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Let's take the long view on resource management

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) has welcomed last week’s judgement in the JR, which upholds Defra’s and Welsh Government’s position that co-mingled recycling collections can meet the requirements of the European Waste Framework Directive (WFD).

The Institution has always maintained that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and that decisions regarding the best way to collect recyclables should rest with local authorities who provide these services. This flexibility allows account to be taken of different collection needs and constraints, including the challenges of high density urban areas where issues such as space and access can mean that source separated collections are difficult to implement. But one word of caution regarding the recent JR decision; read it carefully before saying everyone can “commingle” or that it is the death knell of separated collections. It doesn’t say either.

Any relief over what appears to be a pragmatic JR outcome should be tempered by the acknowledgement that the question of quality has not gone away – and nor should it. This review has been useful in bringing the issue of recycling quality to the top of the agenda and the fact remains that we cannot be complacent about the need to improve our performance.

“It would be immensely short sighted of us all to simply sit back and think that the current status quo will be adequate in the future”

We know, for instance, that some of the overseas markets that we rely on are taking a tougher stance on imports and quality. In October last year, the Environment Agency issued a bulletin reminding exporters about restrictions put in place by several countries, including a ban on imports of plastic waste into Malaysia and waste plastic bottles into China, as well as possible future restrictions by China on the import of unwashed post consumer plastics. We know that some of the Asian economies are starting to tap into home grown sources of recyclates and may soon want less of ours. And we know that the availability of high quality recyclates could help to create a healthier reprocessing industry here in the UK that will safeguard us against future over-reliance on export, as well as help bolster our struggling economy.

Against the backdrop of growing concern about resource availability and security in the future, it would also be immensely short sighted of us all to simply sit back and think that the current status quo will be adequate in the future.

It is essential, therefore, that a range of mechanisms are developed to underpin recyclate quality, whatever the collection method. For this reason, CIWM has welcomed the recently published MRF Code of Practice and Quality Action Plan consultation in England, and similar initiatives in other UK countries, and we will be responding carefully. We will be emphasising the importance of having a framework that genuinely improves and safeguards quality, and is not simply a tick box exercise.

But the debate should not just focus, dare I say it, on MRF reject rates and low grade export markets. What has got lost to a certain degree in the heat around the JR is the role of local authorities in shaping the collection services they provide, building robust quality requirements into their contracts, and developing a better understanding of the end markets for which their recyclables are destined.

Some authorities are emerging as real leaders in this field, forging new partnerships and contractual arrangements and taking much more responsibility for what happens to the recyclables they collect. They are, however, still in the minority and I would like to see the various organisations in this sector, CIWM included, helping to disseminate some of this learning and good practice to help other councils be more proactive on the quality front.

There is much talk about our industry moving from ‘waste’ to ‘resource’ management and supporting the growth of a greener economy, and the question of quality lies right at the heart of this transition. If we fail to commit collectively to improving our performance, then talk is all it will be.

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