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ESA report calls for ‘smarter’ recycling measures

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has called for ‘smarter’ measures of recycling progress to replace the current weight-based metrics in a new report released on Monday (20 August).

The report, entitled ‘Why wait? Weight isn’t working: Smarter measures for the circular economy’, was written by Ricardo Energy and Environment for ESA and is the second of two reports looking at what it will take for the UK to reach targets set in the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP). The first is entitled ‘An economic assessment and feasibility study of how the UK could meet the Circular Economy Package recycling targets’.

The CEP, which the UK Government has confirmed will apply to the UK despite its departure from the EU, sets new recycling targets of 55 per cent by 2025, 60 per cent by 2030 and 65 per cent by 2035, as well as individual targets for different packaging materials.

Beyond weight

In the ESA report, it is acknowledged that ‘the current weight-based targets for municipal waste have been useful in driving performance to date’, but states that these targets can also ‘create perverse behaviours’.

For example, a focus on weight can lead to heavier materials such as garden waste – for which the best environmental outcome is home composting – being targeted for collection, rather than those with a greater negative environmental impact, such as plastics.

Further to this, a focus on weight and therefore quantity can compromise the quality of the material collected, with less incentive to remove contaminants from the collected material. That weight-based targets are focused on materials at their end of life has also failed to push producers and designers to create products that are more durable or easier to recycle, according to the report.

While conceding that performance will still have to be recorded on a weight-based basis in order to comply with the requirements of the CEP, the report suggests that smarter measures should be used to create a more sophisticated system that combines weight-based reporting with smarter ways of collecting data and information.

New metrics

The report favours a ‘dashboard approach’ (see image) to introducing new metrics that maps behaviours across the value chain (production, consumption, end of use and end of life) in order to reduce environmental impacts through the lifecycle of a product. It states: ‘Everyone has a responsibility to improve environmental performance, from the producers of the goods we purchase to the local residents, businesses and public-sector organisations that consume them and the waste management professionals that manage them at end of use and end of life.ESA report calls for ‘smarter’ recycling measures

“We need to establish smarter measures for our transition to a circular economy and understand what behaviours are required across the value chain (production, consumption, end of use and end of life) to drive this transition.’

Behaviours to target include: designing products for durability and recyclability, increasing the use of recycled content in products, minimising waste, collecting a consistent set of materials and reducing contamination.

New metrics will need to be implemented at a national level and a secondary level to drive environmentally sound behaviours among individual stakeholders. National metrics to consider include an economic target for resource productivity, using carbon as a way to measure environmental performance, circularity and secondary material use and industry compliance and regulation.

In order to transition to a more sophisticated waste measurement system, different requirements will be needed of different stakeholders in the value chain. Local authorities will need to continue reporting against weight using the WasteDataFlow system, while the report suggests that indicators from the Scottish Carbon Metric could also be used to develop a carbon performance rating. It is also suggested that more waste composition analyses should be undertaken, in order to develop individual targets for certain waste streams.

Metrics for producers as part of a producer responsibility framework could include targets for material recovery and the percentage of recycled content in products, encouraging producers to design for recyclability and limit their environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Meanwhile, government will need to invest ‘significant extra resources’ into waste management to help facilitate the recommended changes.

‘Clear and pragmatic route-map’

Commenting on the release of the report, ESA’s Executive Director Jacob Hayler said: “Current EU waste policy measures success or failure on the basis of how heavy something is when it is recycled. There is clearly scope in a post-Brexit world for us to do something much smarter which actually focuses properly on environmental outcomes and enables us to capture more value from our waste resources.

“This report examines how we could bring this about in practice. It offers a clear and pragmatic route-map for introducing new metrics alongside our current weight based system, which could offer us the future flexibility to phase out the most problematic materials and decarbonise our waste and recycling systems most effectively.”

You can read the report, ‘Why wait? Weight isn’t working: Smarter measures for the circular economy’, on the ESA website.

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