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10 July 2017

The future of waste management

A number of waste management, recycling and CSR firms were invited by B P Collins’ team of environmental lawyers to discuss the future of waste and recycling in the UK, particularly with Brexit on the horizon, at this year's Environment Roundtable discussion.

They were:

  • Matthew Farrow, Executive Director, Environmental Industries Commission
  • Alison Taylor, B P Collins LLP 
  • Alex Zachary, B P Collins LLP
  • David Smellie, B P Collins LLP
  • Craig Williams, B P Collins LLP
  • Jeff Rhodes, Biffa 
  • Graham Flynn, Anenta Ltd 
  • Matthew Ball, Green Redeem 
  • Peter Charlesworth, Carbon Statement
  • Richard Collins, Ecobrand 
  • Sam Pentony, British Metals Recycling Association

This is what they had to say:

History

Matthew Farrow, Chair: Over the past ten years there’s been a big shift in environmental policy. Nowadays, waste and recycling doesn’t garner much attention. Brexit is on the horizon and it could bring both risks and opportunities. But who should take control of driving the waste and recycling agenda?

Government’s role

Matthew Ball: Aside from the Green Party, no one else seems to be interested in DEFRA’s 25 year plan.  We do need some direction, otherwise with a dwindling budget the issue will fall further down the agenda. 

Alex Zachary: I don’t think direction will come from government as it’s very difficult to regulate. I also think that other environmental priorities are higher on the agenda, such as air quality. It’s possible that Whitehall is looking to the business sector to drive it – particularly when they are delaying the progress of their policy plans.

Jeff Rhodes: I agree. Defra seems more occupied with reporting statistics to the EU for compliance purposes than providing useful data and policies for UK waste producers and managers.  

Matthew Farrow: Post Brexit, perhaps Defra can use this time to focus on the UK, including what we want to do here and what the UK targets should be.

Targets    

Matthew Ball: The 2020 targets have undoubtedly failed. Although most people are aware of these targets, people are not mindful of the repercussions if they are not met. And I think if the consequences were known, then the money originally set to meet those targets, might not have been diverted to other sectors deemed more important.    

David Smellie: The problem is that guidance is needed. Industry is not going to spend money going down a particular route unless it has got certainty as to what the end goal is and it has support from the government for 25 years.   

Matthew Farrow: Regardless of whether you agree with EU policies and laws, a framework was in place and everyone knew what they had to work towards.    

But when we set new targets for the UK, we need to think about how we are going to meet these and it will need some form of intervention whether that is through tax, regulation, circulating examples of best practice or businesses taking the lead. 

Engaging SMEs  

Graham Flynn: We’ve spoken about large corporates and the work they’re doing. But there are thousands of small businesses which don’t know about legislation targets or the segregation of waste required. All they care about is what they are being charged and when it is being taken away. All they see is an increase in price for collection but don’t understand the benefits to their company. They don’t have a sustainability CSR manager – they just want the waste taken away. 

If there was some commitment to raising awareness amongst SMEs, around the benefits and incentives of being committed to recycling, waste collectors would see the quality of the product they’re receiving increase.       

Ian Binns: It’s the practical aspects that need to be considered with SMEs too. In the absence of a sustainability manager, whose responsibility is it to ensure that proper recycling practices are put in place? That’s difficult to ascertain and implement when companies have other focuses.     

Peter Charlesworth: There are a few things that could be done in the hospitality sector. The government could introduce financial incentives for commodities. We talk about the commodity prices varying and this has had an impact on the hospitality sector and there’s a debate about what’s valuable and what’s not, or what makes sense to separate out.

The other is to mandate these things happening, which has happened in Scotland where waste has to be separated out. 

The other thing they could do is standardise packaging, which could help reduce the need to sort out composite materials. But top-level guidance is needed from the government.

Old school recycling incentives are also required, just like in the past when everyone put out their milk bottles to be collected and refilled. Breweries are offering 10% off when you send your glassware back. The government should encourage that.      

Jeff Rhodes: Whatever approach is taken, there are constraints that people need to be realistic about. If you take a city like London where they have a relatively low recycling target of 25%, that is the average for a comparable European city. They have a lot of flats and transient residents, and from a political and tourism perspective, they have to have clean streets. They cannot have waste lying around and they can’t have large bins all over the place. From the regulatory end you could have targets similar to Scotland where businesses rather than waste collectors  have to separate waste but you have to build in the fact that not everyone can physically do that and there are also different logistics issues when comparing  sparsely populated rural areas to densely populated cities.  

Peter Charlesworth: What might help SMEs to recycle more, is to leverage off larger producers and their businesses’ recycling capabilities. 

Richard Collins: I agree. We work with a lot of shopping centres which can typically make a saving of £160,000 in a year by installing bio digesters, putting beehives on the roofs, implementing recycling and zero to waste schemes and, most importantly, educating all the microbusinesses, or rather the shop tenants, about the recycling they can do. The savings made from recycling result in a rent reduction so the shops can see an immediate benefit to them.  It’s a great model, with schools coming in to see how it works so children are being educated too. 

If that system could be transferred to the high street or NHS, then a small business could feel supported and encouraged to recycle more. 

Supply chains and considering waste as a resource  

Sam Pentony: I think there needs to be responsibility across the supply chain. The producers need to play a significant role and in certain markets, the government has already taken responsibility such as creating legislation around vehicle disposal and WEEE.

But we have come a long way and we are no longer considered the dirty man of Europe. The metals recycling industry, for example, is a success story as they are now regarded as a permanent material.  But if we look at Scotland, they are pushing very hard towards shifting the paradigm of recycling and waste. We should be looking at them and to other countries as to how to do things better.  

I think it is also about shifting the language of waste and changing its definition. We should regard it as a resource. 

Jeff Rhodes: In addition to considering and valuing waste as a resource, we also need to recognise from a UK industrial and economic strategy perspective that we need the infrastructure in place to manage whatever waste we produce.  As well as facilities to process recyclable materials and plants to generate energy from combustible waste, we are still going to need some landfill disposal facilities to deal with treatment capacity shortfalls and specialist wastes like asbestos or industrial sludges that have to landfilled. The whole infrastructure jigsaw needs to be in place for the economy to function properly. 

Matthew Farrow: Brexit may perhaps be an opportunity to think about that. Particularly since the EU was very taken up with the circular economy but there are a few cases where recycling may not be the best environmental option  and it might be easier to recognise that post Brexit.

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