The capacity conundrum

Exactly what kind of capacity should we be seeking more of?


In the midst of all the debates around treatment capacity, I was struck that the discussion has centred essentially on the residual waste stream. Eunomia’s infrastructure review focuses on residual waste infrastructure, and whilst the work conducted for CIWM by Ricardo-AEA considers a wider range of treatments, follow-up pieces from the authors have emphasised their view of the need for more energy from waste.

At the same time as this debate rumbles on, the European Commission continues to consider whether, and how, to revise the targets under the directives on packaging, landfill and waste. Some readers may, like me, have responded to the consultation and will know that a number of questions were asked regarding how far recycling rates might progress and whether the commission should consider targets for waste prevention. It struck me that what the debate on capacity has lacked is a consideration not just of the amount of capacity needed, but what sort of capacity we need. If we make progress on waste prevention, we’ll need less capacity overall. If we achieve higher recycling rates, then we’ll need more capacity for recycling, and less to deal with what’s left over.

So it was with some interest that I read the recently-released summary of consultation responses. The responses are helpfully split by type of respondent, and half the respondents were citizens, who were making responses at the more radical end of the spectrum. There were over 200 responses from industry and associated trade bodies, on the other hand, and these make for some interesting reading. For example, the consultation asked what appropriate recycling targets for different waste streams would be. For household waste, the weighted average industry response was 70 per cent. For municipal waste, it was 70 per cent, for commercial waste, it was 75 per cent, and for industrial waste, it was 80 per cent. 

The incumbent commissioner has made a number of statements about not incinerating recyclable wastes. The consultation asked whether there should be a cap placed on the amount of waste being incinerated. Overall, 57 per cent of respondents supported the idea. Respondents from industry were fairly evenly split around the proposal, though. As for the level of the cap, the results for all respondents suggested caps on incineration of 21 per cent for household waste, 21 per cent for commercial waste, and 19 per cent for industrial waste. Though industry and the industry trade bodies gave higher figures for the cap, on average they proposed limits of less than 30 per cent for all waste streams.

This article was taken from Issue 75

As I write this, Christmas is rapidly approaching, and in case you were wondering whether turkeys ever vote for Christmas, the consultation responses suggest that most go further than merely abstaining. The consultation asked whether there should be waste prevention targets set in future. The majority of the industry trade bodies and the industry representatives said “No”. Even so, overall, 55 per cent of respondents were in favour of prevention targets, including 78 per cent of NGOs and 84 per cent of public authorities.  

So I was left pondering what it would mean for the UK if the outcome of the review reflected the consultation results. For Scotland and Wales, it wouldn’t mean much change was warranted. In England, additional efforts on recycling would be required. But back to the discussion on capacity. What would be the implications if incineration was limited to 21 per cent of household and commercial waste, and 19 per cent of industrial waste? The latest Defra data indicates that already in 2012/13, 22 per cent of council-collected waste in England was incinerated. The figure is likely to have increased in 2013/14. The exact figures for commercial and industrial waste are not well known, though are likely to be much lower. 

Whether or not these suggested targets ever become law, the overall message suggests increasing agreement around the direction in which we should be moving. At the European level, there is a growing recognition that the road to resource efficiency is not paved with a massive expansion in residual waste treatment capacity. And here we are debating whether we need more capacity. It might just be that the biggest expansion in capacity that we need is in our thinking, and in our creativity, to foster waste prevention in the first place, and make it easier to reuse and recycle our discards. A significant expansion in residual waste capacity does not look especially wise as we look to the future.