Local resource: keeping waste in the neighbourhood

Interest is growing in reprocessing waste on-site where it is produced, says Mike Taylor - this will drive demand for smart, modular solutions that can close the loop

In the near future, we’re likely to see more of the above, but located where the waste is produced. We are seeing a strong interest from clients in the option of reprocessing waste on-site.

We’ve come a long way since the start of the 1990s, when we hit the peak of the disposable society. There was hardly any awareness on resource scarcity in mainstream society and recycling was limited to glass and paper.

Although environmental campaigners warned us of the risks to the planet, the idea of zero waste was marginalised as a concept championed by people choosing to live an alternative lifestyle. Fast forward 20 years and recycling is embedded in individual behaviour and the vision of a circular economy is championed by FTSE 100 organisations.

A combination of legislation, largely driven by the EU, coupled with new technology, has had a powerful role in changing the way organisations and people approach resource and waste. In terms of UK legislation, we’re fortunate to have a strong lead from the EU, which through a steady flow of new regulation has forced major changes to the waste industry.

Whether it’s by setting the new standard or creating new rules – the waste hierarchy, waste transfer notes or hazardous waste regulations – EU directives have probably had more impact on our waste practice than any other drivers.

The landfill tax can be singled out for creating the right economic conditions for transforming the waste industry, from focusing strongly on landfill to looking at the various ways materials can be recycled. The landfill tax escalator (the landfill tax increases by £8 per year on 1st April, reaching £72 per tonne next month) makes new recycling technologies economically viable whereas landfilling becomes the expensive option for organisations.

Meanwhile, we have seen considerable technological advances in recent years, in particular, in the way materials can be recycled or extracted from general waste. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) can now recycle up to 95% dry co-mingled waste, anaerobic digestion (AD) plants can compost food waste in less than two weeks, while refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plants turn high calorific waste into fuel to be used in biomass boilers.

In the near future, we’re likely to see more of the above, but located where the waste is produced. We are seeing a strong interest from clients in the option of reprocessing waste on-site. Whether it’s onsite paper reprocessing, a mini-MRF or a mini-AD plant, the future is local. These technological developments have in turn made it possible for legislation to be pushed through, and, in many cases, created the need for new regulation to be drawn up.

In some ways, the recent judicial review brought by UK Recyclate and five reprocessors, looking into Defra and the Welsh Government’s transposition of the revised Waste Framework Directive, is another example of the relationship between technology and innovation.

Defra and the Welsh Government argued that commingled collection of paper, metal, glass and plastic did not contravene the Directive. The judge ruled in their favour, meaning that recyclers will now have to continue to find innovative ways to separate the waste products and extract the high quality materials they are after.

However, in spite of these drivers, the biggest barrier to innovation in resource management is often the natural resistance within organisations to change. The conferences and debates about the circular economy have been flourishing in the past 12 months, demonstrating that the majority of people from across the spectrum have decided that the closed loop process has to be the future.

And while we may have the legislation and technology in place to implement the circular economy, we need to convince society at large of its benefits if we are to push forward the resource revolution and future innovation.

Mike Taylor is managing director for MITIE’s waste & environmental business

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