Waste not but want more?
The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit has just released its report on tackling the waste problem in England. Waste not, Want not aims to show that by taking a more sustainable approach to waste, both economic and environmental benefits will be realised. Beverly La Ferla reviews what this will mean to industry.
The UK produces enough waste in one hour to fill the Albert Hall. That is a total of 375 million tonnes of waste produced annually in England, of which 47 million tonnes comes from industry, 24 million tonnes from commercial businesses, and 89 million tonnes from construction. The rest is municipal, household or other waste.
Of the industrial waste, defined as ‘waste arisings from factories or industrial plants’, 44 per cent goes to landfill, 48 per cent is recovered and 44 per cent is recycled. On the surface, it doesn’t sound too bad but the amount of waste is growing at a rate faster than GDP and is one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.
Coupled with a waste management system that is archaic and heavily dependent on landfill, the UK is lagging seriously behind with its targets for the EU Landfill Directive (1999), the Environment White
Paper (1990) and the Waste Strategy 2000.
But first, why should we bother with waste? According to the report, there are sound economic and environmental reasons for a more sustainable approach to managing waste. For example, less wasteful product design and manufacturing processes translate directly into cost-savings for business.
New waste technologies and services can also provide new markets for UK businesses and generate significant revenues. Benefits to climate change are likely to result from minimising waste – landfill sites currently account for around 25 per cent of the UK’s methane emissions. Thus, reducing landfill will not only benefit the local environment but also help the UK meet its obligations under the Kyoto Treaty.
And finally, alternative waste management options send positive signals to the public about valuing the local environment and can help to reduce anti-social behaviour and the costs to society as a result.
Current policies are failing to tackle rising waste quantities or to reduce the quantity of waste going to landfill sites. England spends only 60 per cent of the EU average on waste management and disposal with a huge reliance on landfill.
This reliance stems partly from a historical fact that reflects England’s geology and extraction industry which have made suitable landfill sites pleasantly abundant. This meant that the UK, unlike many of its European neighbours, has not needed to invest to the same degree in alternative waste management options.
Also historically, waste has not been an area of policy priority and the economic and regulatory framework has offered few incentives either for a reduced rate of growth in waste volumes or for alternative methods of management and disposal.
Few measures have been introduced to curb the growth of waste volumes although some have tried, such as the introduction of the producer responsibility for packaging targets following the EU Packaging Directive. There have also been various practical problems such as delays in granting planning permission for waste management plants.
This has been perceived as a significant barrier to setting up waste management facilities – barriers which mainly involve the length of time needed to secure planning permission and the risk that permission will be refused due to public opposition.
The report tackles the issue of what needs to be achieved and how. Its vision is that ‘by 2020, England should have a world class waste management system that allows it to prosper while minimising environmental impacts and protecting human health’.
The practical implementation of this is that growth in waste volumes must be de-coupled from growth in GDP but experience has shown that there are significant lead times. Countries that have developed effective waste management systems have taken between ten and 15 years to do so. It therefore costs less to act now. The longer action is delayed, the greater the cost because there will be more backlog of waste to manage.
Another action point, says the report, is to fully integrate the costs of goods and services. For manufacturers, this means to incorporate a charge that covers the cost of treating hazardous materials created during production, and recovering, recycling or re-using materials created during its production and disposal.
This will ensure manufacturers comply with producer responsibility obligations and minimise all costs associated with production (which keeps those charges down and makes companies more competitive).
However, the report cites that ‘there are poorly developed markets for recyclates’ at present, although the remit of the government Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is to facilitate the development and expansion of these markets.
A notable achievement was the support it gathered for a capital investment of £23m in 34 research and development projects, which range from investigating the use of recycled glass in industrial-scale drinking water filtration to developing standards at European level for recycled plastics, and have the potential to prevent an extra 2.6 million tonnes of waste materials going to landfill.
Short term investment
This ties in with the next action point – a package of short to medium term investment measures to facilitate the transition to a more sustainable waste management system to boost recycling and its associated infrastructure and fund new waste management technologies. Most waste is the result of poor product design and inefficient manufacturing processes and technological innovation coupled with producer responsibility and financial incentives for ‘green goods’, such as reduced VAT on recycled products and increased taxes on environmentally-damaging ones, can only serve to help the situation, says the report.
Funding for this could potentially come from the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, due to be boosted by a significant rise in landfill tax over the next few years (suggestions have been made for an increase from the current £13/tonne to £35/tonne).
Ernst and Young estimated that additional investment of £600-£700m per annum over the next ten years is needed to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill – a target which will meet the EU Landfill Directive obligations. Waste Strategy 2000 (DETR) estimated a range of £3.4b to £7.7b would cover the costs of its targets.
However, predicting the future cost of waste management is highly dependent on the assumptions made. One can assume, though, that it is going to be expensive and the longer it is left, the more expensive it will be.
Successful implementation depends not only on central government setting the strategic and policy direction on waste management through framework support and funding, but on manufacturers voluntarily agreeing to increase the recyclability of their products and reduce waste at source, not just for the environment but for the hard economic benefits such measures bring.
The report shows that a different approach to waste will pay economic and environmental dividends, that the focus on strategy must be on reducing, re-using and recycling waste with reformed incentives and regulations.
And, as Tony Blair says in his foreword, “the report is offered, not as a statement of government policy, but as a contribution to the debate. But I accept its diagnosis. We must rise to its challenge”. A strong message from government to government… but not just meant for government.
Industry, rise up.