We send a LOT of waste to Europe from the UK, explains Grundon Waste Management’s deputy chairman, Neil Grundon. So is it time to stop playing this game of “pass the waste parcel”? Neil thinks so…
Every year in the UK, we quite happily parcel up around four millions of tonnes of waste and send it off to Europe, where they welcome it with open arms and use it to provide fuel to keep their economy running.
It’s a party trick that is costing our waste management industry around £350 million of lost business a year, a figure which effectively doubles if you take the net landfill tax loss into account.
What does the Government do? It effectively ignores the issue and instead continues to make grand proclamations about ambitious recycling rates; something that’s very easy if you know you can wrap up 50% of your waste in silage wrap and have it burnt in the EU, all because you have taxed it out of the UK.
In a post-Brexit world however, it won’t be so clever to ignore, if those four million tonnes come steaming right back at you.
In 2016, Grundon witnessed the first tangible rise in waste volumes for many years, and many of those that predicted a decoupling of waste growth from GDP sadly had their heads wrapped in the same film as the waste leaving our shores.
The reality is that most UK transfer stations have about 48 hours’ worth of storage and our EfW plants a week at most, so who knows where the experts predicting ‘overcapacity’ get their figures from. We’re only the ones who pick the waste up – so why would you trust us to get our sums right?
The problem is that thanks to decades of lack of investment in infrastructure, combined with a devastating decline in industries such as engineering and manufacturing, the UK is ill-equipped to respond to just such a scenario if the EU says thanks, but no thanks, to our waste exports.
The knowledge and expertise that could once be found in our northern powerhouses has now been largely replaced by the technology giants of our silicon valleys which, while equally important to our economy, does little to help us build new solutions for the waste sector.
Instead, we rely heavily on overseas expertise and manpower, something that may also become much more limited in the future.
For now, we can only hope that the money our European neighbours realise from our exported waste is enough to keep them happy – after all, they earn far more from us than we do from them.
Until the day when the Government wakes up to the fact that, instead of giving money away, we could be investing that £350m in building our own Energy from Waste (EfW) infrastructure, we are effectively waiting for the day the music stops.
Perhaps only then, when we’re all left holding one very large (and smelly) waste mountain parcel and nowhere to put it, someone will realise that this was one party game we shouldn’t even have been playing – let alone winning.