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Two Government plans: well, it’s certainly a start

After years of the industry crying out for the Government to give it a sense of direction, we have been promised a fully fledged resources and waste strat­egy next year. More than ever, now is the time for the industry to make its case to ministers and tell them where invest­ment should flow. 

We are told it will focus on three key areas: maximising resource productiv­ity; more efficient and recyclable product design;and managing materials at end of life.

This was announced in the launch of two linked policy documents in a move that must have raised a few eyebrows in the sector. The Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) and the National Infrastructure Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) set the scene for a comprehensive UK policy on waste and recycling.

Here we presents reaction to selected key themes in the documents from some of the industry’s big hitters.

The CGS and NIA indicated that waste management is to be firmly placed within greenhouse gas emission policy. The Government credits the waste sector with “significant decar-bonisation”, a cut of 73% in emissions since 1990, and wants other sectors to follow. The introduction of landfill tax was cited as the main driver.

The focus on carbon has sparked a lot of well-trodden arguments about whether or not to carry on building incinerators. The new strategies are not keen on burning plastic or food waste, and instead want to recover the materi­als’ value through better recycling.

They criticise existing energy-from-waste (EfW) plants for not being effi­cient enough, with few having established heat networks.

Money is also up for grabs. The CGS said £2.5bn has been allocated to inno­vations in low-carbon technology, and 4% of this will be for “land use and waste”. This includes, among other things, research on landfill, reducing methane emissions from anaerobic digestion and biofuel from waste.

The industry has its ears pricked and is anxious to hear more. But a wariness remains, with perfectly good policy statements having been ruined by double-qualifiers, such as the CGS stat­ing: “We will work towards achieving zero avoidable waste by 2050.”

The CGS defines zero avoidable waste as “eliminating all waste where it is technologically, environmentally and economically practicable to do so”. MRW readers who remember our stories on TEEP for separate household collections may raise a wry smile – it was a get-out clause to allow councils to carry on with commingling if they wanted to.

Peter Jones, senior consultant for Eunomia, has reservations over these qualifications, but said the announce­ments were “better than expected”.

“We will have to see how that lan­guage translates into action. There is quite a lot of room for interpretation and, while the CGS is positive, it is not yet clear what practically it will amount to. It will only be the advent of funding streams, regulations, targets that will reveal this.”

Jones thinks the final policy decisions will depend on the result of discussions on the EU circular economy package, which are continuing into the new year.

“Only at that point will it become fully clear what the implications will be. You wouldn’t want to write your waste strategy without having an idea what that was going to say,” he added. “As I understand it, Defra is still operating on the assumption that it should take account of changes to the Waste Frame­work Directive, Landfill Directive and so on.”

Libby Forrest, policy and parliamen­tary officer at the Environmental Ser­vices Association (ESA), said it was vital that the forthcoming 25-year Defra environmental plan complements the CGS and NIA, and that they are sup­ported by a “suite of clear policies” in the resources and waste strategy next year.

“This will be the vehicle which we are hoping will give us the clear signals we need to invest in the recycling and recovery infrastructure,” she said.

EfW AND HEAT NETWORKS

The CGS states: “We will work with the waste sector to ensure that different waste materials going into energy recovery processes are treated in the best possible way, to minimise environmental impact and maximise their potential as a resource.”

The NIA states: “Improvements will be needed to maintain efficiency of EfW. These could include siting such plants where the heat [and] electricity produced could be used. Many UK plants have the ability to generate both heat and electricity, but only 8 of 37 do.”

Chris Jonas, strategy and develop­ment director, Viridor: “It is very impor­tant to distinguish between EfW, incineration (without energy recovery) and landfill because capacity will be required for wastes that cannot be recy­cled. If we don’t provide this capacity, we risk increased fly-tipping and/or waste crime.

“Around two-thirds of inputs to EfW treatment facilities is short cycle (bio­genic) carbon and makes a good contri­bution to the UK’s renewable energy output. We welcome the recognition within the CGS that more heat utilisa­tion opportunities will further increase the efficiency of the UK’s world-class EfW fleet.”

Paul Taylor, chief executive, FCC Environmental: “We believe the Gov­ernment needs to go further to support investment in EfW infrastructure specifically. The UK’s lack of investment has meant that a burgeoning market for exporting residual waste has emerged, where it is burned to produce energy. This has cost the UK more than £900m in gate fees since 2011.

“What’s needed is a re-orientation of practices towards achieving valuable EfW. This will enable the UK to distin­guish itself as a hyper-resource efficient and productive economy at a time where such moves to boost competitive­ness are necessary.”

Jeff Rhodes, head of environment and external affairs, Biffa Waste Ser­vices: “Both documents focus mainly on EfW management facilities rather than the more fundamental and press­ing problem of addressing the current UK waste treatment infrastructure shortfall and future needs, which is dis­appointing.

“The criticisms of efficiency of UK EfW plants is misplaced. The technol­ogy is the same as used elsewhere in the world, from the same technology pro­viders, and there have been substantial improvements in plant efficiency in recent years. The criticism that most UK plants prioritise power generation rather than heat is not, as suggested, because of inappropriate location.

“Heat offtake opportunities in the UK are not as common as in other coun­tries, where communities with integrated EfW plants and local heat networks have historically been devel­oped by the public sector. With a few exceptions, the UK does not have that legacy. Private housebuilders in the UK are generally not interested in heat supply from waste sources, since the associated infrastructure network costs increase their construction costs and house prices.”

Forrest: “There are already great examples of industrial symbiosis with energy recovery plants co-located next to industrial users of heat and power. The industry would welcome greater opportunities to work with local enter­prise partnerships to see more of this happen.”

PLASTICS

NIA: “Burning plastics in EfW facilities increases greenhouse gas emissions, since plastics are carbon‑based. Sequestrating waste plastics, where recycling is not an option, could reduce emissions compared with incineration but would need to be done in a way that avoided other harmful environmental impacts.”

Keith Riley, partner, EnergyGap: “It is easy to pontificate about recovered plastics, but they are light, generally voluminous and consist of various polymers, some of which are not chem­ically compatible. Doing things with recovered plastic is much more difficult than appears on the surface – which is why the preferred way of dealing with them until now has been to ship them to China.

“I wait with interest to hear what practical measures emerge from these declarations of principle.

“The best way of judging what is the ‘right way’ is to measure either the car­bon footprint or the energy footprint of the alternative ways of dealing with the resource concerned and select the smallest. Often, however, what is scien­tifically the best way of doing it does not align with the emotional beliefs that people hold, and we end up with a com­promise that is not actually best but keeps people happy.

“Unless plastics reprocessing be-comes cost-effective, I suspect we are going to burn it.”

Rhodes: “There is a reference to sequestration of plastics instead of burning them as a low-carbon reliable source of fuel, but no explanation of how it might work. The various low-value and difficult to recycle plastics which end up in residual waste collec­tions rather than recycling collections become contaminated, reducing their recycling value even further.

“Sequestration would only be worth­while if a recycling demand for this material could be created. If not, and if its energy value is not to be utilised, it would still have to end up being dis­posed of later. Interim stockpiling of such material could cause problems and hazards of its own.”

FUNDING AND INVESTMENT

CGS: “In partnership with business and civil society toward our shared zero avoidable waste ambition, we will support the transition to a highly productive and competitive economy… without imposing negative costs on business or society. We will explore… the development of a network of resource efficiency clusters led by local enterprise partnerships.”

Rhodes: “Given the reliance on the private sector for waste infrastructure investment and development, rather than public funding, it is important the Government sends out positive, encour­aging signals to the private sector, backed by supportive policies.

“A supportive ‘open for business’ approach will help to attract the neces­sary private sector investment in new waste infrastructure so that the econ­omy and new communities can func­tion sustainably and effectively.

“Negative signals or silence risks the opposite effect, potentially leading to under-investment and creating the potential double-whammy of insuffi­cient private investment and rising waste volumes.”

Jonas: “It is clear that funding options are no longer rooted in subsidies and Private Finance Initiative-style contracts. Broad, collaborative solutions on which to deliver a new wave of infrastructure to drive improved resource efficiency across the UK have to be developed. This will deliver jobs and clear economic and environmental benefits in a confident post-Brexit UK. We now need to work hard across sec­tors to establish the models that will warrant this investment.

“Businesses and public authorities must work with our sector to procure access to services which drive materials further up the waste hierarchy. We must agree best-value contracted arrange­ments of a sufficient duration and ambition.”

Taylor: “We welcome the Govern­ment’s ambition to embed and extend good waste practice within local com­munities.”

PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY

CGS: “We will explore how we can better incentivise producers to manage resources more efficiently through producer responsibility schemes.”

NIA: “Managing demand and incentivising behaviour change are as important in reducing emissions from waste as from energy.

“A central element will be to ensure that the right incentives are in place for producers to reduce packaging. The packaging recovery note system seeks to achieve this, but…while the system is supposed to provide a market incentive to increase the rate of recycling, empirical evidence suggests this link is weak.”

Forrest: “It is extremely positive that the National Infrastructure Commis­sion has recognised the important role that producer responsibility could play for recycling.

“The current PRN system provides a helpful revenue boost for reprocessors, but if a revised system could help drive improved design for recyclability and demand for recycled content, then we could create a real opportunity to develop a strong and sustainable recy­cling industry of the future.”

Rhodes: “Recognition of the poten­tial value of measures like extended producer responsibility to help reduce packaging and fund its management is encouraging but, so far, there has been no evidence of an appetite from the Government to reapportion significant waste management costs to waste pro­ducers, to the extent likely to effect a significant change.”

WASTE REDUCTION

CGS: “We will encourage the development of business models which encourage resource efficiency, extend product life, conserve resources and prevent material from becoming waste. Innovate UK’s £15m Manufacturing and Materials Competition will support the development of more flexible and efficient processes and materials.”

NIA: “A more circular economy would see less waste produced in the first place, with more of the remainder reused or recycled.”

Jones: “If we are to be truly ambi­tious about achieving the greenhouse gas emission [reduction] that waste management has to offer, then we do that through reuse or forms of preven­tion and product design.

“That is where waste management savings come from – they are far more dramatic than anything that could be achieved by changing the end desti­nation of a product once it becomes waste.”

Rhodes: “The reality is that absolute levels of waste will still grow with pop­ulation and housing, as they always have, even if the rate of waste growth might slow. When it comes to forward planning for infrastructure, it is essen­tial that Government strategy is based on the circumstances likely to be faced in reality rather than based on wishful thinking.”

STRATEGIES EXPLAINED

National Infrastructure Assessment

A consultation on the forthcoming Industrial Strategy, a 30-year strategic vision of UK’s economic infrastructure needs. It focuses on transport, energy, water and sewerage, flood risk, digital communications and waste, and consider the potential interactions between its infrastructure recommendations and housing supply. One of its key aims is to eliminate carbon emissions from energy and waste.

Clean Growth Strategy

A series of proposals for decarbonising all industrial sectors of the UK economy through the 2020s. It set out how more than £2.5bn will be invested by the Government to support low carbon innovation from 2015 to 2021. It has outlined a wide range of waste and recycling ambitions.

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