Why zero waste manufacture is still in prototype

Manufacturers are ascending the waste hierarchy, but barriers to achieving zero waste remain. Charlotte Danvers explains why

Charlotte Danver: Manufacturers need more government support

Charlotte Danver: Manufacturers need more government support

The European Waste Framework Directive requirement to consider the waste hierarchy is now a legal requirement. Many companies already do this voluntarily - waste prevention and recycling is now at a mature stage and is commonly undertaken by manufacturers, and embedded within company operations.

Many companies have adopted lean manufacturing methods, zero waste to landfill targets and waste reduction programmes. These are driven by the rising costs of raw materials and waste management, continual improvement under environmental management systems, and stakeholder reputation. British Gypsum, for example, is marking the first anniversary of its zero production waste to landfill target and setting new goals to eliminate virtually all waste across its UK operations.

The Government's own data shows that between 2002 and 2009, the amount of waste produced by manufacturing fell by 23% whilst the amount sent to landfill fell by 43%. We take these figures in the economic context, but significant waste prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery is already evident and probably rates are higher than recorded.

Businesses are doing this because it makes good economic sense to use their resources wisely and efficiently with less waste. EEF, the manufacturer's organisation, has recently published a report Ascending the waste hierarchy which examined the opportunities to reduce waste further.

It found that manufacturers still face significant structural and regulatory barriers. And whilst the Government's Waste Review is to be welcomed, many of the actions have yet to be developed into tangible commitments of support or finance.

Businesses need improved access to affordable and convenient waste management infrastructure. The Government recognised this in its call for evidence for the Waste Review, and committed to improve private and public waste management services. Its responsibility deal with the waste management industry includes better recycling services for SMEs and better standards of recycling.

A specific business waste and recycling commitment will set out how local authorities can help businesses meet their waste management responsibilities. To respond, authorities and waste operators need to consider their local businesses, the wastes they produce and how they could be managed better.

This is important, particularly where collection of recoverable wastes is uneconomic for private waste companies because of location, small quantity or the value of the materials. I have heard of instances where businesses have had to landfill their food waste from canteens and wood chippings because private waste firms were not interested in collecting it.

Whilst some businesses are equipping themselves to manage their waste streams, it is a difficult solution. Access to finance, equipment and space needed plus the labour to manage wastes are all inhibiting factors. If government fail to address these issues, the new requirement might be a wasted opportunity for resource efficiency and only more red tape heaped upon industry.

The waste management regulatory framework can impede businesses doing better things with their waste. It can be hard to recognise it as a resource when it is called a waste, with the needs for permits and regulatory compliance uncertain. Good work has started to help the circular economy and must continue.

Examples of this in the EEF report include end-of-waste criteria by WRAP and Environment Agency, and matching those producing resources with those that could use them by the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP). Many industries are high tech and demand high quality materials as inputs, so materials recycling standards need to be high.

Solutions need to be found to how products can be reused safely and how consumers can be convinced on a products reliability to reuse or acquire remanufactured goods. The report has a good example of remanufacturing by machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, who in 2009 took back over 2.1 million end-of-life products and remanufactured over £130m material.

If we want enable sustainable growth, let's hope that local authorities will open up their facilities and waste management companies will provide the services that manufacturers need.

Charlotte Danvers is senior climate and environment policy advisor at EEF

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zero waste

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Waste & resource management
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