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Gaps remain in the waste strategy (while Gove talks Brexit)

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A guest briefing on the unknowns in waste policy by Corin Williams, acting editor of LGC’s sister title Materials Recycling World.

Now the starting pistol has been fired with the publication of the government’s resources and waste strategy, the industry is keenly dissecting each chapter to see what it all means.

We are all waiting for Defra to release consultations on the major policy announcements in the strategy, but once again Brexit negotiations are gumming up the entire parliamentary system. Environment secretary Michael Gove is much more likely to appear on TV to talk about Brexit than he is about recycling.

In the meantime, a number of omissions in the strategy have become apparent. A prime example is metal – the word appears in the 146-page document just seven times. This includes passing mentions in footnotes and in chapters dedicated to plastics.

The British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) finds this state of affairs “curious” because the sector recycles around 12 million tonnes of mixed metals every year. Initiatives such as Greensteel, which looks to boost high-quality recycled steel through electric arc furnaces, have been completely ignored.

The BMRA’s chief executive issued warnings last year that this strategy needed to be supported and that valuable scrap would likely be exported if it is not used in the UK.

Another area that was glossed over is energy from waste. Defra has not completely ruled out an incineration tax, and this threat is not going to encourage investors in an absolutely essential method of diverting residual waste from landfill.

The strategy says, not very helpfully: “Incineration currently plays a significant role in waste management in the UK, and the government expects this to continue.”

Plastics-to-oil recycling – or ‘chemical recycling’ as it is popularly known – is starting to take off in the UK. It could be an economic way of recycling material that more often than not goes for incineration, such as films and polystyrene. But companies have no guidance on where in the waste hierarchy the technology sits or whether they will be backed by legislators.

The strategy says just this: “Our long-term objective is to design ‘difficult to recycle’ plastics out of the system completely. In the meantime, chemical recycling has the potential to provide a complementary route for recycling such plastics where mechanical recycling is either impractical or uneconomic.”

Not much there to help businesses looking to set up chemical recycling plants in the UK.

The commercial and industrial (C&I) waste stream also barely gets a mention in the strategy. It does recognise problems with data collection, in response to concerns from the Environmental Services Association that C&I waste has been under-reported for years.

Last year, Defra admitted the figures were unreliable, partly because of the way waste is classified when arriving at waste transfer stations.

Investigations revealed that around seven million tonnes of C&I material entering waste transfer stations in 2012 as ’mixed municipal waste’ was re-categorised as ’secondary waste’ before being sent for treatment or disposal, meaning it was left out of the figures.

This figure, and the figure for 2014, were subsequently revised upwards by about 10 million tonnes. For 2016, the latest figure available, the UK reached 33.1 million tonnes. This sort of level has been maintained for the past seven years now. However you measure it, the problem is not going away.

The strategy says: “We will combine data from regularly updated composition studies, the waste tracking system and data collected by the Environment Agency, in the course of its regulatory duties, to generate far more reliable data than ever before on the amounts and types of commercial & industrial waste.”

There are not many more details on the matter.

The above outlines just four issues that Defra will need to get a grip of. Many people in the industry have congratulated Mr Gove for listening to their concerns and, while this is undoubtably true, not everyone has had their voice heard.

With Brexit getting in the way, the industry is going to have to start shouting a lot louder.

Corin Williams, acting editor Materials Recycling World

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