Why waste and recycling is woefully underprepared for Brexit

With Brexit dominating the headlines and the UK’s official leaving date looming closer than ever, Ben Prior, CEO at Earthworm, writes about why we could end up paying a heavy price due to a lack of preparation around waste and recycling.

‘What I want to talk about is this: have you stopped to think about where our waste will go after March 2019?’

No? I wouldn’t blame you either, so let’s look at it a different way. From March 2019 it could cost a lot more to dispose of our waste than it has done. And when I say cost, I mean both financial and environmental. Here’s why…

The UK does not take responsibility for millions of tonnes of its own waste. Every year, we export about 15 million tonnes of recyclable material overseas and about 4 million tonnes of our municipal household waste goes to the EU. Our friends in the Netherlands and Germany are very happy to receive it in exchange for a fee. In fact, they take about 2.2 million tonnes of it, and other places like Sweden and other Scandinavian countries receive the balance.

Not only do we pay for the pleasure of sending it to them, but we’ve also got to get it to them in the first place. Consider for one second the environmental cost of actually transporting this material from your household bin to a refuse collection vehicle, on to a transfer station, shredded, sorted, baled, on to another vehicle, on to a boat, across the sea, onto whatever destination in the EU….and the total cost of that?

Significant. Especially when you multiply this by 4 million tonnes.

If you consider the average articulated lorry does eight miles per gallon. That is a lot of diesel back and forth when each artic carries around 24 tonnes. Consider too that the value of sterling versus the euro has declined by about 10% since 2016. Or how about that experts expect tariffs for the exporting of this waste to increase by up to 7% after March? That is of course if we are actually still able to send it to them post March.

And guess who pays for this delight? The faithful taxpayer, who always picks up the bill.

I’m going to take a leap and say that the rough cost of exporting this material is about £100 per tonne (£70 cost, £15-20 transport, £10-15 baling). 100 x 4 million tonnes is £400m. A 10% devaluation in currency increases this to £440m. A 7% increase in tariff takes the bill to £471m. I’ve added a cool £71m to our bill and I’ve barely even broken a sweat. Imagine what someone could do with more than just GCSE Maths?

And don’t get me started on the environmental cost of the 26 million tonnes that we still dump in our own holes in the ground on these shores.

The long and the short of this story is that, as usual, we are totally underprepared to deal with our own waste in this country and not enough has ever been done about it. Even now. Government after government, irrespective of political leaning.

Less than one month away from the biggest political, social and economic change in my lifetime and we are on the precipice in so many respects. So who’s even given a second’s thought to the stuff that our nice bin men collect every week? I can tell you it’s not people in positions of power because they’ve got no answers. Who on earth thought it sensible to come up with scant policy about dealing with our own waste problem? Who thought it sensible that the solution to all our waste problems is to let other countries deal with it?

So many questions and barely a flicker of response.

So, I’m done waiting for one. In fact, I was done about 10 years ago which is why I set up Earthworm. If government won’t do it, if local authorities can’t be bothered and if it’s simply an irritation to big business because it doesn’t suit their shareholders then we’ll just have to do it ourselves. Who’s in?


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