NIC Report: Waste infrastructure needs modernising to boost recycling

Improved waste infrastructure to boost economic growth across the UK and meet climate goals is both achievable and affordable if the right policy steps are taken now, according to the Government’s independent advisers on infrastructure strategy.

NIC report waste infrastructureThe ‘Second National Infrastructure Assessment’ was released today (18 October) by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). The review takes place every five years.

The Commission, tasked with providing impartial and expert advice on the nation's long-term infrastructure challenges, aims to support sustainable economic growth across all UK regions, enhance competitiveness, improve the quality of life, and facilitate the transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The assessment, building on the foundation of the first report from 2018, delves into various infrastructure sectors, offering recommendations on transport, energy, water, flood resilience, digital connectivity, and solid waste. The Commission seeks to guide the UK in addressing its infrastructure deficiencies for a more resilient and sustainable future.

Some of the suggestions related to waste management include ‘urgently’ implementing reforms to meet a 65 per cent recycling target by 2035 and phasing out energy from waste plants that do not include carbon capture facilities.

The report is also clear that there is a need for significant public and private investment in infrastructure – the Commission projects that public investment of around £0.5 billion per year will be required over the next 30 years to safely collect, process and dispose of municipal and industrial waste, preventing harmful waste products from entering the environment.

Writing in the report’s foreword, Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “The good news is that modern, reliable infrastructure can support economic growth, help tackle climate change and enhance the natural environment.

“We stand at a pivotal moment in time, with the opportunity to make a major difference to this country’s future. But we need to get on with it.

“People often talk about infrastructure as the backbone of our economy: what our infrastructure needs now is the collective mettle to turn commitments into action that will reap rewards for decades to come.”

The Government is expected to respond formally to the Assessment within 12 months.

Modernising waste infrastructure to improve recycling

Currently, 17 per cent of recyclable materials are currently contaminated. The NIC found that the market is not currently delivering sufficient recycling facilities due to policy uncertainty, which makes investors unsure about the volume or quality of material to expect. A significant increase in recycling infrastructure capacity is required to meet net zero.

The review concludes that consistent recycling collections (now named ‘Simpler Recycling’) would increase demand for recycling infrastructure by reducing contamination rates, thereby increasing the quality and volume of materials that can be recycled.

The Assessment calls on the Government to implement and provide clear guidance on the reforms. The Commission also calls for further detail from the Government on how the extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging and deposit return schemes will work.

The NIC recommends that, by 2026, the Government should work with local authorities to develop individual recycling targets, with support for transitional costs such as low-level capital investments in new bins or collection vehicles where necessary.

On top of this, the Commission recommends expanding the single-use plastics ban to cover a wider range of hard-to-recycle plastic items.

Improving residual waste infrastructure

The Assessment says that to reach net zero, the amount of waste treated at energy from waste (EfW) plants without carbon capture and storage will need to be reduced by around a quarter by 2035 and by around 80 per cent by 2050.

The review also acknowledges that, while residual waste should be avoided where possible, energy from waste capacity with carbon capture will still be needed for some materials not suitable for recycling. The NIC concludes that the Government should support the transition of the energy from waste sector to carbon capture and storage by banning future energy from waste capacity that does not include carbon capture and storage. The landfill tax should be increased to ensure it remains more expensive than energy from waste.

Additionally, the NIC suggests that local authorities should not be allowed to sign or renew long-term contracts for waste services relying on energy from waste without credible plans for carbon capture and storage. Those with existing long-term contracts should transition away from unabated energy from waste at the end of the contract or at break clauses.

The Environmental Services Association responds

Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association, Jacob Hayler, said: “The ESA agrees with the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) recommendation that Government should create stronger incentives for investment in recycling infrastructure and this will only be achieved by policy reform that stimulates both investment in recycling infrastructure and market demand for recycled materials.

“For more than five years now, a lack of policy clarity has largely put new recycling infrastructure development on pause and the current uncertainty in Westminster facing our sector does little to unlock the billions in circular economy investment that our members stand poised to make – given the right conditions.

“In this context, it is wrong to call for a ban on all new energy recovery capacity which does not utilise Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) specifically, not least because CCS is not the only way of decarbonising these essential operations and will only be viable in certain situations. Energy recovery remains the lowest-carbon solution for dealing with the nation’s residual waste and, in accordance with our sectoral 2040 net-zero target, EfW operators are already developing credible decarbonisation plans, for example, by deploying CCS where and when viable; decarbonising waste feedstocks; delivering heat networks and improving efficiency.

“Our sector remains acutely aware of the need to ensure waste treatment capacity is balanced against waste arisings and, in the absence of long-term policy clarity, continues to invest where necessary and in a pragmatic way to ensure we can continue to safely manage, and make the most of, the nation’s waste.”

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