have a combination of the two - or is the Government right?

NC: You can certainly look at it. But I think there is an element of the ship having sailed in terms of financially penalising people for not recycling correctly. Most people do have the facility to do that now, and you need to bear in mind there are deposit legislations on plastic bottles, so there are very real incentives that underlie the penalties of PAYT.

NP: I like what Nick is saying. What I would prefer to see, if we are going down an incentive route, is it shouldn’t line the pockets of an individual. It should be by ward or by community with some being reinvested back into the community, because you then get social responsibility and peer pressure in that environment.

NC: RecycleBank is very interesting. What does it tell us in an underlying fashion? If you offer people physical rewards, they will recycle more, but read that in a different way and it shows that households have the capacity to recycle more.

NP: Something in my mind doesn’t quite understand why we are incentivising people to do the right thing.

BW: I think in terms of household participation, the stick is not the way forward. It has to be on hearts and minds.

JH: You can’t use a stick until the infrastructure is right and in place and everyone universally accepts it.

PS: Do we know what ‘zero waste’ is?

BW: There is the idea ‘let’s set something that’s a smart target, let’s halve that by 50%, then let’s go again, then go again’. You will never get to zero waste, but you will be for ever diminishing and so on. I think what is articulated is laudable but we need to have some very smart targets and milestones. If that is a genuine ambition, then it requires a completely different waste strategy that is a much more integrated part of wider government.

NP: I’m not so comfortable with zero waste to landfill because I think it’s limiting. I think waste is waste, and we should be looking for every opportunity to take waste out of the whole system. So I would be concerned if we focus on the zero waste to landfill and not zero waste at each part of the lifecycle.

NC: You’ll never get to zero waste with just the waste industry because you’d have to review and revise what millions of things are made of, which is completely outside the control of the industry. It would be nice if we could get to a point where the waste industry is proud to call itself the recycling industry.

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