Data for the smarter management of C&I waste

Peter Scholes, Principal Consultant at Anthesis Group, considers how the lack of data on the scale of commercial waste in the UK can be solved.

Data for the smarter management of C&I wasteWe have a problem in England. We don’t know how much waste our 2.2 million commercial and industrial (C&I) businesses produce, and we don’t know how much of that waste is reused or recycled.

What we do know is that it’s the largest combined non-inert waste stream the waste management sector has to deal with. We know, through surveys, how much has been produced in the past (as recently as 2009), but we just don’t know how business has performed since then. This, therefore, makes it difficult to formulate policy and provide a framework for viable waste management for C&I waste.

The commercial waste gap

When it comes to household waste in England, we know how much is generated and how much waste our local authorities can recycle or use to generate energy, which allows us to compare performance against EU Waste Framework Directive targets and other European countries.

We also know through reviewing collected data what recycling and recovery infrastructure is needed to hit these targets. Most of this infrastructure has been delivered through the government’s PFI programme, although some residual material is still going to landfill.  

However, if we as a nation are going to successfully move away from landfill and towards a circular economy, where end of life products are the inputs for the manufacture of new products, and give business viable ways of recycling or recovering waste sustainably, we need suitable merchant capacity too. At Anthesis, through our due diligence work, we help clients understand the risks involved in investing in new waste management infrastructure, particularly feedstock risk.

To understand feedstock risk, investors need to understand competitive pressures and feedstock availability – this is not easy to do robustly when there are such gaps in the available data.

Similarly, we support planning authorities in meeting their obligation to identify sufficient waste management opportunities for their area, with the aims of driving waste management up the waste hierarchy. Again, to understand what is required, the planning authority has to understand local demand, from business waste, construction and demolition sectors, as well as household.

How can we plug the waste information gaps?

Traditionally, C&I waste arisings have been determined by large scale surveys, delivered in England in 1998, 2002 and 2009. These are expensive to deliver and require the involvement of the thousands of businesses – not ideal in a climate of reduced public funding and the drive to reduce government burden on businesses.

The environmental permitting system does allow for the collection of useful data from existing waste management infrastructure, but there are significant gaps, particularly in recycling operations, which are mainly operated under permit exemptions without reporting obligations.

The Environment Agency did attempt to plug this gap using their eDoc electronic waste transfer note system, but without a government motivated to make the use of eDoc compulsory, the use of this system will never be substantial.

What role can the industry itself play?

Many contractors collect their own data to use in managing their own businesses and developing medium and long term strategy. Through the use of new technology, such as load cells on collection vehicles, RFID tags on collection bins and mobile data technology, the costs of collecting and collating such data is getting cheaper year on year. But operators rightfully see this data as commercially sensitive, and without the issue of confidentially being successful tackled, they are unlikely to share what they have.

So is there a solution? Probably, through increased but soft touch regulation and government working closely with the waste management sector. We wish success to the current initiatives driven by Defra, the ESA and other industry bodies and businesses, to plug this data gap and allow England to become smarter and more resource efficient in managing its business generated waste.

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