Saturday, 11 June 2011

WEETF: debating the future of UK waste policy

Two days ago I was privileged to attend the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum's (WEETF) keynote seminar: The future of UK Waste Policy.

OK, I admit that it might not sound the most rivetting of days out for many, but for a blogging waste geek like me, it was a real opportunity to witness first hand the priorities of those who have a direct influence on the way in which the UK will protect the world's natural and material resources.

The Forum, which runs conferences and seminars in London aims to provide the "premier environment" for policy makers in Parliament, Whitehall and government agencies to engage with key stakeholders.

And indeed it was a seminar that brought together an impressive range of representatives from many relating sectors.  These included academia, government, retail, local authorities, waste management companies, anaerobic digestion specialists, waste reduction consultants, the energy from waste sector and anti-incineration networks.  It was probably the most widespread range of interested parties and stakeholders that I've ever witnessed in one room, since I started The Rubbish Diet blog three years ago.  There was also representation from emerging market investors amongst the delegate list.  Now that's a sector I don't come across every day.

Chaired in turn by Barry Gardiner MP (Member, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) and Lord Redesdale, Chairman, (Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Assocation), the event presented a plethora of professional opinion addressing topics that included The UK's record on waste management, delivering a zero waste economy by 2014, comparing waste policies in England and Scotland, the role of energy recovery in the future of waste management and the view from Wrap.

It was quickly acknowledged by industry expert Paul Levett, that the most useful tool in reducing waste has been the Landfill Tax, the impact of which will continue to have a positive effect as it rises towards £80 per tonne in 2014.  Paul Levett also stated that private investment had been successful in the municpal sector, but as municipal waste represented one third of the country's arisings, investment was also needed in other sectors too.  What particularly stood out for me was his view that waste should stop being a political issue and draw a cross-party consensus.  Frankly, I couldn't agree more, especially as many of the goal-scoring antics amongst political egos are often more effective at delaying the essential than moving as quickly as we should towards necessary solutions.

Although unable to provide actual detail of Defra's Waste Review, which won't be published until later this month,  Neil Thornton Defra's Director of Climate, Waste and Atmosphere (cool job title, by the way) highlighted the key drivers for the waste review, which included:

  • The new government & new economic backdrop, including localism and Big Society policies
  • The coalition programme and Defra's revised business plan
  • The need to agree goals for 2014-20, setting the path towards a zero waste economy
  • Exploring voluntary responsibility deals amongst businesses and Climate Change Act powers for household charging
  • Promotiing increased Energy from Waste through anaerobic digestion.

While Neil Thornton highlighted that there are now 173 local authorities collecting five or more dry recyclables at the kerbside (helping to reduce the average annual residual waste per person by 76kg since 2006/07), he also stated that a key tool in waste reduction will be the introduction of the Waste Hierarchy as a legal obligation in the UK.  This means that the new Waste (England & Wales) Regulations 2011 (effective from September) will put a legal obligation on businesses and local authorities to place Waste Prevention Plans as a priority in their operations.  This will affect businesses that produce waste, import or export waste, carry or transport waste, keep or store waste, treat waste, dispose of waste and those that operate as waste brokers or dealers.

It is expected that waste policy changes will also see
  • a move towards a zero waste economy
  • a more sustainable use of materials, 
  • improving services to businesses and households
  • more voluntary approaches, 
  • better targeted systems for enforcement
  • a smaller\different role for central government, putting more decisions into the hands of local communities and civil society
  • waste management becoming a very important part of the green economy.
Simon Aumônier, waste life cycle expert and partner at Environmental Resources Management  emphasised that waste prevention must be a top priority for future policy, highlighting the embodied impact (i.e. Raw materials, transport and production) of products and produce that are wasted.  The significance of this issue was later reinforced by Richard Swannell of Wrap, who illustrated the point with an example of the humble burger, stating that 2,400 litres of embedded water is required for just one 150 gram beefburger.  Working with WWF, Wrap has also calculated that food waste amounts to 6,200 billion litres of embedded water per year and clothing waste comes in at 2,400 billion litres.

This theme of Waste Prevention was echoed by Bob Gordon, Head of Environment at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), who highlighted how the brands and retailers that signed up to the Courtauld Commitment have in 5 years prevented 1.2 million tonnes of food and packaging waste and are continuing to make further reductions.  Commenting on pressures facing local authorities from certain public and political quarters to return to weekly rubbish collections he stated that this would be at odds with what the government is trying to achieve.

From a Zero Waste perspective, it was refreshing to hear Claudia Kuss-Tenzer, Research and Policy Programme Manager at Waste Watch, highlight that Zero Waste policies should be defined as Zero Waste and not "Zero Waste to Landfill".  She also called on government to support the Friends of the Earth ambitions to cut residual waste by 50% by 2020.

One of this year's most surprising and exciting developments to hit the waste and recycling sector was also introduced at the seminar, by Roy Brown, CEO of nappy recycling company Knowaste. With over 20 years experience in Canada, the company is launching the UK's first specialist recycling facility for absorbant hygiene waste, which includes disposable nappies, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products, using state-of-the-art technology to create quality plastics and fibres.

Its first UK plant will be completed in West Bromwich this summer, with facilities to recycle 36 tonnes of absorbent hygiene products per annum. The plastics output will be used for products such as roof tiles, seed trays and "plastic timber" for the landscaping and construction industries, whereas the fibres can be reclaimed for green energy fuel or sterilised and recycled for use in corrugated board, blow moulded packaging (replacing polystyrene packaging), seeding mulch and as fillers in the construction industries.

Knowaste contracts will initially be through the commercial sector but the company also has plans to target the residential sector too, with solutions to recycle 750 tonnes of waste that's generated through municipal waste per year.   Roy Brown stated that they had been attracted to the UK by drivers such as the Landfill Tax and the move towards a Zero Waste economy.  Announcements about new plants that the company plans to roll out across the UK will be made at the RWM exhibition in September.

While the government is aiming for 50% recycling targets for 2020 in England, Zero Waste Scotland, represented by Iain Gulland has its sights on 75% by 2025.  The organisation provides a range of support programmes, campaigns and other interventions to help people and organisations on the journey to Zero Waste and is promoting resource efficiency as a key theme with benefits of creating a low carbon economy, better economic performance and material security. Alongside this it is also calling for more producer responsibility.

The seminar continued with the role of energy recovery technologies, including much debate around anaerobic digestion (AD), gasification of dry waste and EfW plants, with representation from Hayley Conboy, Policy Adviser for Environment at the CBI, who highlighted the importance of recovery technologies to the waste landscape. 

Michael Chesshire (Technology Director at BiogenGreenfinch) who was introduced by Lord Redesdale as the "Godfather of AD",  detailed how processing food waste through such technology not only is a vital process for creating biofertilers and biomethane energy, but this waste stream is also proving to be very effective in reducing waste arisings.  He also commented on how anaerobic digestion is very scalable and that food waste plants can offer a combined use for farm slurries and crop waste, highlighting the benefits for farmers.

Professor Jim Swithenbank, Chairman, Sheffield University Waste Incineration Centre, presented the role of thermal technologies in using non recyclable waste residues to "mitigate UK energy poverty and climate change" and called for the government to place a priority on district heating and combined heat and power (CHP).  He stated that one tonne of waste was equal to one barrel of oil.

Jane Green, of the Zero Waste Alliance UK, added a word of caution for local authorities going down the incinerator\energy from waste route and that was concern for the impact on levels of sorted recyclates and confliction with the waste prevention message.

Having been catapulted into the waste scene three years ago, when waste was most definitely considered a very negative problem, there is an air about the sector that has transformed the landscape into one of great opportunity. Listening to talk of resource efficiency, economic development and green technologies depicted a scene of hope, underpinned by legislation that is taking this issue very seriously indeed.

This was reinforced by Lord Resedale's closing comments, highlighting that politicians are now taking a real interest in waste and that is going to the key issue of the next five years, having moved significantly up the agenda.  He also added that energy prices are going up 20% this year and from now we will see a close connection between the areas of waste, energy prices and resource management.

It will no doubt be a sector rife with commercial opportunities as pre-existing and emerging players ptich for new opportunities and fight for survival over the next few decades.  I just now hope that the solutions that shine through will be those that are best for the environment, the economy AND our societies and that the voice of local communities will play a key role in the future of waste.

This blogpost serves only as a summary of Thursday's seminar.  For full details, transcripts, along with delegate lists and speaker biographies can be ordered from the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum.

Other publications to look out for through June are Wrap's new business plan, which will be published on Tuesday and the long awaited Waste Review, which will be published by Defra soon after.



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