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Improved data adds up to better policy-making

Data underpins everything we do. We need evidence on which we can base solutions and take action to reduce the amount of waste produced and manage unavoidable waste more sustainably.

We are starting to ask new questions, driven by the desire to move towards a circular economy (CE), such as how much waste is reused? Others focus on the details of specific product streams, their composition and location as waste treatment infrastructure becomes more refined and material-specific.

There are things that can be done to make the data we do have easier to access and use. Getting access to granular data rather than summarised information enables it to be used for a wider range of applications and in more innovative ways by linking datasets to identify patterns, messages and trends that would otherwise go unnoticed.

My discussions with the Environment Agency were encouraging with regard to this. The Government recognises the value of open source data, and Defra will publish 8,000 data sets by the end of July.

The golden egg would be timely, detailed and accurate information about the quantity, composition and location of waste arisings. Increasing the take-up of Edoc, the electronic duty of care system, would improve the information on waste arisings.

The report: Waste Data in the UK

The availability, accuracy and timeliness of waste data has long been questioned and the lack of reliable data has, in part, contributed to a great deal of debate about key areas of decision making and policy such as the potential treatment capacity gap in the UK and waste infrastructure planning applications.

This was what prompted the RWM Ambassadors to commission a special report. The group was set up in 2014 by the event’s organiser, along with the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, to underline the commitment of RWM to supporting the industry. An annual budget of £15,000 is available for the development of initiatives to support the sector. The report looked to answer the following questions:

  • What do we need waste data for?
  • What specific information is required for each application?
  • What data is currently available, who collects it and how accurate is it?
  • What data gaps exist, and what might a robust system of collecting and reporting UK data look like?
  • Who should be responsible for collecting and reporting different data sets and how much might it cost?
  • What would be the benefits to the Government, the waste sector, manufacturing businesses and the UK economy if data provision was improved?

Most data sets exist because of specific regulations. For example, all waste management sites with an environmental permit are required to submit site returns detailing waste they have received and dispatched, while hazardous waste must be consigned.

Significant data gaps identified by the stakeholders consulted for the report reflect areas of waste management that are not covered by regulation or where deregulation has occurred, for example waste prevention, reuse, waste managed by exempt sites and material meeting the end-of-waste test.

The most significant of these is data on the arisings of commercial & industrial (C&I) and construction & demolition wastes. There is currently no duty on waste producers to report data unless their waste is subject to regulations such as producer responsibility legislation or if it is hazardous.

There was a great deal of discussion regarding potential improvements to waste data. These ranged from simple low-cost actions to improve the quality of existing data sets, through to more complex, cross-sector initiatives such as a common glossary and data standards, a single reporting portal for waste data and aspirational initiatives such as a resource tax to change fundamentally the way waste is valued. Significant benefits would result if comprehensive, accurate and timely waste data was made available:

  • The Government would have an in-depth understanding of waste generation and its management. This could be used to develop and monitor policies to deliver sustainable resource management and a CE. At present, significant gaps such as information on C&I waste arisings mean that policy may be formulated that is counterproductive or focused only on areas for which robust data is available.

For example, there are many more interventions relating to the management of municipal solid waste than C&I waste even though C&I waste arisings are almost three times greater.

  • The waste management industry would have more confidence to invest in treatment infrastructure and services. This would speed up capacity delivery, including the specialist deconstruction and recycling infrastructure required in the UK to deliver the CE.

Specific recommendations to improve waste data are set out below. Some could be achieved quickly and with limited cost, while more complex actions would require greater co-operation between stakeholder groups and/ or more funding. It should be noted that is it extremely difficult to estimate the cost of delivering these actions due to the large number of unknowns.

Driving key decision-making

Barry Dennis

Barry Dennis

Comment: Barry Dennis, Chair of the RWM Ambassadors

Availability and accuracy of timely data has been a constant talking point in improving the UK’s waste management. It is difficult for those working in the industry to validate performance and costs without reliable data.

I recently attended an All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) event where we launched a comprehensive assessment of the current system of data collection, the Waste Data in the UK report. It highlights the current challenges faced by the industry and lays out a roadmap to help find a way forward.

By cracking this we will obtain immeasurable insight and a solid evidence base on which to base key decision-making and strong policies.

By mapping the numerous data systems in use throughout the waste management sector, we were able to identify the significant gaps in information.

In addressing the challenges of data collection, significant benefits would include the Government having an in-depth understanding of waste generation and management across the UK. And the waste management sector would have more confidence to invest in and deploy waste treatment infrastructure and waste management services.

There is a strong need to close those information gaps and develop a robust and streamlined dataset which can be openly accessed. This will improve information flow throughout the waste management sector and it will provide an indication of the UK’s progress towards a circular economy.

Simone Aplin is Principal consultant at Ricardo Energy and Environment

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