Time for waste measurements to get a ‘sophisticated’ makeover

Is it time for waste measurements to become a little more sophisticated? Chartered environmentalist Mike Tregent thinks so. He outlines why the UK needs to shift from weight-based targets to carbon-based targets for recycling.

Business as usual is often seen as the best way to do things, because we have always done it this way and works. This mind set may be driven by a busy agenda or a perception that it is best for the bottom line. As we head into an uncertain future however, business as usual is unlikely to be an option and change may well become the norm!

Weight-based targets have served us well up to now and played an important role in ensuring that we move towards our targets for recycling, improving our recycling rates vastly along the way!

But to move forward we are going to require more sophisticated tools and better data. Those tools may need to go beyond weight-based measures and regulatory or end-of-pipe data sources.

The problem with weight-based targets is that there will always be a need to collect more. The present way in which waste is collected, treated and allocated to a place in the waste hierarchy lacks coherence, coordination and clarity!

The current fragmented system with household waste and similar commercial waste streams travelling along separate routes for much of their waste existence does nothing to help realise sustainability objectives or the value of recovered materials. The relationship between collection and disposal authorities, commercial waste handlers and reprocessors is still pretty ad hoc and can distort value chains and the perception of the ‘waste hierarchy’.

We need to measure what we do and our goals and targets in a more holistic way. This will enable us to benchmark across processes and other elements of sustainable resource use (i.e. energy).

To do this effectively, I believe that we need to look at carbon-based measurements across the whole life cycle of products and materials, before we can determine if we are indeed, being resource efficient. This is an essential element to life cycle thinking and the circular economy. If we are to create a more circular economy it will not just be quantity of material that determines success but quality as well, in order to keep materials in circulation.

Using a carbon-based target will be an effective way of measuring progress. For example, you could say to a waste operator ‘if you recycle paper this way you save ‘x’ amount of carbon’. This could then lead to incentives or taxes.

I also believe that a carbon-based target will enable integration to some extent, of activities above recycling in the waste hierarchy. This is important, as currently there is very little regulatory activity and an associated lack of data around reuse and minimisation.

With better data, it should be possible to formulate a carbon metric that would support the waste hierarchy through fiscal measures (taxes recycled into incentives further up the hierarchy, see diagram). A lot of this data is already in existence, it is more a matter of collecting it in a consistent fashion.

If we are able to move from weight based, point in time targets towards a more sophisticated measure that not only records what we have done but is also proactive, it can inform incentives and interventions. I would be much more confident that we can meet the new higher targets for recycling and truly start to embed a more circular economy!

This feature will appear in the August issue of LAWR – out on July 21st.

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