Delivering Sustainable Growth

libbyLibby Forrest, policy and parliamentary affairs officer at the Environmental Services Association (ESA), discusses the Association’s latest report, and how Government needs to take a lead on resources.

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The benefits of the circular economy are these days well known within the sector, but far from realised in the economy as a whole. Moving away from resource- and energy-intensive patterns of consumption relieves the strain on our environment, ever important as the world’s population increases. Better management of resources also adds value to the economy. Rather than wasting materials when they reach the end of their life, re-manufacturing, recycling and energy recovery put them back into the economy. On top of this, resource efficient innovations create jobs, reducing unemployment.

Joining the two ends of the traditional, linear make-use-dispose approach to resources is crucial to transitioning to a circular economy, and this is where the resource and waste management industry comes in. The industry collects, sorts and treats the UK’s waste in order to return it to the economy as new materials or energy. In doing so, we are playing our part in building a strong, resilient, economy; one that doesn’t rely on unsustainable consumption which will cost us in the long-run, but that is fit for the challenges of today and the future.

“In order to flourish, the industry needs strong leadership on waste and resources from policy-makers”

That is why the ESA has produced its latest report, “Delivering Sustainable Growth: How the Resource and Waste Management Industry Benefits People, the Environment and the Economy”. We believe that the Resource and Waste Management Industry is integral to enabling truly sustainable growth in the UK, which has manifold economic, environmental and social benefits.

Prosperous Economy

Despite some challenging circumstances, the industry has seen sustained growth over the past few years, above that of the wider economy. Together, the sector has a turnover of £11bn, with a GVA of almost £5bn. It supports 106,000 jobs across the country, boosting local economies, and across skills levels, increasingly at the higher end as more advanced technologies are deployed.

The sector has developed a range of apprenticeships and training courses in order to equip its workers with the ever more sophisticated skills required by the industry, and has made health and safety the top priority. This has made it possible to achieve the increase in recycling from near zero in the 1990s to 45% today. The sector also generates 12% of the UK’s renewable electricity, and has reduced its emissions by 70% since 1990, playing its part in mitigating climate change.

Sustaining Growth

There is clearly much to celebrate within the industry. However, going forward there are some serious barriers to realising a circular economy, which can only be overcome with Government intervention. In our report, we make four recommendations that are aimed at ensuring that the economics of the circular economy add up so that it can be delivered in practice.

Recommendation 1: Develop more resilient recovery markets for waste-derived products

Recycling, historically cheaper than alternative forms of treatment, is currently struggling to remain profitable, with costs rising due to falling commodity prices. Stimulating the demand for recycled content in products, for example through green public procurement measures, tax incentives and eco-labelling, would help pull more recyclable materials out of landfill in a way that ensures recycling remains economic as we reach higher recycling rates.

Recommendation 2: Introduce a new framework for producer responsibility that transfers resource ownership from local authorities to product supply chains

Existing Extended Producer Responsibility schemes are failing to produce secondary materials of consistent quality, and a review is much needed to see how they can better encourage recyclability and use of recycled content.

Recommendation 3: Improve the efficiency of waste collection systems and infrastructure

The current patchwork of local authority waste management delivery creates wide-spread duplication and therefore there is a huge scope for efficiency savings. The Government’s devolution and cities agenda presents an opportunity to create a more joined-up approach to waste management between local authorities, which would increase economies of scale and yield an overall reduction in system costs.

Recommendation 4: Drive waste crime out of the sector

Waste crime is a serious problem for the industry as it undermines legitimate business. Alongside the funding announced by HM Treasury in last year’s Autumn Statement and the 2016 Budget, a new settlement for regulation of the sector should be introduced which increases penalties for those who flout the law, while reducing burdens on legitimate operators.

Government Leadership

In order to flourish, the industry needs strong leadership on waste and resources from policy-makers. In part, the Circular Economy Package goes some way to provide the ambition and certainty we need to help drive up recycling and reduce our reliance on landfill. However, whether or not we will be held accountable to the EU targets come 23 June, it is vital that the UK Government whole-heartedly embraces the concept of the circular economy and is prepared to provide the leadership required to help us realise it.

Download the full report here 

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