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Sustainability of household recycling has not been sustained

John Glover

This year, my family celebrates 100 years in the business. Ten years ago, the environment and sustainability came first with the financial costs covered by our customers. But for local authorities today, the situation is only one of lack of investment, cash conservation and cost reductions come what may.

Throughout the last decade, the bulk of our commercial customers have invested with us to ensure the separation of food, recyclables and residual waste before it is collected from the point of production. But as the last ten years have gone by, local authorities appear to have been forced into cash conservation and away from long term sustainability. 

For local authorities to move to the levels achieved by our commercial customers, substantial investment is needed in every part of the service provision. Food waste and recyclables must be collected separately with the residual waste passing through an automated material recycling facility and all possible materials recovered before waste to energy deals with the combustible balance. This final facility has to be funded as well as meeting the cost of moving on the recovered streams.

Based on my experience at the RWM exhibition in September 2017, I estimate that local authorities are often 15 years behind where they need to be. As an example, we invested more than £25m in 2006 in buildings, plant and equipment, anticipating a high level of matched funding in partnership with the London Waste & Recycling Board, for a ’dirty MRF’ at Bow, that was due to be opened in 2011. The funding was publicly announced in September 2010 but was not provided.

The losers were the London local authorities we currently work closely with. This plant was designed to work with black bag waste from local authorities. When a “local” authority uses a truly “local” site, rather than moving the material thousands of miles every year, the annual saving in transport costs alone can easily be £500,000 per annum for each local authority involved. I do not believe there is another plant within London that can yet carry out that task effectively for black bag waste.

With the banking crisis and our existing debt we were unable to fund the necessary plant, despite having been promised the finance by our bank at the time. That is another long story.

In the last ten years, many within the industry have gone bust, often because no support was forthcoming when trading conditions changed through no fault of the long term investors. This has particularly affected both MRFs and the ongoing processors of recovered materials.

The public sector funded a number of these, particularly for processing plastic and, one by one, they all went bust. Vast sums of money (up to £2bn) have been invested in gasification and pyrolysis plants for waste and most have failed or just ended up uneconomic.

There are those that frown on mass-burn energy from waste but provided we recover everything possible before using energy from waste it appears to be THE technology that is proven and long term.

The failures within the industry over the last 10 years are all due to lack of investment and lack of long-term income streams that can be relied upon. Only guaranteed long term investment will lead us all forward. The longer we leave it the more it will cost.

John S Glover, managing director, Bywaters (Leyton) Ltd

Readers' comments (2)

  • It is totally unacceptable that generating 1 kWh of electrical energy from an incinerator produces 500gms of CO2.The government wants only 50gms to 100gms in the next 10 years. Energy from waste is a short term profit making exercise. It has nothing to do with sustainability

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  • Once food is totally removed from residual collections the resulting “residual” waste can be sorted with the appropriate equipment and everything possible recovered. What solution does Nicholas offer for what is left? We know current recycling levels from multi-occupation London residential properties hover around 15%. That suggests that once food is removed the sorting of the balance of the residual stream could lead to a substantial additional % being recovered and help us meet long standing targets. Much investment would still be needed to provide uses for the material recovered. London decisions for many years have been led by avoiding cost, but you have to speculate to accumulate!

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