The Election Spotlight On Recycling

Would a tax on the incineration of waste drive up recycling? Luke Prazsky, technical director & waste resource management specialist at Wardell Armstrong, questions whether the Liberal Democrat manifesto proposal would work.

I spotted a news article that said the Liberal Democrat Party proposed, in its manifesto, the introduction of a tax on the incineration of waste in an effort to drive up recycling. It made me question whether this would work or not.

Everyone talks about waste – it’s always in the news, it affects people’s lives. As a chartered waste manager, everyone I talk to outside of the waste industry wants to talk about recycling. The focus on recycling is a common problem for us and the upcoming election brings waste into the spotlight once more.

Despite regional variations, it is clear that recycling has stalled in the UK, but I suspect the main reasons behind this are social attitudes and behaviours, which are generational.

In the UK, the majority of consumers are reluctant to segregate wastes at source as much as it could do. It’s debatable whether the reason are:

  • a general apathy towards the issue,
  • the perception that it all ends up in landfill anyway,
  • the perception that it all ends up in China,
  • that recycling at home takes too long, involves washing up all of your waste or
  • that there is not the space to store all the different materials separately

In my opinion it’s a combination of all of the above and there is no easy solution.

The problem with taxes is that in isolation they are a blunt instrument and never quite provide the perfect answer. Look at landfill tax – true, it did move us away from landfilling towards energy recovery (although we still landfill quite a lot of waste!) but what it failed to do, because it was never intended to, was to increase the market for recyclates.

We have seen the development of a lot of mechanical biological treatment (MBT) facilities that were designed to recover the recyclates left in the waste we throw away. Unfortunately, they cannot deliver the quality recyclable waste streams that reprocessors require at the right price point and therefore are a luxury (or inefficiency) that local authorities can no longer afford.

For example, Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority announced recently it would seek to end the PFI contract it signed in 2009 with Viridor Laing and this is a trend likely to grow amongst local authorities. These days, residual waste is subject to a rudimentary shred with a gentle attempt to get any “easy to reach” metals before it is sent off for thermal treatment, purely because it is not economically viable to do anything more.

Maybe one day we will have cost-effective technologies that can help realise more value in the materials recovered from residual waste.

I would question why we would want to tax the production of energy from waste in the first place given that we are trying to move away from coal, but ironically an incineration tax in isolation would just push us back towards landfilling if the tax levy was high enough to make it cost effective. Unless the bigger picture was considered at the same time. Taxing incineration does not make the recovered recyclate any more attractive to reprocessors nor will it stop householders from putting recyclable materials in their residual waste bins.

Therefore, any solution has to consider the market drivers for recyclates – something that no government has tackled very effectively to date, but that is because the market is not just the UK. It will also need to tackle public engagement so that the inaccurate perceptions outlined above are replaced with facts.

One option could be to consider taxing products made from virgin raw materials if the market could be managed in such a way, but taxes might have to be Europe-wide to be fully effective.

This option is increasingly on the agenda along with extended producer responsibility as part of the move towards a circular economy, but I just wish one of the political parties could show that it understands the issues and can be trusted to work towards a sensible solution.


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