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Time to look further than the obvious

A few weeks ago, at the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, I was delighted to hear the determination with which John Quinn, new president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management - and chief executive of Northern Ireland’s (NI) innovative arc21 waste management group - intends to help the transition towards a circular economy across the whole of the UK, an ambition we share at WRAP.

The landscape of waste, recycling and resource efficiency in NI has certainly changed in recent years. In 2001, more than 90% of its household waste was sent to landfill; by 2012/13, nearly 40% was recycled or composted. This progress has been hard won, achieved largely through innovative working and the success of the country’s ‘Rethink Waste’ delivery programme, which has increased awareness of recycling and investment in infrastructure since its launch in 2010.

But despite the reduced costs, greater efficiencies and employment opportunities that a circular economy has to offer, there is still some way to go in the country to close the gap with the EU’s 2020 50% recycling target. As in much of the UK, budgets are under continuous and increasing pressure, even with the promise of increased efficiencies when the number of local authorities consolidates from 26 to 11 in the near future (see Briefing, pages 19-22).  

But recent analysis from WRAP has identified opportunities that I believe could bring NI closer to the 50% recycling target and, along with work on reuse and waste prevention, move it towards a more circular economy.

l The first is increased and more effective kerbside collections of food waste. This has the potential to almost halve the gap between current recycling levels and the 2020 target, especially with the implementation of Northern Ireland’s Food Waste Regulations next year.

As in some other parts of the UK, most of NI’s 390,000 households have fortnightly mixed garden and food waste collections. From WRAP’s work looking across the whole of the UK, we know this is not the most effective way to collect food waste from households. Our evidence is very clear that sep­arate weekly collections are the best way to maximise the capture of food waste; the two types of waste also have different treatment requirements.

This was certainly the case at Armagh City and District Council. It successfully applied to the Rethink Waste Capital Fund, established to support councils in diversion of household waste, for infrastructure to add a weekly separate food waste collection to its weekly dry recycling service.

The service started in November 2013, and now more than 1.5kg of food waste per household served is being captured each week, a figure which matches established good practice across the UK.

Of course, while recycling food waste is important, we should also be trying to prevent it in the first place. Recycling is necessary, but not sufficient to achieve a circular economy.

That is why the ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign is so important. I was delighted that Belfast was one of 10

cities in a cross-UK campaign generating pledges to reduce food waste from some of the largest conurbations. 

NI environment minister Mark H Durkan emphasised the importance of the campaign at its Belfast launch, saying: “Producing food is resource-intensive; binning it squanders valuable and finite resources: the water, energy and nutrients used in growing it, the energy and packaging in production and processing it, and the energy in transporting and storing it.”

Simple mathematics also tells us

that preventing waste that is not being recycled will also increase the effective recycling rate.

l The second opportunity is to improve the performance of existing kerbside dry recycling collections. This can only be effected where councils collect all the key materials at the kerbside - paper, card, plastic packaging, cans and glass - and improve on existing material capture rates. Our analysis suggests that if all councils in NI did this, it would give a significant boost to household recycling rates, further closing the gap.

But this will require innovations, including adding new materials, introducing new collection schemes, improving communications and optimising both the frequencies and the capacities of recycling and residual waste collections. WRAP’s evidence is clear that weekly equivalent recycling capacity and weekly equivalent residual waste capacity are key factors influencing material capture rates at the kerbside.

The effect of such innovation can be seen in the results of trials into the use of wheelie boxes in Newtownabbey last year (see ‘Bryson Recycling’ box on page 22). These boxes led to an increase of around a third in weight of dry recyclables collected per household during a 10-week trial. If this were rolled out across the whole Newtownabbey

Borough Council area, the annual net cost benefit is predicted to be nearly £350,000.

WRAP’s report Turning Recyclate into Revenue suggests that this could be increased even further by improving

the quality and marketing of materials collected. In fact, in a separate report the Local Government Association in England calculated that, on average, councils currently capture a little over one-quarter of the full market value of recyclate.

l The third opportunity to ramp up recycling rates is through household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) and bring-sites. Raising recycling performance by just one-fifth could significantly help to close the gap between the country’s current recycling rates and the 2020 target. Increasing the range of materials taken and improving infrastructure, signage and communications all play a part.

A 2010 review undertaken by WRAP Northern Ireland for Ballymena Borough Council illustrated this, identifying that more recyclate could be captured through changes to the layout, size and range of targeted materials at its HWRC site. After it was recommended that the council redevelops and extends the facility, it secured a grant from the Rethink Waste Capital Fund for nearly £700,000 to achieve this, and the state-of-the-art facility opened in June 2013.

So, as tough as it is, I believe NI can hit 50% by 2020. But it is not just about the target. Every step along the way

will help to stimulate the country’s

circular economy: creating jobs and new business opportunities, reducing costs for local authorities, avoiding the use of virgin materials, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and helping to prevent waste crime.

That last point is pertinent following the Mills report last April, which examined the contributing factors behind large quantities of illegally buried waste discovered near Londonderry. In his response to the report, Durkan highlighted the role that resource efficiency can play in tackling waste crime and building a much more robust, legitimate and prosperous waste sector.

WRAP’s NI conference in Londonderry on 27 November will help to assess how far we have come. Visit: wrapni.org.uk/registration.

Thanks to ‘Rethink Waste’, which WRAP delivers in partnership with Northern Ireland’s Department of the Environment, the country is now achieving £25m in savings and producing 40,000 tonnes less waste every year, with 76,000 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions. Progress can and is being made.

Finally, each of the three courses of action I described here will help to lessen NI’s current recycling shortfall. Acted on together, they exceed the gap and start to propel the country closer towards the possibility of the 60% recycling target to which Durkan alluded to in Delivering Resource Efficiency, published last year.

As trite as the adage ‘aiming for the stars and maybe just hitting the moon’ might sound, there is sense in aiming

to achieve more - not just to be sure of hitting your target, but also because of all the significant benefits of switching to a circular economy that can be realised along the way.

Marcus Gover is director of WRAP.

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