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Valuing the opportunity of increased recycling

During last month’s annual Recycle Week it was encouraging to see the need to increase recycling filling our newsfeeds, but it got me thinking that as we strive to achieve the current 50% target, not only must we keep it at the top of the news agenda, but we also need to consider the business opportunities it can create.

One of the things that most resonated with me from Recycle Week was an increased understanding that what was once considered waste is now seen as a valuable resource.  Encouraging people to recycle things like their plastic bottles was once a massive issue, now we recycle 58% of them.

What we need now is to apply this focus to other areas like different types of plastics, food and textiles, right through to electrical items, not just to reach the 50% recycling target, but to reduce pressure on resources and to realise the financial value of doing so.

According to estimates by Defra, the UK economy could benefit by up to £23bn per year through low cost or no cost improvements in the efficient use of resources.  We know the need to reduce costs, to streamline production, or to secure a consistent supply of materials are all potent drivers for change. Efficient use of resources is central to that, as is the need to think more circular.

For readers of MRW this will require us to think less ‘silo’ and consider not just how we collect, process and recycle waste, but how we design, make, sell, reuse and recycle products so we can get the maximum value from them both in use and at the end of their life, and we need to consider the wider opportunities it presents.

At a conference recently, I was asked to talk about what a more resource efficient future could look like. You’ll be pleased to hear that a key focus of my presentation was the role waste management should play. So what could the future look like?

Increased food waste collections, wider plastics collections and more clothing and electricals reuse and recycling. They could indeed create a brighter future.  All materials having a technical solution for recycling with viable closed loop markets could offset the use of virgin materials, with high quality recyclate returned to manufacturing streams to make new products.  But what is important is that these products would be designed with this entire process in mind from the outset. This means waste management considered at the start of the thinking, not merely as an end solution.

However, to achieve the future we need to consider where we are now and what progress has already been made. 135Mt of waste was landfilled in the UK in 2010, 29% less than in 2000 when WRAP was created. In that same period, recycling increased by 150% to 117Mt, with 43% of household waste in England was recycled or composted in 2012/13. In Wales, recycling rates are 52%, in Scotland 41%, and in Northern Ireland 39%.  And over this period, growth in the recycling sector has outstripped growth in the overall economy and created around 8,000 jobs.

We need to continue this momentum, but the question is how?

Let’s take food waste first. In 2012, we threw away over 1Mt less avoidable food waste than in 2007, yet 4.2Mt of edible food is still thrown away each year, and there is still twice as much food waste in landfill as any other waste, a staggering 75% of which comes from households. Only a third of all food waste is composted or processed via anaerobic digestion (AD) to produce energy.

Despite this, less than half of all UK households have local authority separate food waste collection services.  And of the 11 million that do, only 10% of the food they waste is disposed of via this service. We need to better tackle the reasons why these services simply aren’t being used.

Eliminating service confusion and the ‘yuk’ factor is one way to increase participation. Aside from introducing simple, consistent weekly food waste collection services for all UK households, we know that providing liners helps but I think there is also a role for aesthetically designed food caddies and built in kitchen separation systems which can provide a clean, practical method for managing unavoidable food waste in the home.

We know that increased recycling of food waste offers a significant opportunity to help us meet recycling targets, but we need to ensure we have the infrastructure to achieve it. I was pleased, therefore, to see Agrivert recently open its multi-million pound plant in Surrey to take food waste from local homes and businesses.

But despite around 130 AD plants currently in operation and others in the planning, momentum has slowed and greater investment is needed to enable us to meet the demand we need to create.

So, that covers adaptation of existing services, but what about new opportunities? I believe potential growth areas for the waste management sector to tap into are textiles and electricals.

Developing the market for pre-owned clothing could certainly open up new revenue streams for businesses wanting to extend their reach into this area. Despite the clothing industry having the fourth largest environmental footprint of any UK industry, recycling of textiles is in its infancy.

More than 1.1Mt of clothes are consumed and disposed of each year with around a third ending up in landfill. If that 350,000 tonnes of clothing destined for landfill was diverted for reuse or recycling, it could generate potential business income worth over £140m.

The WRAP-led Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) is facilitating much of the change required in the textiles sector, looking at a number of actions to improve the sustainability of clothing across its full lifecycle, including extending clothing life, exploring fibre to fibre reprocessing, and promoting greater reuse and recycling.

But perhaps a completely untapped area here is electricals, where the loss of valuable materials during processing and low reuse rates could create opportunities to establish a new client base by forging collaborative relationships with the electrical sector.

1.4Mt of WEEE is discarded in the UK each year and only 7% of it is currently reused. Of the 38% that ends up in landfill, a quarter of products are found to be still in working order.  And while more than half of WEEE is recycled, a staggering £50m worth of precious metals such as gold and silver is lost in recycling processes that focus on steel, copper and aluminium recovery.

So there are clear opportunities here for waste management companies to work with reuse organisations and the electricals sector to find better ways to extract the value that remains in these discarded products now.

Later this month WRAP will launch the Sustainable Electricals Action Plan (E-SAP) focusing on a range of individual actions to improve product sustainability. This will sit alongside our existing work on product lifetimes, guarantees and repair, exemplars of trade-in models, standards for reuse, and trials of critical material and component recovery which the sector can tap into to look at ways they can adapt.

So that’s just a flavour of the scale of the opportunity here. It is clear to me that viewing waste as a valuable resource provides an opportunity to extract more value by exploring reuse as well as efficient recycling business models.

There are several things that could set the news agenda in the coming years but what is important is that they provide the opportunity for business growth and for meeting the current recycling targets and, indeed, any new ones the future might hold.

I believe there is a clear argument for the sector to adapt the way we do things now and with that, I’d like to leave you with just one last point.

A point that was summed up quite succinctly by Kingfisher Group chief executive Ian Cheshire at the Resource conference in London in March: “I’d rather disrupt my own business than have a competitor do it for me”.

Wouldn’t you?

Marcus Gover - director of sustainable products & services systems, WRAP

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