RWM News: UK “Sleep Walking” Into Waste Infrastructure Capacity Deficiency

The UK is “sleep walking” into a waste infrastructure capacity deficiency and is likely to “panic” later when it’s clear there is a problem, according to Biffa’s Ian Wakelin.

The comments come as Wakelin (left), joined by SUEZ’s David Palmer-Jones (right), opened this year’s RWM exhibition in the Keynote theatre.

The session offered an overview of the year in the waste & recycling sector, with former CIWM CEO-turned-consultant Steve Lee chairing the duo. He kicked off the discussion by asking what they want to see in the government’s forthcoming Waste & Resources Strategy.

One of Wakelin’s overarching messages from the session was that the UK doesn’t have the waste infrastructure capacity to deal with its own waste and that it currently doesn’t have the right mix. He said the UK has a deficit of energy from waste (EfW) capacity and that 13m tonnes of combustible waste that could be burnt for energy currently isn’t because the facilities aren’t there.

He said the UK will make substantial progress and predicted the capacity gap will half in the next ten years, assuming it continues to export refuse derived fuel (RDF). He said it’s vital UK government decides what it needs and “would like” in terms of the role of EfW and that it needs to offer clarity, which will then help build confidence and investment in those vital facilities.

Both agreed that the impact of the “Blue Planet effect”, in that it has increased public awareness of resources sustainability and single-use plastic waste, has changed public sentiment “beyond all recognition”, and that for the resources sector to not deliver on this would be “unacceptable” and a “failure”.

In terms of recycling, he said that without extended producer responsibility (EPR), UK recycling will go “virtually nowhere” and that the Chinese sword has been a “big wake up call”.

Palmer-Jones said that he was not interested in “tweeking” the current systems and what he wants is “systemic” change. He said the failing recycling market needs to be addressed, along with the lack of data, which is essential for government to implement future-policy. He said EPR, balance and “pull-mechanisms” are vital. He also said that local government funding needs to be right, as do food waste systems.

He reiterated Wakelin’s comments that the industry needs confidence to invest and this needs to come from government and policy. With regard to building confidence, he questioned why the sector has to wait for the government’s budget to find out the rise in landfill tax and offered that a calculator would help develop confidence in the long run.

Lee asked if a strong domestic market for secondary materials would be enough to stimulate recycling, to which Palmer-Jones said having these materials remain in the UK is better than sending them abroad and that potentially a virgin plastic tax could help increase demand for secondary materials.

Wakelin offered that he doesn’t believe the UK will ever be self-sufficient in terms of a secondary materials market because it doesn’t have the manufacturing in place for the use of these materials. He said, “ironically” the UK could do more with plastics because of the value of the finished product, but paper would be “challenging”.

Tackling Brexit and the impact on UK resource businesses, Palmer-Jones said that currently we don’t know what type of Brexit we will get, and that this raises questions, such as what the port situation will be like and how this may affect RDF exports. He also raised the issue of migrant labour in the sector and that, with what will presumably be a stem of freedom of movement post-Brexit, this may become a problem.

Wakelin said that Brexit is a “political failure” and probably won’t be good for the UK economy. “Anyone who doesn’t worry about Brexit is a fool,” he said. He also stated that if it comes to the point where RDF can’t leave the country then the only place for it is landfill.

Both agreed that the impact of the “Blue Planet effect”, in that it has increased public awareness of resources sustainability and single-use plastic waste, has changed public sentiment “beyond all recognition”, and that for the resources sector to not deliver on this would be “unacceptable” and a “failure”.


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  1. We’ve been facing this problem for more than four decades and successive Governments have been only too keen to leave the solution to ‘market forces’ and ‘commercial interests.
    We should have taken the same approach as that for other essential infrastructure eg roads, railways and hospitals.

  2. Agree that the problems of building infrastructure to deal with residual waste have been with us for a long time, in Wales the government has tried to address this problem, successfully in much of Wales but there are areas in Wales where exporting RDF was an easier option than dealing with the problem locally. The Brexit uncertainties on future export restrictions may make this option impossible and these areas may have missed the boat for developing the necessary local facilities with financial support from Welsh Government. The other issue of the need to develop better infrastructure to turn our recyclates into raw materials for local use has not delivered all of the markets that are needed to deal with our potential secondary resources productively. In part this is related to the lack of local manufacturing capacity within the UK. I wonder whether this could become the impetus to invest in manufacturing capacity in the UK with government support, but this would be a major challenge for all parts of the UK government and would require a change in thinking for many.

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