Blog: Household-like waste: what’s that, then?

In the fifth instalment of the joint Suez and CIWM webinars focused on current hot topics, an expert panel considered the question ‘what is household-like waste and what role does it play in meeting future recycling targets?’ In this blog, Dr. Adam Read (External Affairs Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK and the webinar chair) and the CIWM’s Helen Chaplin reflect on some of the key points raised and what the audience had to say about the big issues.

The definition of household-like waste remains confusing

Dr. Andy Rees (Head of Waste Strategy at the Welsh Government) opened the debate by referring to the definition of household-like waste as it is in the EU Framework Directive Article 3 (2b), namely ‘mixed waste and separately collected waste from other sources where such waste is similar in nature and composition to household waste’. However, he also pointed out that globally different definitions are being used which can make it difficult to compare figures, and certainly makes it hard when considering importing specific solutions or policy measures because their reported impact has been significant. For instance, street sweepings which are part of many municipal contracts often contain grit and stones which aren’t household-like waste. There is also confusion around wood and whether it refers to wood from construction, or wooden furniture etc.

The uncertainty around definitions is definitely a challenge, and one that the devolved administrations are working with DEFRA on as we progress with BREXIT and the implementation of our own policies and planned reforms. Getting consistency across the UK is critical, whilst understanding international variation in definitions is also important to ensure we don’t make bad decisions about future possible policies and interventions.

Talking to businesses is key to increasing recycling rate

Household-like wastes have historically had less focus as a waste stream than household streams, partly because local authorities are only obliged to signpost to businesses where they can get collections from, but also because this material could not count towards local recycling targets, but that is all about to change.

The audience indicated in the first of a series of polls that funding for local authorities to deliver business support to enable an effective transition to the new regime (where household-like packaging is targeted alongside household materials) was the preferred option. The panellists agreed that businesses will need support and that local authorities were in a good position to provide it, having a mix of business engagement activities already under their remit, including the role of local environmental health officers.

Chris Mills (WRAP) recognised that bigger businesses would find it easier to transition to a new recycling model, and expects them to welcome the enhanced focus on recycling at the kerbside with potential reductions in their weekly waste bills. When he was asked about the sources of information most likely to be useful to organisations as they transition to the new targets and regulations, he suggested that businesses will require a lot of support, from simple guides, web content, and calculators, to on-site recycling auditors to help facilitate the change. Chris emphasised that as we bring this household-like material into our system, and as we rely on it to meet future performance targets, it will be incredibly important to listen to businesses about the type of service they need and want, and the limitations they may have in terms of storage and access etc.

Trevor Nicoll (Head of the Greater Cambridge Joint Waste Service & CIWM President) echoed this point, and acknowledged that education is important for businesses to not only get them to recycle better, but to help them to fully understand the importance of source separation, which he feels will become far more prevalent as we strive to achieve 70% recycling targets and have new funding from brands under EPR to support the collection of quality packaging materials for recycling.

Trevor stressed the importance of understanding your customers as everyone has different waste arisings, in terms of volumes, composition and seasonal trends. He discussed the benefits of a local authority collecting commercial waste (much of which is now classified as household-like), and how local authorities speak to residents and businesses across a range of issues on a regular basis. It would be possible to get the officers in local authorities to make customers aware of other services that can be offered, and the role of local environmental health officers was raised again, as they could promote food waste collections and new recycling services whilst conducting food inspections at restaurants in the area.

Businesses need source separate collections

DEFRA’s Resources and Waste Strategy Consultation in 2019 considered how businesses, public bodies and other organisation could segregate their dry recyclables and food waste from their residual waste more effectively. One of the proposed collection regimes would see mixed dry recycling in one container with separate glass and separate food waste, whilst an alternative proposal was for more segregation of the mixed dry recycling into fractions, similar to the kerbside sort schemes performing so well in Somerset and East Devon for example. However, the panel discussed the inconvenience and possible additional costs incurred if all businesses were forced to have services they don’t require, and how it might be better to understand the needs of each business (or business type) before committing to specific service provision. For instance, businesses in the hospitality sector will need a glass collection more often than say those organisations in the education sector.

Chris commented further that co-collections, split compartment vehicles and electric vehicles (EV) will ensure that collecting multiple material streams from the businesses with household-like wastes, which until now have had only residual waste collections or a form of mixed dry recycling collection, will not increase the carbon footprint even if there are more vehicles in use.

The results from the second poll asking how easy it would be for SMEs to source separate their waste under the new regulations pleased the panellists, with the majority suggesting it would be easy or very easy to do so. Trevor identified rightly that there has to be a desire to make the change from each business and if a source segregation collection is on offer then it will get used by some early adopters who will prove it can work. Chris questioned how separate we mean by separate collections, as some streams will need to be collected together, cans and plastics for example to ensure efficiencies in the system.

BIDs or zoning might offer a solution?

The panel went on to consider alternative ways of capturing the target household-like packaging materials. Jarno Stet (from Westminster City Council) suggested that “we wouldn’t want to work with MRFs in future if we want to recycle properly” and that capturing clean stream materials earlier is key to meeting targets and protecting the environment. As he explained, technology is always improving and collections are always evolving, so why expect the near future to look like today? He and the other panellists all agreed that future collection / harvesting systems must reflect what materials are being collected and the quality required to ensure successful reprocessing. The brands providing all the additional revenue through EPR won’t want expensive collection infrastructure if it fails to deliver the right materials back for reprocessing, they will need to be part of a more closed loop system from 2024 and that is a trigger for potentially significant innovation in collection services.

“With the current focus on build back better campaigns, it is a good opportunity to start thinking about something innovative such as zoning” stated Chris, indicating that there are several different versions of waste franchising (zoning) worth looking at, with success in cities like New York worthy of closer consideration. But he acknowledged the resistance being shown to this in the previous consultations from waste collectors in the UK, as this would limit competition in any defined zone and potentially put far more control into a local authority’s hands for materials that until now have been off their radar.

Perhaps Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) could play a role, after all they were also presented in the previous consultations as an option under consideration? Jarno explained that business improvement districts only include certain streets (and not all business have to take part) thus limiting the benefits of consistency and scale. He suggested that a “free recycling” scheme (as happens in some London BIDS now) supported by the user levy could attract poor quality recycling behaviour as there is no quality control or direct cost associated with it. The organisations in the BID might have different motivations for joining it, as many of them aren’t all about waste, with some keen to join for reasons of safety, security and cleansing. This limits what can be achieved, and as such the panel confirmed that none of them felt strongly about BIDs being a core part of any future service provision, at least not in their current format. However, everyone agreed that if there is a local agenda to improve air quality (as has been the case with a number of BIDs) then reducing the amount of vehicles (including waste collection and recycling vehicles) in the area would help to achieve this, and both zoning franchising or BIDS (at the right scale and with full inclusion) could help deliver this.

Chris was surprised by the result of the third poll considering whether the efficiencies being proposed by zoning / BIDs would be sufficient to drive them forward as a central part of the new system. He summarised that “there are lots of ways to do this and there are plenty of organisations that could and should be part of the decision and the implementation”. Jarno was also unsure if this really would be the answer to household-like collections in cities across the UK, as he was concerned that currently the scale of the BIDs is too small and wouldn’t encompass all businesses in a particular area. Clearly there is a need for DEFRA and WRAP to do more work on both BIDs and zoning before the next tranche of consultations emerge in early 2021.

Businesses need targets and penalties

When questioned on what a realistic recycling rate would be for household-like materials, and as an overall figure when combined with the household stream, Jarno suggested that it would depend on what materials are included in the proposed Deposit Return Scheme (in England and Wales, we already know what will be included in Scotland) and some insight on how packaging materials are going to change in light of the plastic packaging tax and EPR reforms.

To hit a 65% recycling target in England by 2035, we will need household recycling levels to increase from 45% to 62% and household-like streams to increase from 30% (current best guess) to 69%. These are national targets, so some locations might find it easier to hit higher recycling rates (think suburbia) whilst some areas will find it harder (inner cities etc.). But the uplift in recycling performance is significant, and it will take all of the planned reforms (EPR, DRS and consistent collections) to help get us close. But until householders who have been targeted with communications and services for 20 plus years, businesses have had much less attention, yet the uplift in performance is bigger – is this deliverable without some form of well-funded campaign?

Andy affirmed that there are provisions in Environment Bill for materials tracking to be mandated. This will mean that there is a common system everyone can work with. It would also be possible to use existing company systems to feed into it and allowing the opportunity to show where the recycling goes, and the end destination, all of which would improve trust in the system and drive up performance.

The penultimate poll considered the need for targets, and the feedback from the audience was clear with 94% of attendees thinking that if local authorities are being set performance targets, then businesses should also be set a target with penalties for failing to meet them. Jarno was in favour of this as the duty rests on the local authority to ensure recycling happens, whilst Andy stated that there was no plan to measure the recycling rate for each business as it would be too big a challenge. Trevor clarified that it wasn’t about measuring the recycling rate, but that the focus must be on getting people to recycle, but he felt that local authorities are good at measuring data, and could provide this service going forward for businesses serviced in their jurisdiction going forward, just as the larger waste management companies do for their customers today.

In line with the results of the final poll, Andy confirmed that all four nations are at different stages to the development of their plans for household-like wastes and their targets but assured us that they are all paying attention to the work of the others and working actively together towards the setting of recycling rates for household-like waste.

Conclusions

It became evident over the course of the webinar that household-like wastes have not been front and central to the debate, and yet they must because they will be key to meeting our targets.

Radical changes are needed to improve the recycling rate of household-like (and other commercial) waste streams, and the policy measures being proposed and the planned consultations will give this issue increasing attention in the next 6 months. Andy concluded that “this is an important waste stream, and todays discussion highlights that” whilst Jarno commented that “household-like waste must not be overlooked!”

Trevor acknowledged that there has to be a significant change in the sector to increase the recycling rate of household-like waste, but he believed it would happen. He furthered his point by stating that “collaboration between businesses is essential, whether this is done through BIDs, zoning or flexibility between brokering areas”. Chris agreed, stressing the importance of supporting businesses during the planned changes.

Right now, the opportunity is there for all of us to think long and hard about the composition of this stream, how we might collect it, and what will keep the costs down and the quality up. The next round of consultations will be with us in early 2021, and now is the time to be developing our thinking, capturing our case studies and starting discussions with other stakeholder’s in the supply chain to ensure we contribute fully to what will be a massive game-changer in terms of this material stream. We can’t afford to get it wrong, which is why the CIWM will be hosting a number of workshops on this and related issues in the Autumn, so watch this space

As always, we would like to thank the panellists for their time and all of the delegates for their participation in the polls and for asking so many excellent questions, some of which we just simply ran out of time to ask.

To watch the recording of the webinar follow the link here and watch out for more CIWM and Suez webinars coming soon, a new series of 90 minute deep-dive sessions will be available in August and September.

If you are a CIWM member, you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect where the panellists and chairs are ready to engage on these and many other hot topics.

Written by: Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director at Suez recycling and recovery UK & CIWM Senior Vice President) and Helen Chaplin (Technical Development Executive at CIWM).

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