Infrastructure review urges government to go beyond EU recycling targets

The UK Government should set a municipal recycling target of 65 per cent and establish separate food waste collection for households and businesses by 2025 to provide a low-carbon future for the UK, according to the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA).

The first of its kind, the NIA was released today (10 July) by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which provides the government with advice on long-term infrastructure challenges and is required to carry out a national assessment of the UK’s infrastructure outlook every five years.

The NIA sets out the NIC’s vision for the UK’s infrastructure development over the next 10-30 years, including goals to meet half of the UK’s energy needs with renewable energy by 2030 and to recycle three quarters of the UK’s plastic packaging by the same date.Infrastructure review urges government to go beyond EU recycling targets

The NIA puts particular emphasis on ways in which long-term infrastructure plans can help to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, highlighting the cost-effectiveness of employing renewable energy options in comparison to alternative options such as nuclear and carbon capture, and outlines how the waste and resources sector can contribute to that.

The report recognises the role played by energy-from-waste (EfW) plants in facilitating the move away from waste disposal in landfill, and acknowledges their role in turning residual waste into useful electricity and heat where there are available networks and sources of demand nearby.

However, the NIA states that ‘lower cost, lower carbon options exist for some types of waste, in particular food waste and plastics’, noting how almost half of the waste in the residual fraction – and therefore half of the waste going to EfW – is actually recyclable. ‘In these areas,’ it is stated, ‘England should not settle for the minimum standards set out in EU legislation but should seek to be amongst the best performers, learning from the example set by Wales.’

The minimum standards to which the NIA refers are included in the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP), which was recently approved by the EU Council and entered into law on 4 July, 20 days after its publication in the EU Journal. The CEP includes a 60 per cent municipal recycling target by 2030, as well as a 70 per cent packaging recycling target, with 55 per cent for plastic.

The NIA recommends that the government should set a municipal recycling target of 65 per cent and a plastic packaging recycling target of 75 per cent by 2030, going beyond those set by the EU. The report estimates that these higher recycling rates would reduce emissions generated from burning plastics and could save local authorities around £6.2 billion between 2020 and 2050 – although local authorities have stated that there can be no increase in recycling rates until the current local government funding crisis is resolved.

While advocating an increase in the recycling of plastic packaging, the report acknowledges that the best way to tackle the particular issues posed by single-use plastic packaging is to reduce unnecessary packaging, with hard-to-recycle polymers, such as PVC and polystyrene, being replaced with more recyclable alternatives. The report recognises that incentives are in place to increase the sustainability of packaging, but that these are primarily weight-based and may have reached the limit of what they can achieve.

The report further advocates:

  • The establishment of a clear, two-symbol labelling system (recyclable or non-recyclable) across the the UK to reduce confusion among the public;
  • A consistent national standard of recycling for households and businesses by 2025;
  • Restrictions on the use of hard-to-recycle plastic packaging by 20256;
  • Incentives to reduce packaging and for product design that is more easily recyclable by 2022; and
  • A common data-reporting framework for businesses handling commercial and industrial waste by the end of 2019, ideally through voluntary reporting, but through legislation if necessary.

In terms of food waste, the NIA supports the separate collection of food waste and its treatment in anaerobic digestion, which ‘produce biogas and a low-grade fertilizer… at a fraction of the capital cost of incinerators’, with biogas a potential low-carbon substitute for natural gas.

The analysis contained in the NIA finds that implementing a universal, nationwide food waste collection would preclude the need to build between one and three new EfW plants before 2050, saving local authorities up to £400 million in capital costs and £1.1 billion in operational costs between 2020 and 2050, including the costs of weekly collections.

Combined with a 65 per cent municipal recycling rate, the NIA estimates that nationwide separate food collection would reduce the UK’s residual treatment capacity requirement by seven million tonnes; thus, the report advocates the establishment of separate food waste collection for households and businesses by 2025.

The question remains about how these recommendations will be funded, with the NIA stating that they ‘will require a combination of public and private financing’ and that ‘a UK infrastructure finance institution, focussed on specific objectives, should be established if access to the European Investment Bank ceases after the UK exits the EU’ in order to ‘encourage private investment and catalyse activity in new markets.’

The NIA does offer a nod towards the struggles faced by local authorities, stating: ‘More funding mechanisms should also be made available to local authorities to enable them to capture a greater share of the uplift in land value that can occur with infrastructure investment. This should include making it easier to raise business rate supplements for up to one third of scheme costs, and giving local authorities powers to levy zonal precepts on council tax where public investments in infrastructure drive up surrounding property values.’

The Welsh Government's strategy of ambitious investment, ambitious statutory recycling targets, mandatory separate collection of food waste and a blueprint for a standardised collection of materials has been held up by the report as an example for England to follow; since the introduction of the Welsh Government's 'Towards zero waste' strategy, the government has provided £68 million in capital support for recycling infrastructure and Wales' reported municipal recycling rate is up at 64 per cent.

‘High level of ambition’

The NIA is the latest high-level output on a sustainable and resource-efficient future for the UK, with the government’s Clean Growth Strategy and Industrial Strategy both released at the end of last year and outlining a low-carbon vision for the UK. The 25 Year Environment Plan, released in January, called for the elimination of ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 – though a commitment to separate food waste collections was conspicuous by its absence.

In addition, the government has been busy setting up a number of consultations regarding how best to increase packaging recycling rates and reduce the use of single-use plastics, including those on the introduction of a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic drinks containers and the use of the tax system in reducing single-use plastics consumption.

The response from the waste and resources sector to the first NIA has been largely positive, praising its ambition. ESA Executive Director Jacob Hayler said: “We are pleased to see a high level of ambition in the NIA’s recommendations on resources and waste policy which even exceeds that of the EU Circular Economy Package. ESA has long called for greater consistency, more food waste collections and better eco-design to boost recycling, all of which are reflected in the NIA.

“The key to all this, though, is funding. The government will need to ensure that Extended Producer Responsibility works for all parts of the waste stream to make it a reality. We also feel there is an opportunity that is not recognised by the NIA to move away from blunt municipal recycling targets towards something which more effectively targets environmental outcomes and value. ESA has commissioned forthcoming research which will examine this further.”

Commenting on the NIA, CIWM’s Chief Executive Dr Colin Church added: “Over the past couple of years or so, CIWM and others in the sector have been working hard with the NIC to help them understand resource and waste management, the challenges it faces and the opportunities it offers. It is therefore particularly good to see key points we have been making reflected here. If the governments in England (and, where appropriate, across the UK) take up these recommendations, that will represent significant progress towards a more resource efficient and circular economy.”

David Palmer-Jones, CEO of waste management company SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, commented: “It is in everyone’s interest to cut the amount of rubbish we produce and the NIC rightly determines that more should be done to recycle and remove plastics from EfW, but this should be done at the design stage through strong policies that favour better design, recycling, reuse and minimisation. These policies would signal the government’s ambition to the market and unlock the billions of investment required to make the most of our waste.

“The NIC findings support a golden triangle of reducing waste, upping recycling rates from what we make and consume, and finally recovering the energy via electricity production from the essential EfW plants that treat all the residual, non-recyclable waste that will continue to be discarded – instead of burying it in landfill.”

Palmer-Jones went on to praise the NIA for acknowledging the role of EfW for the treatment of non-recyclable waste, while expressing Suez’s support for separate food waste collection “only where practical and economically viable”, stopping short of calling for a nationwide rollout.

Dustin Benton, Policy Director at environmental think tank Green Alliance, said: “The NIC’s latest report shows that a high renewables, low waste, flood resilient UK is the most cost effective and attractive choice for those building infrastructure that will be with us for the next 50 years. It takes a clear-sighted view of the huge and recent innovation that’s happened in clean power and transport, and shows how going for clean growth is good for Britain.”

You can view the National Infrastructure Assessment in full on the NIC website.

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