The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) second long-term review sets out what it calls the “pressing need” to modernise waste infrastructure to boost recycling.
Improved infrastructure to boost economic growth across the UK and meet climate goals is achievable and affordable if the right policy steps are taken now, according to the government’s independent advisers on infrastructure strategy.
The second National Infrastructure Assessment – a review conducted every five years by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) – sets out a programme of transformation for the country’s energy, water and other key networks over the next 30 years.
Its recommendations for the waste sector include “urgently” implementing reforms to meet a 65% recycling target by 2035 and phasing out energy from waste (EfW) plants that do not include carbon capture facilities.
The Assessment calls on government to implement and provide clear guidance on its proposed “simpler recycling” reforms and for further detail on how the packaging extended producer responsibility and deposit return schemes will work.
It also recommends that, by 2026, government should work with local authorities to develop individual recycling targets, with support for transitional costs, such as low-level capital investments in new bins or collection vehicles where necessary.
The Commission further recommends an expansion of the single-use plastics ban to cover a wider range of hard-to-recycle plastic items.
The report projects around £500 million per year in public investment will be required over the next 30 years to safely collect, process and dispose of municipal and industrial waste.
The Commission also says private investment will be required to increase recycling capacity. To attract investment to the UK for this and other key infrastructure, the report calls for:
- Policy stability.
- Pro-investment regulation with clear guidance from government on priorities, investment ahead of need and business models to support emerging technologies.
- Speeding up the planning system for major projects, particularly energy transmission schemes, as well as more effective sharing of environmental data and clearer community benefits in return for hosting key infrastructure.
The Assessment also sets out the likely impact of the Commission’s recommendations on households, where private investment is recouped through infrastructure service bills. It finds that the average household will save around £800 per year by the mid-2030s compared to 2023, largely driven by the transition away from fossil fuels onto cheaper low-carbon electricity.
The report draws on two years of analysis, expert engagement and public research, resulting in what Commission Chair Sir John Armitt labels “probably the most comprehensive assessment yet of the infrastructure costs associated with supporting regional growth and reaching net zero”.
To reach net zero, the report says the amount of waste treated at energy from waste (EfW) plants without carbon capture and storage will need to reduce by around a quarter by 2035 and by around 80% by 2050.
The Commission also says recycling capacity needs to increase and the private sector needs encouragement to invest in new recycling plants. The Assessment concludes that local authorities should not sign or renew long-term contracts for EfW services that do not have “credible plans” for carbon capture and storage.
Government should also deliver on its commitment to bring EfW into the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2028, the Commission says.
Commenting on the NIC’s review, Lee Marshall, CIWM Policy & External Affairs Director, said: “We applaud and support the Commission’s recommendations 36 and 37, calling on the government to accelerate progress towards 65% recycling by 2035 and to stop procrastinating and delaying the implementation of the recently renamed ‘simpler recycling’ initiative.
“CIWM agrees with the NIC’s call to effectively stop the building of new EfW plants that are not carbon capture and storage ready and for EfW to be included in the UK Emission Trading Scheme by 2028 and concurs with the Commission’s recommendation that landfill tax should ensure that landfill is always more expensive than EfW. This will assist the sector as it continues to evolve its infrastructure to more sustainable and circular solutions.
“However, CIWM is disappointed to note that the good work by some operators on biodiversity has not been recognised, especially those projects that have created thriving ecosystems on restored landfills and also the contribution that the resources and waste sector has made to renewable energy, with landfill gas and EfW contributions to the electricity grid and EfWs contribution to district heating in some parts of the country.”
A lack of policy clarity has largely put new recycling infrastructure development on pause.
Executive Director of the ESA, Jacob Hayler, commented: “The ESA agrees with the NIC’s recommendation that Government should create stronger incentives for investment in recycling infrastructure and this will only be achieved by policy reform that stimulates both investment in recycling infrastructure and market demand for recycled materials.
“For more than five years now, a lack of policy clarity has largely put new recycling infrastructure development on pause and the current uncertainty in Westminster facing our sector does little to unlock the billions in circular economy investment that our members stand poised to make – given the right conditions.
John Scanlon, Chief Executive Officer for SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, commented: “We welcome the NIC’s recommendation that Government should create stronger incentives for investment in recycling infrastructure, as well as the call for a ban on future EfW plants which do not have plans for carbon capture.
The report is a clear call to action to government to now move at pace with implementing crucial policy reforms.
“However, we need to be practical in our approach and ensure that if there are no future local authority contracts to EfW plants without carbon capture, that there is an appropriate alternative, as it’s essential we avoid sending waste to landfill.
“The report is a clear call to action to government to now move at pace with implementing crucial policy reforms such as simpler recycling, so we can deliver on EPR reforms effectively, while ensuring alignment with broader government Net Zero policy.”