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NIC warns recycling complexity holds back green energy

Public frustration with the complexity of recycling is holding back efforts to reduce waste and increase the use of renewable power sources, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has warned.

The Commission advises the Government on infrastructure, and has published the first of its five-yearly assessments of the UK’s requirements, including renewable energy and the role of waste management and recycling.

It said that half of the UK’s power could be provided by renewables by 2030 and 75% of plastic packaging could be being recycled by that date if the UK were prepared to break with past procrastination and take “decisive action to have world-leading infrastructure”.

The NIC said it had not proposed “an unaffordable wish list”, but rather one “carefully designed to be consistent with the Government’s long-term funding guideline for public investment in infrastructure”, of 1-1.2% of GDP.

It said progress with renewable energy had exceeded expectations, while highly renewable, clean, and low-cost energy and waste systems “increasingly appear to be achievable”. It predicted that the electricity system should be running off at least 50% renewable generation by 2030, including power generated from food waste.

“In the waste sector, too, there are lower cost, lower carbon options especially for food waste and plastics,” the NIC’s assessment said.

“There is public support for greater recycling, but frustration with the complexity of the process. It is cheaper to collect food waste separately and process it through anaerobic digestion (AD) rather than send it to energy from waste plants.”

It noted that 79% of people who do not use a food waste bin would be prepared to use one if their local council provided it.

“More plastics should be recycled, including by restricting the use of hard-to-recycle plastic packaging by 2025,” the NIC said.

“Better packaging design, clearer labelling, fewer hard to recycle plastics and tougher recycling targets (of 65% of municipal waste and 75% of plastic packaging by 2030) could all reduce residual waste and mitigate the need to build additional infrastructure.”

NIC chair Sir John Armitt said: “Where the UK’s energy comes from will need to change radically over the coming decades if the UK is to meet its legally binding climate change targets.

“Ministers can seize this chance by investing in renewables and other low-carbon technologies so they become the main players in our energy system.”

The Environmental Services Association welcomed the assessment. Executive director Jacob Hayler said: “We have long called for greater consistency, more food waste collections and better eco-design to boost recycling, all of which are reflected in the [assessment].”

He said the Government must ensure that extended producer responsibility works for all parts of the waste stream to make it a reality.

Suez Recycling and Recovery UK chief executive David Palmer-Jones said: “The NIC rightly determines that more should be done to recycle and remove plastics from energy from waste, but this should be done at the design stage through strong policies that favour better design, recycling, reuse and minimisation.”

He said that Suez supported the call for separate food waste collections, “although only where practical and economically viable, as this will saturate existing AD infrastructure and result in cleaner, less contaminated, recyclable materials”.

Chartered Institution of Wastes Management chief executive Colin Church said: “If the Government in England and, where appropriate, across the UK take up these recommendations, that will represent significant progress towards a more resource-efficient and circular economy.”

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