In 2014 the UK’s waste and resources sector continued to make great strides.
The industry has gone through and remains in a period of great transition. We have moved from a predominantly landfill-based waste management approach to an increasingly circular use of resources.
Billions of pounds of investment have been made in the services and infrastructure needed to boost recycling and recover energy from residual waste. And the industry has managed this investment programme through the middle of the worst recession in living memory, which heavily affected arisings at the front end and recyclate prices at the back.
As we continued slowly to emerge from the economic crisis, last year saw a continuation of the industry’s impressive progress, with more residual waste treatment plants coming on line around the country and projects reaching financial close. At the same time, but hardly noticed in the media, came the news that the UK had met its landfill diversion targets six years early. But an unfortunate consequence of this positive news was Defra’s short-sighted decision to cut funding for further local authority residual waste projects.
We also saw the continuing divergence in household recycling performance between Wales and the rest of the UK. The additional funding available to Welsh councils has enabled them to motor ahead while English rate continued to stagnate. The Scottish Government meanwhile demonstrated ambition through the introduction of waste regulations, which should be expected to improve future recycling performance north of the border.
And in Europe the outgoing Commission published a bold and forward-looking legislative package for the circular economy. The new Commission received some conflicting messages about the proposals from member states, and has now made the unfortunate decision not to pursue the package as part of its current work programme. But the Commission has promised to bring forward even more ambitious measures this year.
The first item on the agenda this month is the introduction of separate collection requirements in England and Wales. A lot of hot air has been generated by these regulations, but I hope their implementation will be smooth and we will not overcomplicate things as we are sometimes prone to do in the UK.
It is important that we do not lose sight of the legislation’s primary aim – to promote high-quality recycling – which is something the whole supply chain can support. The means of achieving high quality are of secondary importance; if quality products are produced from commingled collections then, according to the law, additional requirements are not necessary.
The MRF Regulations were introduced in 2014 and the first data reporting will start to come through this year. This will demonstrate that high performing MRFs can provide a cost-effective solution for councils struggling with a continuing spending squeeze.
The big political event of 2015 is of course going to be the general election. It would be nice if this produces a leadership which recognises the important role the recycling industry could play as a key provider of materials and energy to the rest of the economy, and integrates the waste and resources sector fully into the UK’s industrial strategy.
The new Government also needs to recognise that meeting existing EU targets for landfill diversion and household recycling is only the start of our progress towards becoming a circular economy. The UK met diversion targets in 2014 but we are still sending around 17 million tonnes of mixed waste to landfill. This shows clearly that the bar has not been set particularly high. The Government must now help the sector push on by creating an environment which enables the industry to compete with overseas facilities and make the £5bn investment required to deliver sufficient residual waste treatment infrastructure in the UK.
The new Government also needs to do more on waste crime. The current administration made a good start in 2014 with the allocation of fresh Environment Agency funding for combating the criminals who cost the UK more than £500m a year. But new measures need to be introduced to help stamp out this activity and give the legitimate industry the certainty it needs to bring forward investment.
Finally, 2015 will also see fresh discussions in Brussels which could potentially have a huge long-term impact on the sector and its interaction with the rest of the economy. The new Government needs to be leading the European debate and helping to shape the modern, dynamic and competitive circular economy of the future.
Jacob Hayler is ESA executive director