Resource Use

Lords calls on government to create ‘Waste Champion’

Image taken from ‘Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy’ report

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (STC) has called on government to create a ‘Waste Champion’ to take on the job of developing a ‘brass from muck’ bioeconomy that could see ‘enormous economic benefits as well as a considerable number of green jobs’.

The call comes in a new report ‘Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy’ on the economy of waste (specifically, biowaste such as food, agricultural and forest residues, and sewage sludge), which draws conclusions from hearings held on the topic last year, and earlier this year.

The inquiry was set up to investigate the ‘science and technology underpinning the transformation of carbon-containing waste into useful and high value products’, and to assess the ‘economic and environmental opportunities for the UK, the potential scale of this bioeconomy, and the role of government’.

According to the STC, if waste is not viewed as a resource, the UK could ‘miss out on a massive opportunity to create a flourishing multibillion pound economy’.

Outlining the report, STC said that the economic and environmental opportunities presented by ‘exploiting carbon-containing waste as a resource and feedstock are substantial’. Indeed, it outlined that the 100 million tonnes of carbon-containing waste created every year could be worth ‘tens of billions of pounds’ and create thousands of jobs. 

As such, it is calling on government to develop a ‘clear, long-term strategy and stable policy environment’ to stimulate the waste-based bioeconomy.

‘Lack of a clear lead within government’

Recognising that businesses are increasingly viewing waste as a ‘resource’, the committee argued that government itself is ‘not sufficiently seized of the potential economic prize for the UK’.

It agreed with evidence submitted by Dan Rogerson MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management, that ‘government has a role in tackling barriers and in setting the conditions that allow the market, businesses, local authorities and individuals to make the changes and move us towards an economy in which waste is valued as a resource’ (as previously outlined in a letter to the waste and resource industry), but STC argued that currently, it was not ‘clear’ that government is ‘sufficiently seized of the role that [it] articulate[s]’.

The report reads: ‘There is a lack of a clear lead within government, with responsibilities spread across several government departments, and inadequate coordination and cohesion’. Indeed, STC outlined that during the inquiry it heard evidence on waste from the following government departments:

  • the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)
  • the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra);
  • the Department for Transport (DfT);
  • the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG);
  • the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC);
  • the Environment Agency (EA);
  • and local government

Noably, however, it suggests that BIS rather than Defra should create a new role for a minister who is responsible for the development of a ‘waste-based, high-value bioeconomy’. (This echoes calls made by a group of Conservative MPs, 2020C, who argued last month that BIS should be given responsibility for government’s waste portfolio to help ‘redefine waste’ and make sure it’s seen as a business ‘opportunity, not a liability’.)

This new minister, STC argued, should be a ‘champion for waste as a resource and should coordinate activities across government. He or she should ensure that a long-term plan, with at least a 15-year horizon, is produced in order to support the development of a high value waste-based bioeconomy. This plan should be produced by early 2015.’

Separate sort preferred option for waste collection

Weighing in on the separate sort vs co-mingled collection debate, STC pulled in favour of separately sorting different material streams for recycling.

It highlighted that ‘less energy is required to extract value from homogenous wastes than from mixed wastes. In this regard, separate collection is therefore preferable’, although it noted that there are costs and ‘practical implications’ associated with this.

The report reads: ‘There may be no single, universal, collection method [that] all local authorities can apply, but both greater consistency and ambition should be aimed for…

‘It will be important that local authorities are encouraged to be ambitious and are well supported in implementing separate collection of [wastes required for separate collection under the EU’s revised Waste Framework Directive] and also biowastes, and are provided with clear guidance to support them in doing so. We note that targets incentivising local authorities to collect greater volumes of recyclables do not automatically incentivise higher value uses.’

It added: ‘If value can be extracted from waste, this should help to make improved collection practices financially viable.’

Accordingly, STC recommends that Defra and DCLG come together to supply local authorities with the relevant guidance to ‘enable them to put in place waste collection facilities, and make planning decisions on waste infrastructure, which maximise the value which can be extracted from waste’. This is despite Defra saying it would not be issuing any further guidance on the matter.

It also recommends that in its long-term policy goal, BIS should create a ‘more standardised system of waste collection across local authorities which views waste as a valuable resource’. (Various members of the waste sector, including Copper Consultancy, have previously laid out suggestions on how waste collection standardisation can be achieved.)

STC also suggested that it may be necessary for local authorities to consider the renegotiation of existing waste and recycling contracts (i.e those for energy-from-waste facilities) to allow ‘higher value uses of waste resources’.

However, the committee said it had ‘some sympathy’ with government on its lack of cohesion and emphasis on the ‘transformation of carbon-containing wastes into higher value products’ as it is ‘not the government’s role to back certain technologies’.

Waste technologies

Despite this, STC voiced ‘concern’ that current government incentives are already sector focused, supporting particular technologies such as anaerobic digestion (AD), thus ‘mitigating against higher value uses of waste’.

Whilst it noted the ‘benefits’ of AD, STC argued that government is ‘perhaps too ready to champion [it]’ and as such, urged ‘some caution towards this technology’.

Indeed, it highlighted evidence from Peter Jones, Director of Ecolateral, which stated that to create 8,500 megawatt hours (MwH) of electricity (worth around £900,000) an AD plant would requires 45,000 tonnes of feedstock, while advanced thermal oxidation would need 16,000 tonnes, and ‘high-temperature gas plasma’, only 7,000 tonnes. It therefore warned that the UK could see itself rely on growing crops specifically to feed AD plants if the technology was relied upon too heavily.

Further, STC said that it believes it is ‘important’ that there is a shift from funding energy projects towards projects focusing on the development of ‘higher value products’.

Paucity of data

The committee recognised that as there is currently no single source of information about the extent of the UK’s waste resources, there is an ‘urgent need’ for improved information on the availability, quantities, and quality of waste arisings now and in the future.

Indeed, STC suggested that due to waste management firms withholding waste arisings data (in the belief that it ‘helps to put them at a competitive advantage’), there is a ‘fragmented picture whereby no firm has a complete overview of waste arisings’.

However, it is hoped the new online waste transfer note system, edoc, could help rectify this. As such, STC said it would ‘encourage businesses and waste management firms to make use of this system’, and urged government to ‘monitor uptake closely’.

It also suggested that WRAP is ‘well positioned to take ownership of providing holistic information on waste resources’ but voiced concern that ‘recent reductions in its budget may not leave it well placed to do so’.

The report reads: ‘Information on sources of waste, quantities, composition, location and changes over time needs to be made available in a way which allows industry to make informed investment decisions on how to extract maximum value from waste resources.

‘Industry needs to engage with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills as a matter of urgency to agree ways in which this can be achieved for non-domestic waste streams. A clear owner needs to be identified to collate, and make available, such holistic information on waste as a resource.’

‘A huge amount at stake’

Commenting on the release of the report, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Lord Krebs, said: “Our investigation has revealed that the UK, which generates hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste every year, has the scientific know-how and the industrial will to turn this waste into wealth.

“But we are concerned that the government is not seizing this opportunity – there is a huge amount at stake here, economically and environmentally, and no single department appears to be leading the way.

“We are calling on the government to create a Waste Champion, a Minister who can coordinate action and policy across different departments so this chance is not missed. The Waste Champion should not only ensure that the UK has the ideal environment for a waste bioeconomy to flourish, but also come up with a long-term vision to maintain it.

“Our report clearly shows that where there’s muck, there’s brass. Waste, traditionally seen as a problem, needs to be viewed as a hugely valuable resource, one [that] could generate a substantial economy of its own. We must not let this opportunity pass us by.”

Read ‘Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy’.

The full transcripts of oral and written evidence can be found here.