Planning for tomorrow

Let the voices of the UK waste industry be heard, says Neil Grundon, deputy chairman of Grundon Waste Management.

I think it’s fair to say that I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Extinction Rebellion (XR) crowd, so I was interested to read their open letter to Boris Johnson earlier this month.

Among other things, it called for a circular economy capital investment programme, new targets (and indeed a law) on product reuse and repair, and an update to the 2014 National Planning Policy for Waste to require waste planning authorities to demonstrate that no readily recyclable dry or organic materials are sent to landfill or EfW incineration.

On those points, I think that for once, we can agree – although I think the legal powers that be probably have more than enough on their hands without having to enforce laws that mandate having your vacuum cleaner repaired rather than buying a new one.

Where I struggle however, is in some of the figures quoted by XR – I worry that the sun may have set too soon on their (no doubt) solar-powered calculator as I simply can’t agree with the numbers.

The letter, ‘signed’ by a cross-section of environmental luminaries including Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Greenpeace UK, The Climate Coalition and various authors and activists; claims that the UK’s Energy-from-Waste (EfW) incineration capacity is “poised” to expand by 20 million tonnes by 2030. A figure it says will more than double current capacity and lock the country into an additional 10 million tonnes of fossil-derived CO2 emissions per year, primarily from burning plastics.

I hope this figure is just the two million or more tonnes that the UK exports to plants in mainland Europe compounded up, otherwise it is, quite frankly, preposterous.

Maybe the whole letter has been funded by the EU, desperate to claw back as much of our rubbish as they can before the ports close, scaring our citizens into thinking that there really is a two-way trade and we are soon to become the burning man of Europe.

Dodgy maths

Despite what in my opinion are dodgy maths, there is a real possibility that we can indeed profit from the use of these two million extra tonnes of waste, should they stay on our shores.

We will be able to invest in our recycling infrastructure, we will be able to work with forward-thinking authorities that favour British firms, we will be able to invest in recycling and reuse networks; and we will be able to build new EfW facilities for the purpose for which they were designed, to derive energy from not readily-recyclable materials, a point XR made in their letter.

All very worthwhile ticks in the box for the UK waste industry and the wider economy.

The XR team however, also want a law that will require a net zero carbon waste and resource sector by 2035, inclusive of EfW incineration, and say this should be in line with targets set by the governments of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

There’s a clue in that country line-up, historically the Nordic nations relied on EfW facilities due to a lack of appropriate geology for landfill, so they have different problems and are coming up with different solutions – waste is very definitely not a one size fits all puzzle.

After many years of being overlooked by successive governments, the UK Waste industry is still reinventing itself, and the skills and genuine advice it has to offer are unparalleled

In many respects, I actually think the demands made in XR’s letter did not go far enough.

Where they lacked ambition was not focusing more attention on the mountains of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) waste gathering dust in people’s attics and under their stairs, and the problem of household hazardous waste like batteries.

Instead, there was still an emphasis on paper and glass, which although eminently recyclable are becoming a dwindling part of our waste stream – today’s and yesterday’s waste if you like.

I’d like to have seen XR polishing their environmentally-friendly crystal ball and looking further into the future to determine the new waste streams that may be created in a fossil fuel free economy.

It’s something that we, as waste industry specialists, spend a considerable amount of time on – thinking ahead, planning innovative new technologies to deal with not just today’s waste, but tomorrow’s as well.

After many years of being overlooked by successive governments, the UK Waste industry is still reinventing itself, and the skills and genuine advice it has to offer are unparalleled.

If Boris and his team want to hear the true voices of experts rather than those of the well-meaning environmental brigades, then when it comes to waste, let it be our voices that are first in line.

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