If we divide we won't conquer our waste
I've been mulling over divisions of late. Divisions within government policy and divisions within the waste industry itself.
For instance, Defra interprets that it's ok to count co-mingled as a separate collection under the revised Waste Framework Directive, provided quality outputs from mixed material streams can be achieved. Yet it lacks the nerve to make the forthcoming MRF code of practice mandatory.
This is not joined-up thinking; if you want to give credibility to the co-mingled argument, you must enforce quality levels across all MRFs, not just those who are willing to subscribe to a code that demonstrates higher standards.
This inconsistency leaves a gaping policy hole that is vulnerable to attack, and one that certain quarters of the industry will look to exploit come December, when Defra's decision undergoes a judicial review in Cardiff.
And then there's the recycling versus energy recovery debate. Nearly everyone I know falls on one side or the other. The zero waste purists believe nothing should fall through the residual net and into the claws of EfW.
Admittedly, these energy plants are hungry beasts – and if we get better at extracting more recyclate, will there be enough feedstock to satisfy them? Some argue that even if we reach 70% recycling levels, the remaining 30% is more than enough to service the appetite of EfW. Others disagree and worry that putting energy first will have a negative impact on recycling – and hence the waste hierarchy.
Lets not forget there are vested interests here, depending on what service or technology you want to push. But is anyone looking more holistically at what is best for society as a whole? Not just in the short-term, but 50 – even 100 – years from now?
Materials scarcity and security of energy supply – both are up there as global environmental concerns that are gathering momentum. But has anyone mapped out what the market value or demand will be for these resources in years to come?
Manufacturing in the UK is on the decline, we don't have much demand for raw materials these days – much of what we produce in terms of recyclate is exported. So should we be more concerned about energy security? And if so, should we define that as our goal and model our future waste infrastructure around generating those outputs?
Waste is a resource. We know that. But perhaps we need to be more clever in working out what we want to do with it. Rather than viewing our waste arisings as different symptoms that need treating, decide what resource types we want to extract from the waste in an ideal world, calculate where the value is, and work backwards from that.
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