Wasted Arguments & the Circular Economy Race

In our profession we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over topics in generalised terms that are usually scenario or locality specific. This is a contentious statement in itself, and may start the debates all over again, however in my view it is apt at this time, with some national reflection ongoing, and in advance of the National Resources and Waste Strategy second round of consultations and with the promise of Brexit ahead of us, to take a step back from the debating voices within the profession and look at the whole picture.

Over the last week the Energy from Waste (EfW) dilemma has resurfaced after the Policy Connect report, the Greenpeace (deprivation / mapping exercise) and the Environmental Services Association (ESA) rebuttal of the latter. The questions around building further capacity here, to export refuse-derived fuel (RDF) for EfW in Europe / Scandinavia or to landfill, or to reach higher recycling targets (than the 65% requirement) are emotive, and I wont be expressing an opinion here, except to make the point that the answer is often circumstance specific and generalising ‘we need more capacity’, ‘we need less EfW’, ‘we need higher recycling targets’, ‘we need to export more RDF’, will vary both in temporal terms and local situation. Some areas still need to reduce landfilling and EfW is a proven method of doing this, others will need to raise recycling performance, others will not want to invest in capital intense infrastructure and seek a lower cost ‘fuel preparation’ or waste transfer solution and play the market, whether in the UK or internationally. There is no point in insisting on higher recycling rates if the materials are not recyclable, or they are technically recyclable, but the markets are not interested. There can be little point in investing in EfW if the residual stream has low degradability and you have spare landfill capacity. The procurement of either should be limited if the area can improve its quantity and quality of recycling.

Another hot debate is the type of recycling collection system, characterised by the commingled / two stream / kerbside sort discussions. Again, very contentious, and influenced by householder behaviour, contractors, local infrastructure and available end markets for materials, but as has been demonstrated by the implementation of multidimensional collection systems and (notably) system reversals across England, most system types can ‘win’ (and do) environmentally or economically in different circumstances.

Similar new waste management decision dilemmas are taking place as we grapple with the environmental and societal outrage over plastics and global warming, and we look to novel thermal solutions for cracking unwanted plastic waste and adopting alternate (e.g. biodegradable) plastic packaging.

But all this discussion, debate and polarisation, whilst useful in the local decision-making context, where the environmental, societal, sectoral and economic situation is understood, should pale against the fundamental issue we face when talking about the big national picture. Specially, wholly and fundamentally that we generate too much waste, with too little accountability from those that produce it.

This means that as a sector we are left with a mixed material stream that is unusable to a notable degree. If this was addressed much of our debates would be unnecessary. I think of the waste and resource management sector as the third leg in the Circular Economy relay race, we, as discussed above, are agonising on our performance - where we might shave a tenth of a second off our time, but those runners before us are barely getting into a jog before they pass us the baton (waste) because of the lack of incentive. They mostly aren’t interested in the Circular Economy race and are only focussed on the ‘increasing profitability and turnover’ races that happen later in the day.

As a sector, our energies should be primarily directed on the proper implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility and associated mechanisms that develop more circular practices and reduce resource use. This increases the prize of the Circular Economy race to all participants. We need to provide the team talk to the other runners so they get into shape, and lobby the officials (Government) to both incentivise and force all runners to properly compete. Then we have a decent chance of winning.

Frith Resource Management provide waste strategy and modelling services to public and private sector clients, see www.frithrm.com for our activities and projects.

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