Local authorities are between a rock and hard place. With collapsing budgets they are being pressed to expand and standardise their recycling collections while the value of materials has fallen so that their net costs of collecting and sorting have risen.
It is not surprising that some of them are starting to ask whether there are cheaper options than recycling. Once the answer was unequivocally No: landfilling and new UK incinerators were significantly more expensive. But, with the growth of RDF exports to cheaper European facilities, the answer is no longer clear-cut.
Before local authorities start putting their recycling services into reverse, there are three things they need to consider. The Waste Regulations still require them to have separate collections for paper, metal, plastic and glass. Many authorities have persuaded themselves that co-mingled collections of these materials are legally acceptable, but can they sustain a decision not to have any recycling collection for one of those materials? Even in the wooly land of TEEP that seems hardly credible.
Behaviour change is hard in both directions. Persuading people that they can no longer recycle material they used to recycle and which they think should be recycled will be hard. In practice, many of them will carry on as before, meaning increased contamination of the remaining recycling collections. That will lead to higher sorting costs in one way or another. Those authorities that rushed to co-mingle in the heady days when MRFs had very low gate fees or even paid for material may be regretting their haste.
There are other and better ways of reducing net costs. I believe the organisational model we have with much of the country covered by separate waste collection and disposal authorities is no longer viable and needs to be replaced by unitary models everywhere. This would reduce overheads, concentrate expertise and streamline collection arrangements.
Much more needs to be done to manage material price volatility, whether that is by improved risk sharing through the whole chain from local authorities to waste companies, MRF’s, reprocessors and producers or by addressing the quality and other issues that make hedging so difficult.
At the moment, in England, local authorities and their waste companies are being left to struggle with this dilemma on their own. That’s not good enough. Both the Government and the producers have relevant obligations and need to be persuaded to roll their sleeves up and contribute to longer-term solutions.
Phillip Ward is the owner of Falcutt consultancy