How is the carbon agenda materialising in waste?

Materials economy and carbon efficiencies - waste is fast becoming a resource. The trick is to extract maximum value from that, as Maxine Perella reports

With carbon very much the buzzword of the moment, the challenges of a low carbon economy are rapidly working their way into the waste sector. So, how can the industry work together to not only develop a high-value materials market economy, but one that supports carbon reduction as well?

That dilemma was the focus of a recent local authority network meeting, staged in the capital by London Remade, which examined the complexities of materials flow through the economy and their carbon impacts. An impressive line-up of speakers, including independent waste consultant Peter Jones and WRAP chief executive Liz Goodwin, were on hand to fuel the debate.

Peter Jones, who also sits on the London Waste & Recycling Board, spoke of the need to measure the whole waste and recovery process as an integrated operation and highlighted the importance of quantifying carbon efficiency. He said that one of the biggest handicaps that recycling currently faces is the lack of an "effective valuation on carbon - for pricing it, or pricing CO2 emissions".

Big bucks for the big bang
Jones said that those contractors and service providers who could combine the biggest "energy bang" and the lowest carbon footprint were going to be in an advantageous position economically going forward. "The old-style waste industry is going to have to address the issue of carbon efficiency as well as thermal efficiency," he told delegates.

Bob Lisney, former director at Project Integra who has now set up his own company, LRL Consultancy Services, called for a change of perspective - "we tend to say waste, not material resources" - and even questioned the term 'recycling'. "If we are going to contribute to this low carbon economy, the big issue for me is not to have recycling as our main aim, but to rethink our view of waste. We don't just want to change the word from 'waste' to 'resource', we want to change our mindset."

He said there a pressing need to develop a market economy for materials, but conceded that it was easier said than done. "We need to have a lot more facilities for processing materials ... any materials that are recovered, we seem to have a distinction between the domestic and industrial/commercial sector - one of the areas that any economic strategy needs to look at is that it is just materials. There shouldn't be any distinction between the two streams at a strategic level."

Delivering what's needed
But a new approach to waste needs new delivery mechanisms and Lisney referred to a project he has been involved with in the Southeast, developing a business case with WRAP, the Environment Agency and the Southeast Regional Development Agency to deliver resource efficiency in the region.

He said the plan of the pathway involved three key elements - creating demand so that people start to invest, developing the market once you have that demand, and delivering the right infrastructure for that market. "If we get this recovery loop right, we will get carbon reduction," he said.

The London Mayor's environment advisor Isabel Dedring outlined what London was doing to become a low carbon city - priorities here included unlocking the economic value of London's waste and delivering the growth potential from the carbon economy. One programme involves decentralised energy which, she said, was "highly relevant" to the waste agenda.

"We are targeting 25% of London's energy supply from decentralised energy by 2025 and a big contributor to that is the Barking combined heat and power plant. £2B of London's energy consumption - which is about 10-20% - could be delivered from waste if you were to harness all of the energy opportunities within waste," she said.

However Dedring admitted that waste is very much "a work in progress" and that the real challenge was marry up regulatory powers with action on the ground. "Saying there's economic value in waste is great, but how exactly can we use our planning and policy powers to unlock that?" she questioned.

Progress on this front is starting to be made - work is being undertaken to examine all the different waste streams across the capital to assess their movement, volumes and carbon footprints.

These streams will then be prioritised based on the CO2 opportunities across their lifecycle, the opportunities to increase recycling rates and where the most economic benefit can be captured.

Not forgetting the quality debate in all of this, WRAP chief Liz Goodwin told delegates that quality was now one of WRAP's key priorities. "The experience of the past few months [the rapid fall in material prices] has reinforced my view that you've got to look at this as resources, not as waste. Throughout this period the materials that is good quality has been able to find markets and has suffered few fewer problems than poor quality material."

Quality needs a greater reach
"Quality does extend beyond collections and reprocessing," she pointed out, saying that the whole supply chain needed to work more closely together to improve standards - especially in these credit-crunched times. "If we look at the recycling and reprocessing sector, there are a huge number of SMEs here that are critical to making it work and many of them are struggling in the economic downturn."

She added that she wanted to see the UK's recycling firms "become leaders in resource efficiency". To aid this quest, WRAP's business development unit has been strengthened to offer a wider range of support to SMEs across the sector, providing greater access to skills, knowledge and resources.

Maxine Perella is editor of LAWR

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