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Infrastructure plans rely on quality data

Two years ago, Ricardo Energy & Envi­ronment completed the RWM Ambas­sadors’ assessment of the landscape for waste data, and how it might be improved to better suit the needs of the sector. I thought the anniversary of launching the report would be a good point at which to reflect on any progress that has been made.

Accurate, granular and timely data on the type and quantity of waste gen­erated in the UK and how this is man­aged is fundamental to delivering the infrastructure needed to enable us to manage waste in the most sustainable way, meet our obligations and imple­ment a more circular economy (CE).

In my day-to-day consultancy role, I lose count of the times I need to refer to waste data, for example: investors building a business case for advancing a new waste treatment technology; Gov­ernment looking to determine the waste infrastructure required by England for the next 30 years; and councils looking to report on progress against targets.

The importance of having this data has not diminished – if anything, as more infrastructure gets delivered, it becomes more important.

The report that Ricardo produced on behalf of the Ambassadors identified a number of challenges with today’s waste data, not least being the significant gaps concerning the arisings of commercial and industrial (C&I) and construction and demolition (C&D) waste and the waste that is managed at exempt sites.

It is clear that unless those producing, managing and disposing of waste are required to provide information about it by regulations, very little information is accessible or avail-able. But we have not yet come up with a way to collect this data without making it a legal requirement.

Therein lies the rub. We know that waste producers and waste manage­ment companies hold a great deal of data. But unless there is a law making them provide it to a regulator or central body, it is not going to be available for wider use.

While it is understandable that for many businesses this data represents a significant investment and gives them a commercial advantage, we need to find a way to fill this gap, at least around waste arisings. Without this, how can we ensure UK plc is ready for the chal­lenge that will face us post-Brexit, with a need for local solutions and networks of sites and technologies working for the benefit our economy and environment?

The Ricardo report identified Edoc as a potentially huge source of data which could fill the gap on C&I and other aris­ings. But relatively few businesses have signed up to use Edoc, which is a volun­tary scheme at present. There are other challenges too, with the type of data Edoc collects, how and, more impor­tantly if, that data could be accessed without breaching confidentiality.

It seems as though Edoc is here to stay, and that Defra is fully committed to improving the system, which leaves the door ajar for a step forward in waste data collection, access and utilisation.

One of the key recommendations in Ricardo’s report was to establish a Waste Data Panel that brings together Government departments, waste man­agement companies, industry associa­tions, regulators and advisors to investigate solutions to the issues. Defra has recognised the benefits of such a group and set one up last year.

One of the comments at a recent meeting was surprise from Defra about the level of interest from the waste industry and other stakeholders in the data statistics they publish. The depart­ment has been open and engaged in the debate, and there is a clear willingness across the group to work together.

I am hopeful that the group will be a success and can deliver at least some of the improvements that Ricardo consid­ers are possible.

I hope there can be a sea change in the way we collect and report waste data. We have talked about the same problems for at least the past 20 years. But now I feel that stakeholders are really beginning to see the value of high-quality data not only for underpinning Government policy but also for sup­porting the CE, with key note projects such as the National Materials Data­base currently being developed by BEIS.

The Waste Data Panel must not lose momentum and drift – we must capture this rare opportunity to collaborate on making waste data better, more accessi­ble and more usable.

In the meantime, the data debate will continue at RWM with a workshop planned for Wednesday 13 September in the Municipal & Materials Recovery Theatre. I will be on the panel sharing updates on progress and challenging the sector to do things differently.

Simone Aplin is principal consultant and waste data specialist at Ricardo Energy & Environment, and an RWM Ambassador

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