That was 2018 – the year when China’s ban on most waste material imports really showed how decisions in one country can affect those on the other side of the world, as the UK and others scrambled to find alternative capacity.
2018 was also when public concern about plastics pollution came to the fore, driven in large part by Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II programme, shown in late 2017. It led to a number of Government and industry initiatives and, ultimately, to the UK being set to get a tax on plastic products that have less than 30% recycled content.
Figures revealed no improvement to the industry’s abysmal record on fires or health and safety. This is how MRW reported the past year.
The effects of China’s crackdown on contaminated waste imports – which in practice meant almost all materials – continued to bring changes to the industry. Suez UK said it has not directly sent any material to China since April 2017, and has successfully found other markets.
China had been the recipient of two-thirds of the UK’s used plastic, and the Recycling Association (RA) reported resulting build-ups of waste and processed plastic at recycling plants across the country, which it feared could force councils to send most of it to landfill.
Defra’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan was finally launched by prime minister Theresa May, but it was short on legislative proposals for policies on waste and recycling.
The plan focused heavily on dealing with plastic waste, committed to reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system and to extend producer responsibility requirements to plastic products not currently covered. It also outlined further work on harmonisation of local authority collections.
Industry exhibition RWM was sold by MRW’s former owner Ascential to Prysm Group. It became a two-day event in September and ran alongside some of Prysm’s related exhibitions.
The Government-backed resource management charity WRAP said it would make 24 people redundant as it struggled with reduced funding from Whitehall.
New measures that will bring illegal waste sites under the scope of landfill tax were expected to raise £145m in five years, MPs heard from Mel Stride, financial secretary to the Treasury.
Arguments continued over whether oxo-biodegradeable plastics would avoid microplastic pollution, as proponents claimed, or contaminate streams of conventional plastics. The European Commission said it would take steps to “restrict the use” of oxo-bio plastics.
In another sign of concern about the impact in the UK of China’s policies, an Environment Agency (EA) officer visited the country to discuss its tighter restrictions on imports of secondary materials. The EA said its representative would meet Chinese environmental regulators before returning to brief colleagues.
China was also on the paper sector’s mind, with a submission to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) stating that things were “close to breaking point” following the restrictions on low-quality material. Alternative markets would be hard to find, leading to stockpiling. The RA warned that some material values were “approaching zero” due to the related glut.
Householders in five councils in north-west England were offered collections by commercial waste manager B&M Waste for a £15 fee, part of a small but significant attempt by companies to penetrate the domestic market as some councils cut the frequency of residual waste collections.
The London Assembly called on the capital’s boroughs to stop sending waste materials for incineration – but the Environmental Services Association (ESA) objected that the Assembly offered no solutions and the two million tonnes of waste being incinerated was “a success story”.
A battle among professional bodies broke out over Conwy County Borough Council’s intention to move to four-weekly household residual waste collections – which ultimately happened in October. The Chartered Institute for Environmental Health said this could increase fly-tipping and heath risks, but the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) said it was safe if hygiene advice was followed.
IT and electrical equipment recycling firm eReco was told to pay £30,000 for failing to take fire precautions after a “catastrophic” explosion injured eight people in 2011 at its Lingfield plant.
The EU’s circular economy package moved into the final phases of approval, with member states agreeing targets for reuse and recycling of municipal waste by specific years. For packaging, states must, by January 2025, set up separate collection for textiles and hazardous waste from households.
Environment minister Therese Coffey rebuked Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council for being the last in England not collecting plastics from households. The council gave in.
Robin Latchem stepped down as MRW’s editor after six years to become an industry consultant. Corin Williams became acting editor.
Northamptonshire County Council faced financial collapse for reasons largely unrelated to waste. But an investigation found the county tried to remove recycling credits illegally from its seven district councils, pulled out of plans to find shared savings and withdrew from their waste partnership a day after assuring its partners of a continuing commitment.
Parliament’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that reductions in spending on local authority front-line services in England included a 21% fall in waste collection during the past eight years. But there was a 9% increase in spending on waste disposal.
Cheshire East Council called in the police to probe concerns about the purchase of land for its environmental hub, which includes a waste transfer station and headquarters for the council’s arm-length company Ansa Environmental Services.
China reorganised the department responsible for recycling and waste imports with a beefed-up Ministry of Ecological Environment.
The EA said it would press ahead with plans to recover regulation costs from businesses, despite warnings that anaerobic digestion (AD) plants will take an unfair financial hit. The new charging scheme covered environmental permits, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) producer compliance schemes and waste brokers. It also introduced a £750 fee to give an opinion on the formal definition of waste.
Vertas Group acquired a majority stake in million-pound waste management and pest control business MMB Environmental and rebranded as Vertas Environmental. Sims Metal Management acquired both Morley Waste Traders and Lord and Midgley, bringing its metal recycling facilities to 50.
Environment secretary Michael Gove admitted Defra had had to recruit 1,150 extra staff to cope with the work pressures caused by Britain leaving the EU, in response to concerns by the EAC that Defra could not cope with 70 related workstreams.
More than 40 businesses signed up to WRAP’s Plastics Pact, which sought to cut the amount of plastic waste in the environment. Its targets to 2025 included elimination of problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative delivery models, and that all plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable or compostable.
The ESA called on councils to tender their waste management contracts competitively rather than use in-house options, with nearly half of contracts due to expire by the end of 2019. The association said projected savings through avoiding procurement costs and not paying for an operator’s profits were “often an illusion”.
Gender pay gaps at some of the UK’s biggest recyclers were laid bare when Government regulations forced reporting of these. Some looked good because they had only a small female workforce but those concerned held more senior positions.
Cardiff City Council said it would launch a £26.5m district heating scheme for public and commercial buildings using energy generated by burning non-recyclable waste from the Trident Park Energy Recovery Facility.
New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Ghana joined the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, a body co-chaired by the UK and Vanuatu, which seeks to combat marine plastics pollution. Theresa May allocated £61.4m to research on stopping plastic waste from entering the oceans.
Veolia launched BioTrading, an online platform for organic resources, which it said would provide the opportunity to trade the annual 100 million tonnes produced of raw materials and biofuels.
One of the largest local authority sector bodies, the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority, was wound up and replaced by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which has wider devolved powers.
Sainsbury’s dropped its £10m ‘Waste Less Save More’ campaign, which was launched in 2015 to help cut food waste. A year-long pilot project to halve food waste at its Swadlincote, Derbyshire, shop had resulted in only a single-digit reduction.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said he hoped to use persuasion to ensure that all 32 boroughs offered weekly collections of dry recyclables and food waste, but indicated that he could use his powers to require this. But the London Borough of Barnet decided to abandon food waste recycling, despite a requirement under Khan’s environment strategy for separate food waste collections by 2020. Barnet also dropped its remaining bring banks and winter garden waste collections.
Labour’s Mary Creagh, EAC chair, demanded that chancellor Philip Hammond give evidence on the Government’s proposal for a new environmental watchdog to oversee environmental regulations at present supervised by the EU but which remain applicable in the UK after Brexit.
CCIC North America, the certification and inspection organisation for waste shipments to China, closed to new applications for a month, effectively halting imports. According to the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), the official notice said Chinese ports had “continuously detected” US shipments that breached the strict contamination levels imposed by its National Sword programme.
China’s restrictions continued to perplex the industry, with Viridor saying it had to increase operational costs by £3m to meet stricter contamination standards. Suez and Veolia also reported lower revenues due to the situation.
A judge blocked the ARC21 £240m energy-from-waste (EfW) project in Northern Ireland because the civil service had acted beyond its powers by approving it in the absence of ministers after the collapse of the country’s power-sharing executive.
Recycling Technologies struck a £50m deal to develop its Plaxx recycled plastic-based feedstock with a production line of some 200 machines.
Tesco announced measures to reduce packaging waste and committed to work towards a closed loop system across its UK operations.
Fires plagued the industry throughout 2018, with at some points several conflagrations a week. They hit a peak in the summer, possibly due to the sun heating discarded glass and metal in hot weather.
South Yorkshire firm Mulding was hit by a blaze that needed 12 fire engines and 60 firefighters to quell it, while 100 firefighters tackled a fire at a recycling plant in Barking only three weeks after a conflagration at other recycling premises on the same road.
The Government launched a review into the extent of serious and organised crime in the waste sector and how to combat it, seeking information on the extent and nature of crimes being committed and the characteristics of organised crime groups involved.
Gloucestershire County Council was told to disclose further commercial details of the controversial Javelin Park incinerator deal, despite saying this would damage both it and contractor Urbaser Balfour Beatty. The Information Commissioner’s Office said the public interest in disclosing details of the £500m project outweighed any damage to the council and contractor’s commercial interests.
The BIR said a translation of an official Chinese government announcement revealed the country’s intention to reduce solid waste imports to zero by 2020.
Fly-tipping was a problem during the year across the country, with one of the worst cases seen in the car park of a defunct ToysRUs shop near Brent Cross, north London, which became a 40ft-long tip.
Waste management remained among the most dangerous industries in which to work, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said, with the highest fatality at work rate of any industrial sector. It said the number of deaths per 100,000 workers employed showed waste on 10.26 with a five-year average of 7.22. This was ahead of both agriculture and construction and 16 times higher than the average across all industries.
Radical action to increase recycling rates and offer universal food waste collections could avoid the need for 20 EfW facilities, according to the National Infrastructure Commission’s five-yearly assessment of UK requirements. It also said public frustration with the complexity of recycling held back efforts to reduce waste.
An NAO probe of the packaging PRN system said up to 4.5% of obligated companies were ‘free riding’ by failing to register with compliance schemes, and the notes had become “a comfortable way of meeting targets without addressing the fundamental issues”.
Stericycle was found by a High Court judge to have “contrived” a legal challenge against NHS England’s decision to award a clinical waste disposal contract to Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), which put in a bid of £310,000 against Stericycle’s £479,999.
Incumbent Stericycle argued that the HES bid had been “abnormally low”. The dispute was to re-emerge dramatically in October following claims of alleged stockpiled hospital waste including body parts.
Oxo-bio plastics firm Symphony Environmental Technologies hit back at what it said was misleading coverage of its product by the BBC.
CIWM chief executive Colin Church said he would step down at the end of September to head the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining after two years in office.
Parliament’s vote in favour of the Heathrow third runway had the side-effect of requiring the demolition of the nearby Lakeside EfW facility, sparking a search for a replacement site.
MRW ’s National Recycling Awards took place, with awards given for outstanding performances in 20 categories.
Diane McCrea, chair of Natural Resources Wales, quit after auditors qualified its accounts for the third year running over unlawful timber sales contracts.
China’s import ban began to be copied by other south Asian countries to which waste had been diverted, with Thailand banning the import of most WEEE and all plastic wastes.
More than two-thirds of victims of modern slavery in the UK are made to work in a recycling or waste facility, an analysis by charity Hope for Justice found. It warned that the industry was vulnerable to abuses by traffickers. MRW’s Industry Insight survey revealed that 8% of respondents had witnessed a possible modern slavery incident in the past year.
MRW Survey 2018
MRW’s annual Industry Insight survey was published in September. It revealed that 64% of respondents said their company had been affected by a waste fire and for 25% the length of disruption was up to six months.
On a deposit return scheme (DRS), 23% said they thought it would decrease profits for their business. There was also great concern that local authorities would be affected, with 60% saying they were concerned a DRS would make household recycling unviable.
There was opposition from 28% of respondents to mandatory household food waste collections. One said: “Food waste anaerobic digestion plants have low efficiency and reliability.”
Viridor featured in a BBC4 documentary on the history of landfill and how sites operate called The Secret Life of Landfill: A Rubbish History, shot at its Dunbar site.
Biffa bought Midlands-based Weir Waste Services for £16.2m, and also spent £3.9m on H&A Recycling in Cornwall, Scotland’s Bisset Waste Management and the Vecta Group based in east London.
Scotland banned the burning of farm plastics from 1 January.
Northern Ireland’s councils sent 43.4% of municipal waste for reuse, recycling and composting during Q1 of 2018 – an increase on the 39.7% recorded a year before – while 34.5% was landfilled, 20.1% went for energy recovery and 2.1% was unaccounted for.
The CIWM halted its search for a new chief executive, and instead decided to reorganise and sell its headquarters as it grappled with financial problems. Members were told ahead of its annual general meeting of a deficit of £223,000 for 2017, mainly from “the difference between the cost of providing the services to members we wish to provide and the income from membership fees”.
The waste sector’s poor safety record was highlighted again when the HSE called for greater understanding of the equipment used. The report involved was used by the CIWM to underpin a campaign, ‘Health and Safety; This Time It’s Personal’, which noted that waste and recycling accounted for about 0.4% of employees in the UK but had a fatal injury rate 15 times greater than the all-industries average.
The EA said it would give its enforcement officers additional training to help them identify incidents of modern slavery at waste management sites.
Greater Manchester suffered at least 53,000 cases of fly-tipping in 2016-17, costing local authorities more than £5.5m, according to local firm Dsposal.
Renewi ended its troubled PFI contract with Dumfries & Galloway Council 11 years ahead of schedule. It said abandoning the loss-making deal would “deliver shareholder value” while the council brought services in-house.
Three Scottish councils hurriedly sought alternative services following the collapse of Greenlight Environmental, with 109 redundancies. It provided services, mainly glass recycling, to Argyll and Bute, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire councils.
RWM took place in September under its new ownership.
The launch of a new industry show, Letsrecycle Live, posed a direct challenge to RWM’s new owner Prysm.
The show, set up by Environment Media Group (EMG), is scheduled for 22-23 May 2019 at Stoneleigh, a 30-minute drive from the NEC where RWM is held. It claims to be the “only event that showcases the latest industry development opportunities and equipment in a live environment”.
Prysm responded with a series of announced changes to RWM, including a “new and improved live demo area”.
EMG was asked to leave RWM 2018 after its staff were overheard talking to exhibitors about Letsrecycle Live.
The chancellor said in his Budget he would impose the world’s first tax on plastic packaging that has insufficient recycled content. This was no great surprise given the weight of public opinion that had built up during the year. Hammond said the tax would affect the manufacture and import of plastic packaging which has less than 30% recycled plastic content.
Less expected was his decision not to tax disposable plastic drinks cups, although he signalled that the Government would think again if the drinks industry made insufficient progress with its anti-plastics measures.
A Treasury briefing said the Government sought to maximise the amount of waste sent to recycling instead of incineration and landfill and, should this fail, would “consider the introduction of a tax on the incineration of waste”.
The Budget also included an extra £10m for local authorities to deal with abandoned waste sites, and saw landfill tax increase in line with inflation.
Hammond additionally signalled the demise of the private finance initiative (PFI), widely used for major waste infrastructure, where he said there was “compelling evidence” it delivered neither value for taxpayers nor transferred risk to the private sector.
MRW reported on the preceding weeks’ round of party conferences, with the Conservatives at Birmingham and Labour in Liverpool.
The Tory event saw four fringe meetings and a speech from Gove, while there were two relevant fringe events at Labour and the launch of an environmental policy paper, Green Transformation. Gove’s speech saw him announce a £15m pilot scheme to divert commercial and retail food which would otherwise be wasted to people judged in most need.
Police concluded that the missing airman Corrie McKeague was likely to have died after falling asleep in a bin that was collected by Biffa and taken to a Suffolk landfill site.
The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) launched a multi-agency clampdown on illegal cross-border waste haulage and disposal. Sepa said waste crime cost the UK economy around £600m a year, and was known to include illegal transport and dumping of waste in Scotland by hauliers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
An LGA survey found that one in five councils were hit by rising costs for recycling services during the past year.
Welsh environment minister Hannah Blythyn earmarked £50m in capital funding over three years to support recycling service changes and infrastructure as the country came third in the world for its recycling rate.
Contractor Mitie took over clinical waste incineration services in October for 17 NHS trusts after the Government stripped the contracts from HES due to the company failing to clear a backlog of hazardous waste. But in November HES hit back with legal action against the trusts and a claim that it was correct in its assertion, which the EA denied, that there was a national shortage of medical incinerator capacity.
The report of an independent review of waste crime in England called for a joint unit of the waste industry, EA and police to combat the most serious waste crimes, with the EA gaining access to police databases. The review cited MRW reporting on forced labour.
A row broke out over Swindon Borough Council’s proposal to stop recycling mixed plastics and send it for incineration instead because of market uncertainty. Coffey criticised Swindon for taking “a regressive step” when its recycling rate has dropped nearly 12 percentage points since 2010 to 38%
The EA revealed that more than 100 waste enforcement officers have been fitted with body-worn video cameras and received training from Hope for Justice to identify labour exploitation during waste site inspections.
The Advisory Committee on Packaging urged regulators to act against abuses of the aluminium PRN market, where prices shot up despite a surplus of material.
A fee and rebate system to encourage packaging manufacturers to use recycled materials, along with a single producer responsibility organisation, were proposed by the RA and World Wildlife Fund UK.
A new industry campaign to deter rough sleepers from accessing bins was proposed, two years after the previous one ran out of steam.
The European Commission said its plastics strategy had led to offers of twice as much material as could be used.
The RA developed an export quality control scheme for paper material heading to China with the country’s certification and inspection service CCIC London.
Prince Charles launched the Business in the Community ‘Waste to Wealth’ voluntary initiative, where signatories will commit to doubling the nation’s resource productivity and reduce avoidable waste by 2030. The launch attracted 200 representatives from business, Government and elsewhere.
The waste industry appeared successful in urging Gove to stay in post as environment secretary and press ahead with the resources and waste strategy after he considered resigning his post. Gove had been a prominent Leave supporter in the EU referendum, and was reportedly offered the role of Brexit secretary after Dominic Raab resigned, but he decided to stay.
MPs on the EAC took evidence at the Victoria & Albert Museum on the sustainability of the fashion industry, and heard calls for measures to incentivise repair of clothing rather than replacement – such as removing VAT from repair services and even an end-of-life deposit scheme for clothing.
Textile recycling charity Traid told MPs the trend towards disposable ‘fast fashion’ meant the amount of discarded textiles had increased sharply in recent years.
Chemical-based recycling looked set to become more prominent in 2019, with an MRW feature noting that it could provide an answer to the blight of plastics waste by developing techniques to break them down into constituent chemicals for use as fuel or feedstock. But it said regulators and markets would need a rethink to accommodate such methods.
The charity WasteAid made further moves to help communities in Africa and Asia to deal with the impact of pollution. Its online toolkit on how to manage waste was in its first year, visited by 56,200 people in 202 countries.
Addveritas, a consultancy that helps whistleblowers, said the industry “has a problem” with modern slavery and should take steps to eradicate it that went beyond bland statements on company websites.