A version of this post was first published on BusinessGreen.
With memories of the world cup fading fast, something that has stayed with me are the many scenes of jubilant fans, perhaps because these reminded me of happy times spent in Brazil during its famous carnival celebrations. But it also brought back less happy memories of street children weaving their way through the partying crowds scooping up the beer cans that fuelled the revelry.
We shouldn’t be happy that children have become urban miners to make ends meet, but there’s a lesson for us in their efforts to get the most value out of the cans.
An approach to resource recovery based on getting the most out of materials is something we could do with more of in the UK. Our current system has evolved from arrangements to transport waste to landfill, where the main concern has been to minimise transport and collection costs. As recycling requirements were bolted onto this system, the cost minimisation approach, rather than value maximisation, came with it.
Whilst this had initial success, with UK recycling rates once the fastest rising in Europe, it is now at the limits of what it can achieve: recycling rates are stagnating, going up just 0.2 per cent between 2012 and 2013; and much that is recycled is downcycled into lower value uses. While the price of plastic recyclate has risen and risen, just 30 per cent of plastic packaging is collected, of which two thirds is exported for reprocessing overseas. The result is that councils are spending more on waste management than housing or planning, while value in materials is being lost and businesses are left frustrated by a lack of usable recycled materials and investment for resource recovery business models.
Wales focuses on quality
Fortunately, we’re surrounded by examples of how to do things better. Wales, the only part of the UK that’s already meeting the 2020 recycling target of 50 per cent, has developed a quality focused approach to recycling called the Collections Blueprint. This is a set of guidelines for local authorities on how to organise their waste management systems to maximise quality and quantity of recyclables. It includes a list of materials for every authority to collect to increase consistency between areas.
The goal is to deliver a critical mass of high quality materials to support long term supply agreements with local reprocessors. This means green jobs for Wales whilst delivering more income to local authorities. As there are costs involved in adopting the ‘Blueprint’ approach, the government is supporting local authorities in making the change. But, by reducing expensive residual waste treatment and increasing revenue from recycling, this investment will reap long term rewards in terms of lower costs and better environmental outcomes. The benefits can already be seen in an estimated 25 per cent reduction in Merthyr Tydfil’s total expenditure on waste.
Scotland targets zero waste
Scotland, too, has an ambitious strategy to recover more of the value of the materials. Its Zero Waste Plan includes a target of 70 per cent recycling and composting of all waste by 2025. Significantly, this target includes commercial and industrial waste, which it is hoped will lead to greater harmonisation and efficiencies between the systems for recovering household and business waste, something that already happens in Denmark. To achieve its goal, the Scottish strategy includes a package of interventions, like food waste and business recycling collection requirements.
Similar to Wales, Scotland has focused on quality, although it has left it open to councils to decide how to do it as long as they deliver recyclable materials that match the quality of materials delivered through source-separated collection systems, which is the best system for quality of materials according to WRAP.
Transformative economic and environmental benefits
Wales and Scotland have put these strategies in place because they understand the economic and environmental opportunities of better resource management. The recent Environment Audit Committee report shows Westminster politicians from all parties understand this too. But compare this with the UK government’s announcement last year that it is “stepping back” from vast chunks of resource management. Consequently, as our analysis shows, they are squandering an estimated £1.7 billion in materials value, and £2 billion in private sector reprocessing infrastructure investment.
Defra’s stated strategy of leaving it to the market ignores the fact that realising some resource recovery opportunities, such as better reuse of electronic and electrical products or high quality plastic recycling, requires co-ordination and collaboration at a scale beyond the ability of an individual local authority or business to deliver.
However, the EU is alive to this issue and, earlier this month, released a strategy to help European businesses secure a supply of high quality recycled materials and reduce the costs European citizens pay for resource management. Assuming the UK stays in the EU, Defra’s backseat approach will have to be revised; it’s business as usual approach will not meet the updated targets in this strategy.
But we shouldn’t do it because we have to. That approach has already landed the UK with the current unsatisfactory system. We should do it because, when recovery systems are driven by capturing the value in materials, business models change for the better; this is thanks to better operating environments for refurbishers, recyclers and manufacturers that encourage entrepreneurialism and innovation.
It leads to business investment in R&D for recyclable materials and collaboration with public sector partners on engaging householders to build a consistent system across the country. Then we would really start to see, and benefit from, the transformative potential of a circular economy.