We should be resourceful about what we throw away

Chris Mill reports on a conference that got to grips with Wales zero waste strategy

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management held their first ever nationally organised conference in Wales last week. The conference is recognition within the institution that waste policy in Wales is significantly diverging from policy in DEFRA.  The conference focused on the Wales waste strategy Towards Zero Waste which promotes resource efficiency in relation to the industrial and commercial sectors.

The conference agenda covered two aspects, waste prevention in industry and commerce in the morning and recycling of industrial and commercial waste in the afternoon. Environment Minister John Griffiths set the scene by pointing out that as a nation we are throwing away too much waste. Much more could be recycled. There is also a need for action to reduce the amount of waste generated by industry and commerce and to improve the recycling of materials for use. It is clear that industry and commerce in Wales needs to work in partnership with their waste contractors to improve the quantity and quality of materials recycled to feed these into materials reprocessing businesses in Wales.

The morning presentations from Professor Steve Evans from University of Cambridge and Dr Frank O’Connor, Director of the Ecodesign Centre indicated the distance our industries need to travel to become fully sustainable. Many companies are still at the stage of just meeting legislative requirements rather than achieving sustainable use of physical resources in their businesses. This is a concern in a world of finite resources and increasing demands for those resources from the developing world. It is common sense to address the true cost of resources while there is still time. To quote Professor Steve Evans:

“By 2050 to maintain economic growth we will need to double output using 50 per cent less resources whilst reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per centy to achieve a sustainable future.”

The presentations gave practical examples of how businesses applying common sense and looking at how their products are designed were able to substantially reduce their costs through savings in relation to their waste, water and energy usage.

The 100 delegates at the conference, representing the waste and resource industry, were then split into groups to take part in various workshops covering topics such as resource efficiency in SME’s, engraining eco-design in the Welsh economy, greening supply chains and product service innovation.

A wide range of ideas came out of the morning workshops from expanding the use of EMAS standards, to ideas on developing product sustainability marks, ensuring green procurement in all sectors and a strong challenge to Government on how green their procurement is and for it to lead by example.

It was then over to me to chair the afternoon session. I began by explaining that currently whilst around 65 per cent of industrial only 35 per cent of commercial waste is recycled. Also, considerable quantities of waste that could have been recycled are still being disposed of in the mixed waste fraction from commerce and industry. We know that many businesses particularly SMEs find it difficult to access a recycling collection service.

The Towards Zero Waste waste strategy seeks to achieve 70 per cent recycling of all waste. So there is a considerable challenge for industry, commerce and the waste industry to get from where we are now to where we need to be to fulfil this Government target.

The afternoon session began with a presentation from Jasper Roberts from Welsh Government which outlined the policy options being considered for industrial and commercial waste which will facilitate recycling. Currently, the barriers to businesses recycling are the lack of recycling services, their high costs relative to disposal, and low quantities of materials to difficulties in segregation. The policy options Jasper described included the requirement for businesses to sort their waste and options to increase the provision of waste management services to industry and commerce. Also, they should consider the possibility of landfill and incineration restrictions.

Jasper’s presentation was followed by a talk from Matthew Farrow, a Policy Director at the Environmental Services Association Head Quarters. Mathew explained the role of his organisation in terms of being a voice for the waste management industry, committed to spreading best practice and working with all stakeholders. He described how it is not only important to consider the quantity of waste recycled, but also the quality of the recyclate. Matthew shared a case study relating to recycling service provision to SME’s. He also outlined work that the waste industry trade body have done with DEFRA to produce voluntary codes which could apply to Wales. However, there were concerns about non Trade body members undercutting their services by not following the required standards.

Delegates then discussed, within a workshop setting, how the Welsh Government’s policy options to increase business recycling might be achieved practically, the barriers that would need to be overcome and the potential impact of landfill bans. This was a real opportunity for people to input into a developing area of Government policy.

Possible barriers to businesses segregating their waste identified by delegates included space and time constraints, health and safety legislation, end market development and the economies of source segregation or, at least, the perception that it costs more. Practical measures suggested to support businesses recycling included providing appropriate containers, getting businesses to incentivise employees, introducing commercial waste recycling centres based on the concept for household waste and many more ideas. Delegates felt there were a number of possible impacts of landfill bans, including

  • The cost of disposal may increase,
  • It may be difficult to police, and
  • It may lead to diversion of waste to incineration unless there was a restriction on this as well.

The Welsh Government intends to use the outputs from the workshops to assist with the development of policy in relation to reduction and recycling of wastes from the commercial and industrial sectors to go alongside the statutory targets for recycling put in place for Local Authority collected municipal waste through the Statutory Recycling Targets legislation.

The Government are also seeking to use this event to develop possible options for making it easier for businesses to recycle their waste and to determine how far the waste industry might be willing to go to assist this process.

One of the main themes that came out of the conference for me was that there really needs to be a shift in the way waste is seen. In fact it should be seen as a resource and this should be considered at the start of a product’s life so it can be designed out as much as possible with as many components of the product being recyclable.

There needs to be new ways for educating students in schools as well as at University for those who might be our future product designers. We also need to be smarter in the ways we work with businesses. We should lead by example to show how easy it can be for them to prevent waste and manage their waste sustainably.

Chris Mills is Director of Environment Agency Wales

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