What regulatory changes will drive the recycling market in the 2010s? Or will market forces assume more importance as waste comes to be seen as a resource rather than a nuisance?
Regulation was the main driver of the growth of recycling in the decade just ended, and any change can make a substantial difference to council waste policies.
It was the European Union Landfill Directive that shaped waste management then, because it set targets for countries to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill.
That meant the UK government set targets for councils’ contributions, backed up by a tax on materials that were sent to landfill.
Councils in turn sought to persuade residents to recycle materials, and in a few cases sought to fine those who persistently did not.
England produces more than 330 million tonnes of waste of all kinds in a year, nearly half of which is sent to landfill, although that proportion has decreased by nearly a quarter in recent years.
Another driver has been simple lack of choice: in parts of England, at current rates, landfill capacity will be exhausted within five years.
Gev Eduljee, external affairs director of waste contractor Sita, says the directive was the main driving force.
“That, coupled with the directive’s reclassification of landfills, which saw the closure of two-thirds of the UK’s sites,” he said.
“In its latter part, the landfill tax escalator was put in place, which also accelerated the pace of change and saw a five-fold increase in household waste recycling.”
Mr Eduljee says the directive’s continuing force should mean that by 2020 only 35% of municipal waste will be landfilled, relative to the rate that prevailed in 1995.
Waste industry consultant Peter Jones thinks market forces might gradually become more important than regulation. Manufacturers will be keen to recover materials such as tyres, glass, packaging and electrical goods “as they face sharp real price increases for virgin commodities”, he says.
“Suddenly, the retrieval of rare earth metals, recyclate and renewable fuels via waste recovery will become cheaper than depending on commodity markets.”
Producer responsibility legislation has changed the management of waste beyond recognition over the past decade, according to Chartered Institution of Wastes Management chief executive Steve Lee.
He says this has tackled packaging waste and waste streams such as batteries and electrical equipment and encouraged their recycling.
Martin Joyce, managing director Enterprise, which is supporting the campaign, said: “Waste regulation is a growth industry and with Hilary Benn announcing plans to ban specific materials from landfill we can expect more sticks and possibly a couple of carrots.
“It’s easy to envisage carbon becoming a universal metric, a new currency perhaps. And where you have currency, you have tax.
“Perhaps it is the carbon tax that will establish the true carbon benefit of quantity versus quality.”