Are we planning for a resourceful future? In the wake of its commissioned report into waste infrastructure capacity, Veolia UK’s chief administrative officer, Robert Hunt, poses the question and says that a regional approach may be best…
Waste infrastructure capacity is a hot topic. As a major investor in UK waste projects, Veolia wanted to join the debate in which the CIWM, Defra and others are participating about the sufficiency of future infrastructure requirements.
To provide consistency, the same data provided the basis for the report which Veolia commissioned from Imperial College London (ICL) as Defra had used for its 2020 Waste Arisings Report (published in 2013).
The purpose of Defra’s report was to judge whether England will meet the diversion levels necessary to comply with the EU Landfill Directive. The report indicated that, by 2020, the UK would be over-equipped with waste infrastructure. ICL’s approach was to re-examine the methodology for analysing the existing data and resulted in some interesting, and very specific conclusions. Firstly, in estimating the future waste infrastructure needs it is important to understand and take into account the composition of each element of the waste stream.
Secondly, it found the focus should be upon regional needs (rather than aggregating needs across the entirety of the country and drawing conclusion from aggregated data). And thirdly, specific technologies will be needed to deliver the infrastructure and cross referenced to the relevant parts of the waste stream. Therefore, when undertaking the study, the framing of the question associated with future infrastructure requirement needs to be technologically specific and appropriate to different waste streams.
Solutions need to be engineered that do not involve waste being unnecessarily transported from one end of the country to the other. On that basis, significant capacity gaps were disclosed at regional levels. These conclusions are important from an investment perspective because the aggregation of waste composition and treatment capacity nationally disguises regional variations and leads to the inappropriate assumption that one region’s surplus can meet another region’s deficit.
A Complex Mix
Finally, municipal waste streams are a complex mix of many differing materials that must not be considered as one single stream. Using data on waste composition, and therefore grouping technologies by input, gives local authorities valuable data to empower them to make the best use of existing infrastructure as well as commissioning new additional facilities, for which a clear need is demonstrated.
Following the launch of the report Richard Kirkman, Veolia’s technical director, commented: “The report by researchers at Imperial College London and commissioned by Veolia, reveals significant capacity gaps in regional infrastructure to treat valuable materials which arise as wastes and could be reused to create new materials and energy.
“The report crystallises concerns that instead of being at the forefront of the circular economy we will have insufficient resources recovery infrastructure in the future and hamper the growth of the green manufacturing sector – a 20 year mistake!
“By taking a regional approach focusing on individual waste streams not en masse, regional treatment facilities close to where they arise and the use of appropriate technologies, the flaws in a national aggregated methodology are revealed.
“To make the dangerous assumption that we have sufficient waste infrastructure ‘on average’ means we could have too many of the wrong facilities in one place and too few of the right facilities in another. Only local planning can determine actual needs to avoid transporting waste long distances at considerable environmental and economic cost.
“We have already invested over £1.2bn in regional infrastructure and have considerable additional resources on hold. But we need to fast track local decisions and starting building for the future now.”
It would be reckless for Veolia or any company in the industry to invest in facilities where there was already over capacity, because that would not sustain the investment model. However, the research makes it clear that Government need to start looking at this from a regional, instead of national, perspective to ensure the UK keeps going forward to a sustainable future.
Robert is Veolia’s UK chief administrative officer, responsible for key corporate services. He heads up our Shared Service Centre, which also includes Veolia Water and Dalkia. He studied law at Pembroke College, Oxford and trained as a solicitor in the City of London.