For World Environment Day, DS Smith Recycling’s Peter Clayson examines the relationship between recycling and recovery, affirming the need to focus on the waste hierarchy when handling waste streams.
Recent figures published by energy-from-waste (EfW) trade body CEWEP reveal that the UK is investing in energy recovery faster than our European counterparts – while recycling rates across most areas of the UK are stagnating.
Introduced by the European Union in 1975, the waste hierarchy prioritises prevention above all other means of waste management. Designing out waste through reduction and reuse sits at the top of the hierarchy. Once reduction and reuse have been considered, the priority must be to recycle. Good design is vital at all stages to prevent waste – for example, designing packaging from a single material is important, so it can be easily recycled at the end of its life.
If an item can’t be reused, then it should be easily recyclable – manufacturing plastic items from single polymers and having clear messaging about the correct way to recycle it after use enables easy recycling.
The key principles of the circular economy can be seen as an application of the waste hierarchy: prevent waste, reuse what you can, then recycle – with energy recovery reserved only for materials that cannot be recycled.
When considering recycling’s place in the waste hierarchy, we must remember that recycling takes a product that can no longer be used for its intended purpose and transforms it into something new, ensuring that the materials that went into it stay circulating in the economy for as long as possible. Recovery, on the other hand, destroys the structure of the material while releasing some of its energy.
Energy Recovery – The New Landfill?
In two years, the UK has increased its EfW portfolio from 32 to 37 sites, expanding annual capacity to 8.48m tonnes. At the same time, recycling rates are stagnating in many areas of the UK, so there are calls for greater investment into improving recycling infrastructure, as well as for reform of resource management legislation.
A recent article in The Times summarised that the landfill tax halved the waste being landfilled over the past five years – yet the tonnage being sent to incinerators has doubled. With the Circular Economy Package (CEP) due for implementation later this year, and questions still unanswered about the future of the UK’s environmental legislation, it is more important than ever for legislators to return to the principles of the waste hierarchy when planning our future resource policy.
An over-reliance on EfW will lead to lost recycling opportunities. We must prioritise systems that ensure materials that can be recycled are recycled. If the current inconsistent collection systems continue to produce poor quality recyclables, or if local waste management systems are created to fill these increasing EfW capacities, we risk EfW becoming the new landfill and valuable resources being lost from the circular economy.
This year’s World Environment Day focused on beating plastic pollution. Some commentators advocate the role of EfW in turning the tide on plastic waste but, as with all materials, the application of the waste hierarchy is key. Designing waste out and reducing where possible will help. Bans on certain products have their place and consumers can play their part by refusing single-use, non-recyclable plastic products.
If an item can’t be reused, then it should be easily recyclable – manufacturing plastic items from single polymers and having clear messaging about the correct way to recycle it after use enables easy recycling. It is little use to claim an item is technically recyclable if it cannot be easily collected and reprocessed in an accessible recycling stream.
Collecting materials separately produces the highest quality recyclables and improves recycling rates. Consistent recycling, in line with WRAP’s Greater Consistency Framework’s local authority separate collection models and strong communication campaigns, will allow businesses and local authorities to address domestic plastic pollution, and achieve both environmental and economic savings with their recyclable materials.
The Role Of EfW
If we consider the lower levels of the waste hierarchy, EfW has an important role to play, especially in processing materials that genuinely cannot be recycled. For difficult to recycle materials, or potentially recyclable materials that are too highly contaminated, energy recovery is a more sustainable alternative to landfill.
DS Smith’s paper mills recycle nearly three million tonnes of paper fibre across Europe every year. Energy recovery helps to make our papermaking process more sustainable, by recovering the energy from the unrecyclable plastic waste generated in the paper pulping process.
An incineration tax could be introduced and escalated as a means of encouraging incineration diversion, and more widespread reduction and reuse, as well as a stronger focus on quality in recycling.
Papermaking is energy intensive, so we are continually looking at ways to make it as sustainable as possible. At our UK paper mill in Kemsley, the Reject Processing Centre ensures that very little usable fibre is lost. Mixed plastic waste that is not currently recyclable becomes a feedstock for our on-site energy recovery plant, enabling us to offset the energy used when we make paper.
So EfW has its role – but recycling should always be the priority. We must not risk recyclables being burnt or even landfilled simply because they have been collected in inadequate collection infrastructures.
As the Government looks to a more resource-efficient future with the implementation of the circular economy package (CEP) and its own Waste and Resources Strategy, it should reflect on the success of the landfill tax in directing resources up the waste hierarchy.
An incineration tax could be introduced and escalated as a means of encouraging incineration diversion, and more widespread reduction and reuse, as well as a stronger focus on quality in recycling. Quality will become more important than ever now that the CEP’s targets seek to increase the quantity of material for recycling. Larger quantities must not mean more contamination.
Adopting the waste hierarchy and embracing a move towards the circular economy will require greater levels of collaboration between the government, resource management specialists and key industry stakeholders. Recycling will play a pivotal role in achieving our circular economy aspirations – we need a joined-up, consistent approach to ensure that we make the most of our resources and ensure that only non-recyclable materials are sent for energy recovery.