Waste authorities must grasp the resource nettle

Local authorities have a vital role to play in ensuring that mitigation measures outlined in the Government's Resource Security Action Plan become a reality, says Adam Read

Defra’s Resource Security Action Plan is a landmark publication. In looking at how certain resources will come under increasing threat from dwindling UK provision or changes in international supply lines, the plan considers what this will mean in terms of the UK meeting its goal of becoming a carbon neutral economy.

The UK faces a number of important challenges when it comes to resource risks. To start with, a significant proportion of critical materials required by businesses are sourced from overseas, sometimes with a very large proportion from one country. The risk is not just in terms of volume of materials but potential future accessibility, with the ability of countries to control market pricing and availability.

Not only that but even where materials are relatively accessible, the carbon impact of, for example, mining precious and speciality metals is much higher than for other materials extractions. This will make mining these materials increasingly more difficult given the momentum building around the need for better green credentials in all sectors.

Yet another challenge relates to critical materials. These are embedded in products and are often only required in very small quantities, such as materials for circuitry in a mobile phone. This creates a specific challenge in terms of commercially attractive recovery strategies.

A lot of resources are lost when, for instance, an electrical product with a circuit board is disposed of. The cost of dismantling the product to recover the small volumes of critical materials is currently prohibitive in many cases.

And then there is the challenge that particular industries face from the impact of indirect scarce resources. An example of this could be gallium arsenide, which will become increasingly important for its use in high technology applications, replacing indium in PV cells and LCDs. If businesses aren’t aware of this, they may be caught out as industry trends continue to switch to alternative resources.

The Government’s strategy has already identified a number of actions that it can undertake – a good example is an Innovation Challenge Fund, financed by Defra and the Technology Strategy Board to foster and encourage best practice in local economy closed loop projects.So what is the role of local government in all of this? Does Defra’s strategy document and the issues it considers form a real risk or opportunity?

Initially, most local authority officers will probably disregard this action plan in favour of bidding for DCLG weekly collection funding, procuring new treatment infrastructure, or working out how to cut their budgets while maintaining public service satisfaction. But I would challenge frontline staff to think wider and longer term, and embrace the opportunities that resource risks and its mitigation could offer up.

Many local authorities are already considering expanding their commercial and industrial waste and recycling collections now that the penalties around collecting these materials in terms of EU Landfill Directive targets have been resolved. If local authorities are to re-enter commercial recycling either through direct services or their contractors, then delivering appropriate services will be vital.

Targeting scarce resources, focusing on closed loop solutions and facilitating the involvement of third parties will ensure that businesses with WEEE wastes, for example, are afforded suitable opportunities to recycle and recover these resources, more so than ever before.

Local authorities will also be crucial in helping to raise local business awareness of resource scarcity issues, and through local partnerships help to facilitate new working models where leasing of services and goods become more prevalent, thereby ensuring that the precious resources embedded in these items are retained in the local economy.

The focus will also increasingly be on repair, maintenance and re-use. In this respect, local authorities can play an integral role in helping to facilitate the growth of these opportunities through third party partnerships – both private and charity based. This approach has multiple benefits in terms of resource use, environmental protection, job creation and social cohesion.

Community and locality will be increasingly important in the coming years, and local closed loop economies will be at the heart of this transition. Local authorities will be vital in making mitigation measures identified in the action plan a reality.

For this reason, public sector waste managers need to grasp the nettle and make resource scarcity a local priority for communities both in households and in businesses.

Adam Read is practice director for waste management and resource efficiency at AEA

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