The UK needs more infrastructure to support a circular economy

Written by: Paco Hevia | Published:

The announcement by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond in the Autumn Budget that some of the income from the proposed tax on single-use plastics would be used to “improve the waste system” alongside wider action to tackle litter and single use plastics, is warmly welcomed.

The new tax, which will be consulted on alongside proposed producer responsibility reforms, will be levied on single-use plastic products containing less than 30% recycled content. This aspect will, I am sure, be equally welcomed by resource management companies and wider business.

As the Chancellor noted in his Parliamentary address: “the tax will provide a clear economic incentive for businesses to use recycled material in the production of packaging which, in turn, will create greater demand for this material.”

The UK is in need of a new programme of investment in environmental infrastructure to drive sustainability and a circular economy. This is something that I hope the Resources & Waste Strategy will address in more detail, building on the Budget commitments, when it is published later this year.

The intensive investment programme in the first few years of the current century were almost all aimed at ensuring the UK met its European commitments to reduce landfill, increase municipal recycling and reduce CO2emissions.

These commitments were primarily driven by the Landfill Directive, and the derogation allowed the UK to delay meeting its targets until 2020. Well, we have almost arrived at that particular destination.

The targets will be largely met, but we will no longer be a part of Europe, which brings its own challenges, not least to the export of more than 3m tonnes of Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF).

This outlet is under threat of at least short-term disruption once the UK exits Europe - and in the event of a no-deal, the impact could be longer-term and more fundamental. Any disruption will really show up the UK’s critical shortage of capacity, particularly in the east and south-east of England. Not to mention the significant longer-term cost in lost opportunity.

In the meantime, hundreds of landfill sites have closed over the last 20 years - not through a lack of business, as there are still millions of tonnes of waste landfilled every year - but primarily through filling up. More than 100 closed between 2006 and 2014 alone; parts of the south-east of England are predicted to have zero landfill capacity by 2025.

The infrastructure we need to invest in is two-pronged: domestic processing and reprocessing capacity; and domestic treatment and energy recovery.

A proportion of any taxes or levies should be ‘recycled’ into a crucial fund to invest in - or encourage investment in - both aspects of domestic infrastructure, in order that the ‘pull factor’ of minimum recycled content can be serviced but also that the UK can ensure it makes the very best use of residual waste for the benefit of the UK.

This will create jobs and economic value for the UK, but also social value and wider, global environmental benefits. It is time to lead by example and demonstrate how a modern, circular economy can function - managing materials now and for future generations, at the heart of a reinvigorated domestic manufacturing economy.

This move will also send the right signal, that value and long-term outcomes are more important than just ‘the cost’.

Vision and value are exactly what this industry needs. The Budget was a great start, and I hope this clear signal is built on and supported by the forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy.

Paco Hevia is MD of waste treatmentat Amey

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