Opportunity knocks north of the border

We may well see a new relationship emerge between waste producer and waste collector as Scotland prepares to gets to grips with new regulations, says Iain Gulland

Scotland has made commendable progress on recycling. Household recycling rates have jumped from around 5% to nearly 40% in just over ten years; councils are starting to turn food waste into energy and fertiliser, and Scottish companies are using recycled materials to make new products.

These changes are just some of the examples that show the country has become increasingly aware of the true cost of waste, both to companies with the rising cost of landfill tax and to the environment.

The Scottish Government believes we need to go further, targeting 70% recycling across all sectors which will make us amongst Europe’s best performers. It has now unveiled regulatory actions to drive this, including mandatory collection of food waste and other key materials from homes and businesses.

Make no mistake; the change ahead will be profound and far-reaching, particularly in terms of the requirements on businesses to recycle. However, research carried out by Zero Waste Scotland shows that the change will be worth it for Scotland plc, both in terms of the economic and environmental benefits.

Fundamentally the new regulations are not just about managing waste – they are about driving a change in the economy. At the moment we lose hundreds of millions of pounds every year by burying resources in landfill sites. For example, it is estimated that 440,000 tonnes of high-grade plastics are sent to landfill annually.

If these were reprocessed to be suitable for food packaging they could be worth £1,000 per tonne. If we think of recycling collections as being like modern-day mining of raw materials, it’s inconceivable that we are still throwing this opportunity away. In the future we may even mine landfill sites to recover resources – we can save ourselves millions now by not putting them there at all.

Of course, the regulations will help recycling businesses that collect and sort materials already. But it also creates opportunities for those who have the materials in their possession in the first place.

We may well see a new relationship emerge between waste producer and waste collector – akin to that between the landowner sitting on gold (or black gold) reserves and the prospector with the means of monetising them. Both can capitalise on the riches if they work together.

Businesses should be prepared to bargain to get the best deals. Quality is key, hence the requirement for separate collection. Good, clean, source separated materials command the highest market prices and therefore benefit everyone.

The recycling industry can also help by creating better, more accessible services for businesses, especially smaller companies. Zero Waste Scotland is keen to support the development of innovative collections schemes which provide cost-saving solutions to businesses and lead to an increase in materials recovered, such as the establishment of a shared recycling centre on an industrial park.

We will also help by working to develop robust markets for reprocessed materials. For example, we are already taking forward a programme of work to improve customer confidence in the high quality fertiliser products derived from food waste through the development and promotion of the PAS110 quality standard. Expanding these agriculture markets will enable operators of anaerobic digestion facilities to reduce their charges – savings which can then be passed on to customers.

Regulation works to establish a bare minimum baseline. However, businesses that do more will benefit the most. The biggest savings will come from using fewer resources in the first place. Again we have specialist support available to help with this, especially targeted at small businesses.

And for recycling firms, there are other potentially bigger opportunities from looking at materials which are beyond the scope of these regulations, such as rare earth elements which are key to many modern technologies.

There is a rich seam of resources running through our economy. The Zero Waste Regulations will simply bring them closer to the surface for easy mining. We can all benefit from zero waste, so let’s all work together.

Iain Gulland is director of Zero Waste Scotland, a programme managed by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP)

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