A new era for wastes management

Steve Lee, chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Waste Management, tells edie how waste policy must change to meet future challenges.

Waste management is undergoing a transformation. The emphasis is moving relentlessly away from disposal, and towards finding different ways of using materials and resources rather than just throwing them away immediately after the first use.

It is a challenging time for all those involved in developing and dealing with necessary policies – Government, regulators, waste service providers, businesses and the general public.

We face demanding targets for diverting waste from landfill, as well as generally increased pressure for more sustainable waste management and environmental policies.

Issues such as climate change are now high on the agenda, but, amongst all this, policy-makers also have to ensure viability and cost-effectiveness of strategies and programmes.

Minds are being particularly focused in the short to medium term by the demanding targets laid down by the Landfill Directive. The amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill has to reduce by 25% by 2010, 50% by 2013 and 65% by 2020.

A number of European countries have already met 2020 targets while the UK has had to ask for an extra four years to meet the first set of targets.

One of the major factors affecting the UK is a serious lack of waste management facilities. It is estimated that the UK will require 1500 – 2300 new facilities for treatment, recycling and disposal by 2020 to meet its obligations.

A recent report commissioned by CIWM compared progress across the EU in terms of diverting biodegradable waste from landfill and identified a number of factors that seemed to lead to stronger performance in individual Member States (The complete report can be viewed here) These included:

Financial factors

The use of alternative systems of finance, such as prudential style borrowing, means that risk is more commonly shared between the public and the private sectors in other European countries.

This makes projects more acceptable to both contractors and investors. In the UK, through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) local authorities tend to place all risk on the private sector. This transfer of risk may discourage many organisations from tendering and will inevitably be reflected in a higher contract cost.

Quite commonly, separate taxes are levied at local level to pay for specific waste management facilities and services, and there is complete transparency for householders in terms of what they are paying and what they are getting for this.

This approach also allows the possibility of variable charging, for example based on the amount or type of waste being produced by individual households.

Planning framework

There is a clear mandate for ‘regional’ planning authorities (as opposed to local authorities) to lead waste capacity planning in a high proportion of Member States.

This facilitates shared infrastructure between different local authorities and distances local politicians from unpopular decisions. In the UK, facilities identified as necessary at regional level are frequently rejected at local level due to local pressure.

Planning integration for municipal and industrial wastes

There is much greater integration of strategic planning for municipal and industrial wastes in other Member States.

Indeed ‘municipal waste’ on the European mainland tends to refer to all the different wastes being dealt with in that municipality as opposed to largely household waste which is the narrow definition in the UK where different waste streams tend to be kept separate.

Integration facilitates economies of scale and enables fewer waste treatment sites and reduced transport emissions.

Transparent system of compensation

The research revealed a number of examples of transparent systems of compensation for local communities in which treatment facilities are constructed.

This is up-front recognition of the fact that local communities will not typically welcome a new industrial facility close to where they live, however valuable it is destined to be in terms of sustainable waste management policy.

This approach can help ease protests against new facilities while delivering improved local amenities and potentially lower council tax bills. This is not a common approach in the UK.

While we cannot transport entire solutions from individual countries because of the inevitable cultural factors that have to be taken into account, we can and must learn a lot from these approaches.

CIWM’s findings have been reflected in its recommendations to Government including its response to Defra’s recent Waste Strategy Review consultation which can be viewed online here.

One of the major challenges in the UK is the way in which national policy affecting waste management is formulated in different Government departments.

UK planning policy is currently seen by waste managers as one of the major barriers to sustainable waste management in the future.

While this issue was referenced as one needing action in the Waste Strategy Review consultation document, it is the responsibility of ODPM and not Defra.

While Defra has highlighted the potential for greater use of energy from waste, the DTI’s recent Energy Review consultation made no reference to energy from waste at all which CIWM believes clearly illustrates a lack of joined up thinking.

Strong co-ordination and leadership from central Government will be essential in taking us to the next level in terms of sustainable waste management.

This is why CIWM has highlighted the importance of the composition and role of the proposed Sustainable Waste Programme Board (SWPB) who must oversee the England Waste Strategy and associated action plans, stressing that this should include all relevant Government departments as well as representatives from industry.

All of these areas will have to be tackled if the UK is to meet its waste management objectives in the future.

However, better waste policy and implementation is just one side of the equation. Improved skills and knowledge across the board will be required to make it happen.

Bin men have considerably more complex jobs than ever before. Waste treatment is now more reminiscent of the process industry and, therefore, requires different skills.

Indeed it is increasingly employing people from such industries who also have to quickly get up to speed with waste management issues. Local authority personnel have to enhance their knowledge and performance in relation to new technologies, planning issues and enforcement.

And businesses and the general public need a much better understanding of waste management in the round if we are to make significant inroads in relation to waste prevention, re-use and recycling.

For all of this, we need the right mix of qualifications, training and communications programmes at local, regional and national level.

So there’s no option, the sector will have to transform itself again over the next ten years to meet the challenges ahead.

And information, skills and professionalism will play a vital part in driving this process.

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