Let’s ditch the ‘take, make, use, throw’ mindset and create a real circular economy

Ian Fielding, chair of ADEPT’s waste group outlines their view on the UK should best manage its waste, following the launch ADEPT’s Resources and Waste policy position on January 31.

Concern for the environment has risen rapidly up the political agenda and markedly so since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet was broadcast last year. Images of creatures entangled in marine plastic and of the seemingly inexhaustible volumes of rubbish in our oceans has galvanised public opinion and focused attention on waste.

The Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England was published in December last year. ADEPT’s policy position sets out its strategic response to some of the key issues outlined in the Government’s strategy.

All place-based services are under unprecedented pressure, but waste management, bin collections and recycling centres are amongst the most public of public services. The challenges to waste services aren’t just financial, although these are pressing. Ensuring that the waste management sector is fit for purpose is demanding on a number of levels.

Aside from the environmental impacts, exporting so much of our waste is a lost opportunity, when we could recover material resources or energy in the UK. Brexit uncertainty is causing anxiety across the waste sector, which is reliant on EU nationals in the workforce and the ability to transport material to Europe easily and without extra costs. How we manage waste, as a country, needs a radical new approach.

There is no doubt that we need to reduce the volume of waste we produce, reusing and repurposing more of what’s left. Recycling some types of material, however, is not straightforward and rather than investing in the infrastructure to deal with waste ourselves, the UK exports some of its more problematic waste overseas.

The UK is slowly shifting towards Energy from Waste (EfW) in preference to landfill. The gap in processing capacity has been mitigated in recent years by exporting around 3m tonnes of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) a year to EfW facilities in Europe. This seems a perverse thing to do at a time when we are buying electricity from abroad. Equally, the market for recyclable materials is complex, and global, but quality is king. Low quality recovered materials may be cheap to recover but can only be recycled when demand exceeds the global supply. We have made long-term decisions about recycling in the UK based on international markets over which we have little or no influence and which can be switched off at the drop of a hat. We need more capacity within the UK to process our own recyclables and to turn our waste back into valuable resources.

The burden on local authorities of dealing with excess packaging has been the subject of much debate. For too long, manufacturers have favoured the use of virgin and difficult to recycle plastics when producing packaging materials, without any responsibility for their reprocessing or disposal.  This results in an expensive approach that places a disproportionate burden squarely on local authorities. We welcome the Government’s support for ensuring that the polluter pays.

An Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme (EPRS) will help to encourage market certainty and incentivise significant long-term inward investment. In addition, setting mandatory recycled content (MRC) levels for new packaging products would provide security in end markets and support the Government’s vital shift towards a circular economy. We believe that a successful EPRS would capture used packaging to such a degree that proposals for a kerbside deposit-return scheme (DRS) would become unnecessary. ADEPT supports the introduction of a DRS for consumers ‘on the go’, but is concerned that, if applied more widely, it could divert material with a positive financial value from local authority collections, reducing the ability to offset costs. We cannot provide effective services without sufficient resources.

Local authorities must be able to charge residents for the disposal of materials, such as construction and demolition waste from larger DIY projects that are outside of the scope of everyday household waste. Such a system is fairer in that, again, the polluter pays and taxpayers overall are not subsiding the costs of a minority. Government has indicated a desire to review some of these charges, but charging is an important tool for local government to recover costs, so the income has to be replaced in another way. Funding has to come from somewhere.

In its 25 Year Environment Plan, the Government has pledged to ‘leave the environment in a better condition for the next generation’. This is a huge commitment and how we manage and reduce waste is one of the core issues that must be tackled. ADEPT’s Resources and Waste policy position is our contribution to the debate, how we can leave behind ‘take, make, use, throw’ and create a real circular economy.

More information about ADEPT can be found on its website.

 

Ian Fielding

Ian Fielding

Chair of ADEPT's waste group.

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