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Which horses should UK recycling put money on?

The Government’s resources and waste strategy outlines priorities for the indus­try after the UK’s 2020 commitments under EU legislation become obsolete. It mainly addresses immediate chal­lenges, including plastics, food and waste crime.

But a major project has been launched to set the direction of the industry much further in the future. It could prove far more influential than the strategy.

Talks are now well underway with Defra and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) to create a resources sector deal. A new body, the UK Resources Council (UKRC), has been set up to come up with proposals.

It is an independent body chaired by Suez UK chief executive David Palm­er-Jones, with the Environmental Ser­vices Association (ESA) acting as a secretariat. It also has the involvement of WRAP, Veolia, local enterprise part­nerships and others.

The UKRC wants to get as much support from across industry as possi­ble, and has contracted consultancy Anthesis to reach out to companies and stakeholders. The plan is to draft concrete proposals for ministers to cast their eyes over early next year.

Probably the most important issue the council needs to resolve is what technological developments will prove most effective in the pursuit of a truly circular economy. The pages of MRW are often devoted to exciting inventions, including ways of turning all types of plastics back into oil for feedstock to create new plastic; high-tech MRFs; and even a home pyrolysis unit.

Each of these are touted as a break­through in getting rid of waste once and for all. Which horse, or horses, should we be backing?

This question is exactly what sector deals are supposed to answer. They take a lot of detailed negotiation between civil servants and business leaders, and have to take into account Government priorities set out in its overarching industrial strategy.

It is easy to see why industry leaders are keen to get involved. When he launched the automotive sector deal in January last year, business secretary Greg Clark said it would result in around a quarter of a billion pounds invested jointly by the Government and the industry into the development of electric vehicles.

In addition to automotive, there are currently deals for rail, construction, nuclear, aerospace, artificial intelligence and creative industries. In each case, they set out agreed areas of investment in infrastructure, technolog­ical development and training.

The Confederation of Paper Indus­tries (CPI) announced in March last year that it was looking to set up one for paper. The CPI’s proposals include improving the volumes of paper col­lected for recycling, and its quality, through wider adoption of source-segregated household recycling.

It is by no means certain the resources and waste sector will be suc­cessful in its attempt. Jacob Hayler, ESA executive director, has been in discus­sions with officials from Defra and Beis for many months now. As well as setting up a deal, the idea was to convince Beis to set resource efficiency requirements as a “cross-cutting component” of all sector deals.

“There are a lot of initiatives and momentum around the sector at the moment,” Hayler said. “The feedback we’ve had from Defra and Beis is that they are very keen on looking beyond the resources and waste strategy.

“If the strategy is looking at how we can use current technology to manage our wastes most effectively, what the sector deal is going to do is say, ‘how do we bring forward future technology, how can we do new things with our waste to turn it into a resource?’ ”

“It’s a short word, but it means a lot: clustering. There are energy producers and energy consumers. If you put them in the same place then you are making those businesses more effective.”

Currently, waste is most commonly transformed into assorted recycled materials, electricity and a “bit of steam for heat”, Hayler said.

“The future should be about trans­forming waste into higher-value products and into feedstocks for the UK’s strategic industries. That could include waste-to-chemicals, using waste as a feedstock for advanced automotive manufacturing and key industries of the future that the Government wants to promote under the industrial strategy.

“We want to be tied in with these key industries and make sure they are mak­ing the most use of secondary resources.”

uk resoursce council

uk resoursce council

UKRC Council

Council chairman: David Palmer-Jones, Suez

Council adviser: Laura Sandys, senior independent director at SGN and former Conservative MP

Members include: Sophie Thomas (Thomas Matthews design agency); AB Agri; Reco Group; High Value Manufacturing Catapult (a group of manufacturing research centres in the UK); Axion Recycling; Veolia; Viridor; Tees Valley Unlimited; Industrial Biotech Innovation Centre; Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at Defra; Julie Hill, WRAP chair; representatives from the Environment Agency, Defra and Beis as observers.

The final report from the committee will be what Hayler describes as a “practical route map” which covers everything from product design to specialist separation and logistics in order to get materials back into high-value processes.

“If we are to be successful with pro­posals, it really needs to be a credible proposition to the Government. It needs to be widely supported from across the sector, be very inclusive and take into account everyone’s views. This is not an ESA initiative; the council is wholly independent and we are helping out with the secretariat.”

The UKRC is to meet three times this year. Palmer-Jones is somebody Hayler describes as “vocal, widely respected and carries a lot of credibility”. The council overThe UKRC is to meet three times this year. Palmer-Jones is somebody Hayler describes as “vocal, widely respected and carries a lot of credibility”. The council oversees four working groups, each guided by a ‘sponsor’, while day-to-day tasks are led by each group’s chair­man. This follows a template set by Beis for all sector deals, with the four streams being what the department calls ‘pillars’.

Each working group will produce a sector deal chapter, aided by Anthesis.

“These groups will work closely with the consultants to co-ordinate the work and produce a draft, but most impor­tantly to gather views,” said Hayler. “They will almost be running four par­allel consultations, going out to as many stakeholders as possible and bringing them into the process.

“We’re not under any illusions – we know sector deals are very difficult to negotiate successfully. There are dozens of proposals for potential sector deals, but only about half a dozen have been agreed so far.”

In order to get new technologies up and running on a commercially viable scale by 2035, decisions on investment will need to be made now. Hayler said that, historically, waste businesses have struggled to be recognised and defined as a sector, which makes it difficult to get agreement on investment.

“The big ‘asks’ that have come from other sector deals have tended to be around innovation funding and support for skills. These are both areas where we think value could be added. The Gov­ernment does have big innovation fund­ing – the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is around and we know there are projects for plastics recycling under this.

“On waste-to-chemicals, there are a number of pilot projects that are often negotiated with academic institu­tions around the country. Part of the sector deal is trying to get a more co-or­dinated and coherent view of all these different initiatives and make sure they are working in the same direction.

“There is always a tension in trying to put the right incentives in place to bring forward innovative technologies. At the same time, we don’t want to undermine current technology and investment that we need to make now to boost waste management.”

A specific target to emerge from the ‘people’ working group will be to develop an accreditation scheme for waste managers in conjunction with the Environment Agency.

Chris James, chief executive of sector training and standards body Wamitab, said: “Our understanding is that it is in the very early stages and that a meet­ing has yet to be held. We are unaware of the details or the nature of the accred­itation, but have assurances that Wamitab will be involved in the dia­logue.” The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management has said it will also be included in conversations about pro­fessional standards and accreditation.

The ‘place’ working group has a brief to ensure the sector deal will “identify industrial end users and collaborate with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) to help deliver the right materi­als and infrastructure to the right loca­tions”. This means pinning down on a map where secondary materials end up and seeing whether treatment facilities can be consolidated. Then the flow of resources, such as nutrients, chemicals and metals, can be tracked.

Paul Booth, chairman of LEP Tees Unlimited, was approached by the UKRC to be the sponsor of the ‘places’ working group: “I was very happy to do that. It was very clear at the first meet­ing that we had a number of significant players from the waste industry around the table.”

Booth is a long-time advocate for developing technology to recycle plastic through depolymerisation – often nowadays called plastics-to-oil or chemical recycling – rather than incin­eration.

“That requires resources. If it went into a sector deal, sponsored by one or two companies, then the Government would say ‘that’s a great project, we’ll support it’. Industry needs to identify a small number of game-changing initia­tives that the Government can get behind and then follow through.”

Booth also sits on the Chemistry Council, which has been looking at ways to improve the efficiency of the chemi­cals industry. This has given him an insight into what his working group should be looking at.

“It’s a short word, but it means a lot: clustering. There are energy producers and energy consumers. If you put them in the same place then you are making those businesses more effective com­mercially and environmentally as well.

“I’ve been working on the cluster principle in the north-east on the Hum­ber, in Grangemouth and Tees Valley. You can then include the waste streams in those clusters.

“For instance, if there is an infrastruc­ture where mixed domestic waste can come to the Tees Valley, there are pro­cesses becoming available which are more efficient than they were 10 years ago that can effectively separate biomass from the polymer, wood and metals. And if you’ve got waste heat or if you are in a private wire network, you’ve got cheap power.

“What you end up with is a set of mol­ecules out the other end that has far more value over and above the waste. Biogas can go just about anywhere in the chemicals industry, for instance.”

Government proposals to tax plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content has boosted the case for cluster­ing, Booth said. It will make not just logistical and environmental sense, but hard-nosed economic sense too.

Booth sees his role as helping to come up with proposals to divide the UK into “efficient regions for the effective treat­ment of waste into significant value” – what’s needed where, basically.

“Let’s say Cornwall: what are the challenges there compared with to the north-east? How do you optimise the logistics and collection systems in a place to make use of the natural resources, skills and assets in those regions to optimise the way in which you deal with waste?

“There is no one size that fits all.”

The sector deal needs widespread agreement if it is to work, as Hayler has stressed. But it is unsurprising that there are conflicting views within such a diverse sector.

For instance, Booth is a critic of energy-from-waste (EfW) because he wants to see every molecule of a material used again. Hayler, however, is a strong advocate for EfW, and has back­ing from many waste companies who insist that incineration is a vital part of the UK’s resources sector make-up and not at odds with achieving a high recy­cling rate.

“I’m not there to cause difficulties, but I think I’m there to challenge,” said Booth. “I would be seeking to provide the evidence that unequivocally points to obtaining greater value from waste. If you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got.

“My view is that EfW is a traditional, old-fashioned way of solving what has been a difficult problem. You’ve got to embrace new technologies.”

But he said he wants to see agree­ment on the industry’s overall direction of travel: “What technologies do we embrace in order to maximise value extraction from 2030 onwards?”

Policy developments in the sector are continuing at breakneck speed, so it is difficult to predict what the sector deal might look like at the end of the year. Whatever the result, the intense focus on resources and waste management will help to sharpen minds.


Anthesis is providing consultancy support to the working groups of the UK Resources Council (UKRC). The council is leading efforts to develop a sector deal for resources to leverage Government support for innovation and investment in the UK’s circular economy.

The four working groups, responsible for developing individual chapters of the sector plan, reflect the objectives of the industrial strategy and cover: places, people, data & design and infrastructure.

Anthesis is using its expertise to assist the working groups to scope each chapter for approval by the UKRC at the end of March. The chapters will be further developed in the following months, with the completed chapters being agreed and combined into the sector deal by the end of the year.

It is vital that the wide range of businesses and influencers in the resources and waste industry, and other sectors with which it interacts, can contribute if the deal is to fully deliver a circular economy. This means all stakeholders need to feel engaged with the developing document and have the chance to contribute to it.

In addition to the working groups, the UKRC would like to consult on the developing chapters of the deal as they evolve. As such, it is asking people to get involved by reviewing and commenting on the developing chapters at three points in their development, these being:

  • Review of the chapter scopes and outlines in March;
  • Review the first chapter drafts in June; and
  • Review the final chapter drafts in September.

The documents will be shared online with the consultation group which will be able to submit comments and suggestions.

If you would like to be part of the consultation group for the sector deal, please contact Anthesis at

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