Incoherent & Unambitious

20508_PhillipWSeeing former WRAP director, Phillip Ward, at the recent RWM With CIWM event, we took the opportunity to ask about his take on the latest hot topics in waste and resource management.
Published in the CIWM Journal October 2013


I have been reflecting on a couple of things I heard at RWM this year. The first was someone making an argument that boiled down to “recycling is old hat, it’s all about the circular economy now”. Well yes and no.

The circular economy doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about how to increase effective recycling as we start to redesign products or invent new ways of leasing them to the public. Recycling is intrinsic to the circular economy, the fulfillment of which demands more and better systems to recover materials for remanufacture. This may not all happen in familiar ways with doorstep collections by traditional waste operators, but even that part of the story is not finished yet.

The Defra position is fairly incoherent. They have taken no obvious interest in what has driven down waste volumes recently so are not well placed to decide how to keep them down.

The second thought provoking point was the debate about whether we are building enough energy from waste facilities to meet our needs. Much of the discussion turned on whether we could predict what would happen to residual waste volumes. Is the ADEPT view that waste arisings are increasing with economic recovery right or are the Defra projections based on recent downward trends a better basis for planning?

With the usual honourable exception of Steve Lee, the conversation proceeded on the basis that, although unknown, the volume of residual waste would be what it was, as if determined by some natural law. The better answer to the question is surely, what do we want it to be and how do we make that happen?

Happy To Burn It?

The Defra position is fairly incoherent. They have taken no obvious interest in what has driven down waste volumes recently so are not well placed to decide how to keep them down. The consensus is that their waste prevention proposals are an empty tick box exercise. They subscribe to the waste hierarchy and assert that only stuff that can’t be recycled should go to thermal recovery, yet they have a zero waste to landfill ambition and a national 50 percent recycling target, suggesting that they will be happy to see up to half of all waste arisings burnt. Yet much of that 50 percent is perfectly capable of being recycled.

The Government’s determination to do no more than what is required by European Directives is blinkering our approach and missing wider resource efficiency benefits. One of the reasons I have always been in favour of devolution in the UK is that, unlike the Monopolies Commission of which we –famously- have only one, we no longer have a monopoly of policy development in the UK. What we are seeing is the devolved governments being more ambitious and developing different approaches and they are working. The recycling rate in Wales, for example, is 52 percent compared to England’s 43 percent. We have to learn from them – and not just on carrier bags.

I for one do not want to see us burning 50 percent of our waste or anything like it. Mass burn energy recovery, especially without CHP, is the antithesis of the circular economy. It destroys materials and breaks natural cycles. It is not even efficient. It can recover some of the energy physically embodied in materials but cannot recapture the energy used in their manufacture. It cannot return nutrients to the soil. It will become less efficient as food waste collections and plastic recycling reduces the calorific value of residual waste.

In 1990 the first Environment White Paper proposed a recycling target of 50 percent by 2000. That was too ambitious then, but a quarter of a century later; with all we now know, it is too modest and does not point us in the right direction.


This article is a CIWM Journal Online exclusive and is similar to what you will find every month in the CIWM Journal. To receive this and have access to the archive, you must be a member. Click here to apply for membership now.


Send this to a friend