NIC calls for ‘urgent’ action on waste reform and recycling investment

The UK Government’'s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has warned that recycling infrastructure capacity must significantly increase to achieve government targets, as key waste reforms face delays which are holding back investment.

Artist impression of Energy-from-Waste facility with carbon captureIn its recently published Infrastructure Progress Review 2024, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has called for urgent action to increase recycling infrastructure capacity in England, warning that the country is not on track to meet its waste reduction and recycling targets. The independent advisory body, which provides expert advice to the government on infrastructure challenges, has identified significant gaps in the implementation of waste reforms and a lack of investment in recycling.

The NIC's report highlights that England's recycling rates for local authority collected waste have stagnated at around 40-45 per cent since 2012, while nearly half of this waste is now incinerated with energy recovery. The commission emphasises that recycling is generally cheaper and more environmentally friendly than incineration or landfill, and that a transition to a more circular economy is needed for achieving net-zero emissions targets.

To enable this transition, the NIC has made several recommendations to the government, focusing on implementing waste reforms, providing funding for local authorities, and creating a clear long-term strategy. However, the commission's assessment suggests that progress has been limited in key areas.

Firstly, whilst the government has confirmed plans for collection and packaging reforms after significant delays, the NIC warns that key details are still pending, and there is a lack of an integrated approach to managing these reforms. The commission recommends that the government urgently address potential conflicts and timing mismatches to ensure a smooth transition.

Secondly, the NIC raises concerns about the lack of firm funding commitments for local authorities to implement waste reforms. The report suggests that without clear, long-term financial support, local authorities may struggle to invest in the necessary waste collection and recycling infrastructure, undermining efforts to increase recycling rates.

Finally, the NIC rates the government's progress on removing barriers to delivery on the ground as "not met". The commission warns that delays in providing detailed implementation plans and funding have left local authorities and businesses with limited time to make necessary changes, risking a disruptive transition.

The NIC's report also makes several specific policy recommendations to accelerate progress towards waste reduction and recycling targets. These include:

- Implementing waste collection and packaging reforms without further delay
- Expanding bans on single-use plastics
- Supporting local authorities with funding and locally-tailored recycling targets
- Improving data collection and developing policies to increase recycling of commercial and industrial waste
- Stopping the construction of new energy-from-waste plants unless they include carbon capture and storage (CCS), and transitioning existing plants to CCS or closing them
- Including energy-from-waste in the UK Emissions Trading Scheme by 2028
- Keeping landfill tax higher than energy-from-waste gate fees to encourage recycling

Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association, Jacob Hayler, said: "It is positive that the NIC recognises the long-term role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) could play in decarbonising residual waste treatment, as well as recognising the importance of bringing energy recovery into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to support decarbonisation of our sector.

“We have been supportive of proposals to include energy-from-waste in the ETS, subject to design and timings of other policies to ensure a level playing field, but after the proposals were published in 2023, our industry still awaits further consultation over the details nearly a year later. This has prevented Government officials from meaningfully engaging with industry - further shortening the already tight implementation timelines and adding to a growing nervousness across the sector as a result of this uncertainty.”

The commission emphasises that achieving England's waste reduction and recycling targets is crucial for meeting net-zero emissions goals and transitioning to a more sustainable, circular economy. The NIC's chair, Sir John Armitt, has called on the government to act with greater urgency, stating that "the time for delay is over; we need to see comprehensive action now to get the waste sector on track".

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