In this update of a report original published by the IMechE in 2009, Waste as a Resource: A sustainable Way Forward advocates a rethink of recycling and waste policy.
This approach would prioritise waste streams according to their usefulness to materials and emissions reduction, and to their utility to the wider energy system.
The original concept of a ‘Waste Hierarchy’ was adopted by the UK Government in the 1990s but viewed and still views waste as a problem rather than as a resource and thus does not fully deliver on the targets for which it was designed.
In the report, the IMechE recommends that the Government:
- Replace the Waste Hierarchy with a model that genuinely delivers on the prevention of waste. The existing Waste Hierarchy has outlived its usefulness and there needs to be a considerable reassessment of the way we view and deal with waste throughout the UK. The primary premise of its replacement must acknowledge that reducing or preventing waste of all types is paramount. Not producing the waste in the first place has by far the most beneficial effect on the environment.
- Release the value of our resources. Where ‘waste’ is inevitable and products not practically reusable, careful consideration must be given to achieve optimum use of all waste streams. Since waste is so diverse, it is obvious that there cannot be a single solution. Plants should be optimised so that some waste streams (e.g. metals, PET bottles) are given a ‘material-prioritisation’ strategy, while others (e.g. biodegradable materials) are given an ‘energy-prioritisation’ strategy.
- Adopt a zero-to-landfill approach. For many reasons (e.g. lack of new sites, the European Landfill Directive, environmental hazards), landfill is no longer an acceptable way of dealing with waste. ‘Zero-waste’ is not a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed) target, but a zero-to-landfill target is, and is much more likely to have greater impact. It is also essential to have transparent, independently audited, published data on the recovery and destination markets of materials and energy (heat, transport, and electricity).
- A greater emphasis on all waste streams, not just household. Legislators should not just focus on waste from households (currently only 12% of the total) and commercial and industrial waste (19%), but start developing effective strategies for construction, demolition, and excavation (CD&E) waste (61%) and other wastes (8%).
- Use locally-produced waste to heat and power local communities. There must be a far greater degree of community involvement; we envisage a scenario (already existing in other European countries) where a local community is responsible for its own waste and processes it into marketable products – electrical power, district heating and even transport fuel, as well as recovered materials. The positive climate change mitigation (CCM) impact would be enormous; the transport of waste would be avoided and the community would have complete ownership of the whole process.