If a week is a long time in politics, 10 years is a lifetime for the waste industry.
While no one sitting around the table at MRW’s head office can say with confidence where the industry will be in a decade’s time, everyone was in agreement about the massive progress that has been made – something few would dare have hoped for in 2004.
While much focus has been on consumer recycling, in the future household recycling can only be part of the answer. It will continue to be a good tool for creating consumer engagement, but we will need new broader approaches to achieve ever greater environmental outcomes by 2024.
As the round table group was talking, the European Commission confirmed that it would replace the circular economy package with what it says will be a broader and more ambitious plan. The decision illustrated many aspects of the panel’s debate.
Will we continue to focus on ever-higher recycling rates? Will we favour a combination of sustainable recycling rates and energy recovery? Or will we move towards lifetime ownership models, where we lease resources from companies that ‘own the atoms’?
The discussion illustrated the range and depth of thinking taking place across the sector. To my mind, one aspect that needs further discussion is economics.
How will we balance the environmental imperative with the economic realities? Should our efforts be focused on recovering materials with a high economic value or should we chase greater tonnages for diminishing returns? Who will fund the infrastructure needed for collection and reprocessing? Should we now move to a thermal model where the megawatt value is considered alongside commodity pricing to determine the best route for individual material streams?
At present, we are faced with volatile material prices at home and overseas which affect long-term financial security. As a business at the coal face of managing resources, I believe we need to take a step back from the push to increasing percentage-based recycling targets and look at our resources in the round. We need to place commercial viability and energy at the heart of the debate to ensure we make the best resource choices.
These are questions that need answers so that, during the next decade, we can have a clear vision, more consumer engagement, greater resource efficiency and an industry that is truly sustainable in terms of the benefits it delivers to society, the environment and shareholders.
One thing this valuable round table surely proved is the adage that prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
Paul Taylor is the chief executive at FCC Environment. This article was contributed as part of an association over a round table on recycling
Energy and commerce at heart of the debate