The next steps for the waste industry following Defra's consultations

Written by: Jeff Rhodes | Published:
Defra's consultations call for an industry-wide step-change in recycling


In the wake of the long-awaited release of the Resources and Waste Strategy in December last year, it was promising to see the government waste no time in following up implementation with the publication of a series of four key consultations in February.

These consultations on deposit return schemes (DRS), Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) reform, collections consistency and a new plastic packaging tax all call for an industry-wide step-change in recycling attitudes.

Waste producers, policy-makers and consumers must view waste as a vital resource to create an economy with long-term sustainability at its heart, conserving raw materials for future generations.

As we work towards building infrastructure and processes that can support this type of circular economy – one which works to extract maximum value from resources by keeping them in use for as long as possible – it’s critical we ensure whatever strategies are put in place are adopted comprehensively across the board.

Collaboration across the supply chain will be crucial if we’re to affect lasting change that translates to consumers and challenges the throwaway culture, and these consultations represent a major opportunity to do this.

Clear labelling

First, we must make it clear to consumers on what can and can’t be recycled, to extricate as much quality recyclable material for reprocessing as possible. Public confusion is already hindering capture rates – we need to ensure people are aware of the known hard-to-recycle items such as soft plastics, drinks cartons, disposable coffee cups, black plastic food trays and textiles, and keep these materials out of the mainstream household collection recycling bin intended for “core materials”.

Unclear or non-existent recycling labelling has only exacerbated the issue here, resulting in yet more non-target materials in recycling streams.

Simple and consistent labelling will help inform consumer choices at the point of purchase as well as disposal, improving public knowledge and overall recyclability. Longer term, hard-to-recycle materials need phasing out at source.

A tailored approach to collections

One of the key aims for these consultations is to agree a set of “core materials” for recycling collections from households and from businesses, linked to potential collection standards which waste producers can be encouraged to adopt.

However, some flexibility is still going to be necessary, for example to enable local authorities to make optimal use of infrastructure available to them and, for business waste producers, to enable services to be provided which reflect their particular waste streams.

So far, in our experience, multiple separate materials collections have proven more physically awkward for households and operatives alike and generally more expensive.

Instead, we’re seeing strong evidence that well-established co-mingled collection systems are able to meet the required standards for end-markets. Biffa’s quality-oriented sorting facilities allow metals, plastics, glass and paper and card to be used as raw materials which meet customer quality standards.

However, the need to implement separate collections for food waste is long overdue. Food waste, which currently makes up around 30% of collected household residual waste according to WRAP, can be used to generate renewable energy through anaerobic digestion, together with soil improver.

By keeping food waste separate from residual waste, we can also further decontaminate that particular stream and potentially increase recovery of recyclable materials.

That said, despite this move towards consistency, it’s important not to be over-prescriptive when it comes to implementing solutions for businesses.

Though household waste collections are broadly similar in composition, the same cannot be said for businesses, and recycling rates can vary from between 75% and 0% according to our latest data.

Other than mandating separate food waste collection, the rest of the solution must be tailored to suit the needs of each business and their waste streams. A ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work here. In any case, the adaptability of the UK’s competitive waste industry means it must respond simultaneously to the needs of both the government and the customer.

DRS

Deposit return schemes, the second consumer-facing model proposed by the government in its consultations, will without doubt prove to be another effective way of boosting the capture rate of recyclable materials, particularly if focused on the “on-the-go” drinks containers which are prone to escaping kerbside recycling collections and often end up as litter.

Similar schemes are already flourishing in other European countries and are a proven method of encouraging consumers to rethink their approach to single-use plastics, but we need a scheme which works best for our own circumstances, having already developed successful kerbside recycling collections in the UK.

However, for consumer-facing schemes like DRS to reach their full potential, they must work in conjunction with change at the other end of the supply chain too.

An industry wake-up call

These consultations should hopefully put serious plans in motion to improve extended producer responsibility (EPR). Currently, raw materials remain relatively cheap, while secondary materials are undervalued. Incentives which support their use will bolster markets, drive recycling and support the creation of a circular economy.

Revisions to the PRN system will be a key component of this, placing the onus on packaging designers and manufacturers to create easily recyclable products which contain less virgin plastic. Should this be implemented correctly,

PRN reform has the potential to raise between £800m and £1bn for recycling and disposal, according to government figures.

Together with the proposed tax on plastic packaging which contains less than 30% recycled materials, EPR should drive demand for eco-design and create valuable markets for secondary materials, ensuring resources are kept in use for as long as possible.

The future is infrastructure

Providing they are developed and implemented realistically and consistently across UK supply chains, these four consultations should increase capture rates and quality. However, this will all be for nothing unless they can be matched by a corresponding investment in infrastructure.

Previously, the availability of offshore markets has meant that the UK has lacked the necessary infrastructure for reprocessing. But it is vital that we build facilities here in the UK that can recycle a wide selection of materials and prevent them from being diverted overseas.

These consultations should act as proof that the waste sector is a strong industry, full of potential and firmly supported by government. In turn, this should help attract investment in infrastructure, not just for recycling but also for residual waste management of the leftover materials.

We are already making strides in this area. Biffa’s new £15m plastics recycling plant in Durham will have the capacity to recycle more than one billion plastics drinks bottles a year, processing three million bottles a day into new food and drink packaging.

The investment is an important step forward for us as a company – it will double Biffa’s recycling capacity for plastic bottles while supporting the UK’s long-term plan to find new ways to reuse plastics.

However, we need more key industry players to follow suit.It is only with the requisite systems in place here and less overseas that the UK will be able to fully realise its vision of a sustainable, circular economy.

Jeff Rhodes is head of environment and external affairs at Biffa.


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