Roadmap to resource efficiency

A recent European Commission report requires the waste management sector to be more proactive in its use of resources, as Adam Read explains

The era of plentiful and cheap resources is well and truly over. As businesses face risings costs for essential raw materials and minerals, their scarcity and price volatility is starting to undermine economies.

Europe, like the rest of the developed world, is at a crossroads. Having bathed in decades of unprecedented growth, Europeans now face a daunting challenge – how to stimulate growth to kick start recession-hit economies while also ensure that any economic gains are truly sustainable.

It’s no easy feat and will require a fundamental transformation within a single generation. To put it bluntly, if Europe is to avoid economic and environmental catastrophe, it will need a 4-to-10 fold increase in resource efficiency.

In September, the European Commission (EC) published A roadmap to a resource efficient Europe which outlines the challenges ahead and how to prepare for this move towards resource efficient economies. One of its fundamental messages is that waste must be considered as a resource wherever possible.

If waste prevention cannot be delivered through effective pricing and policy measures, then all wastes that are generated should be utilised effectively. The roadmap states that “waste can become a resource and that a much higher priority needs to be given to reuse and recycling”; a clear message that the entire supply chain from producers to consumers must be targeted, not just the disposal end.

The EC publication aims to create a framework covering different policy areas. There are targets for reductions in emissions and waste reduction across a number of different sectors, including energy, food and buildings. Importantly, it also tries to address the inter-linkages between sectors and policies to ensure joined-up thinking and action.

Recycling lies at its heart with better collection highlighted as an area for progress, so that by 2020 “recycling and reuse of waste are attractive options for public and private organisations due to separate collections and the development of functional markets for secondary raw materials”.

To this end, the EC plans by 2014 to review existing prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery and landfill diversion targets to move towards a residual waste to landfill level of close to 0%. On top of this, it will assess the introduction of minimal recycled materials rates, durability and reusability criteria and consider extensions of producer responsibility legislation for key products by 2012.

Over the next 12 months, it will ensure that European Union budgets prioritise activities further up the hierarchy and it will help to facilitate the exchange of best practice on waste collection and treatment throughout member states. Finally, in 2014, the EC will assess where legislation for waste streams could be better aligned and will continue to work with partners to eradicate illegal waste shipments.

But what does this mean for the UK waste and recycling industry? Surprisingly, not a great deal in the short term, as much of the policy is already enshrined in existing EU directives and UK targets. Looking ahead two or three years, however, the closer alignment of polices and targets across sectors should present new challenges and opportunities for local authority officers and their contractors.

New clients in the private sector looking to reuse, recycle and recover materials, energy and value will emerge and local authority services and facilities may need to cater for an upturn in recyclable, compostable and degradable material streams. Many UK commentators have been calling for a greater alignment of energy and waste policies and hopefully this roadmap will help align policies alongside those of product design, infrastructure planning, food production and industrial manufacturing? Only time will tell.

What it does not do, is provide the clarity or the necessary detail in terms of targets and actions to make the transition to a low-carbon economy a reality. Perhaps this will come in the next 12 months or so? By combining policies across the resource and product supply chains, the EC hopes to create a “full recycling economy”.

The roadmap focuses in particular on specific minerals and metals which are at risk and need quick but careful policy attention. This is critical for a low-carbon future with many electrical products reliant on materials that are rapidly depleting, but it will take more than this document to achieve this transformation.

In the future there will be a whole array of EU directives and targets, as well as national policies and targets and sector-based programmes. However, they will all take time and effort to initiate, implement and monitor. While the EC is looking to act in the near future, the impacts may not be felt by the UK waste and recycling sector for some time to come.

This means that the waste and recycling industry needs to take the lead in moving towards a low-carbon economy where materials are valued, segregation for reuse and recycling is key and where residual wastes generate renewable energy in highly efficient anaerobic digestion and thermal facilities.

The roadmap highlights consumer and producer behaviour as essential elements for success, and that requires action now to help make this transformation a reality. One thing is clear, we can’t continue to consume resources at the rate that we are.

Dr Adam Read is global practice director at AEA

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