Every year, in the United Kingdom, secondary raw materials and energy for a total of about £15 million are recovered from waste, but sadly, most of it goes overseas. While the country imports raw materials and energy, every year it exports about 50% (between 12 to 14 million tonnes) of materials obtained from recycling and 90% of refuse-derived fuels (RDFs) which saturate the excessively powerful incinerators installed in the EU countries. And the annual puzzle of exports comes together with about 4 more millions of tonnes of secondary solid fuels (SSFs) sent to overseas cement factories. 

These are the data contained in the study A Resourceful Future, Expanding the UK Economy that Eunomia Research & Consulting – an economic-environmental consulting company – produced for SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, proposing an integrated plan of actions for the efficient use of resources, which would bring economic, occupational, environmental benefits as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The UK’s current state of the art of the circular economy is anything but homogeneous,” points out Dominic Hogg, Eunomia’s Chairman and a real international expert in multidisciplinary projects of waste management with an honorary degree under his belt awarded by the University of Oxford and a PhD in economy of technological development by the University of Cambridge. “Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are implementing very different and specific policies,” highlights Hogg. “The Welsh government, in particular, worked in close collaboration with local governments and companies in order to develop a new approach to the recycling activities and improve their performance, while in Scotland, where the increase in the recycling rate is less significant, the government is putting in place interesting initiatives for industries in order to back up the commitment to adopt measures in line with the circular economy.”


More specifically, what is the situation like in Wales and Scotland?

“In Wales, as to solid urban waste, the government started a technical support programme for municipalities, helping them to buy plants for the anaerobic treatment of organic waste and the spread of good practices for SMW’s collection. The aim is to increase the quality of fractions collected separately and recycling rates. Such policies led separate waste collection now to exceed 60% all over the country. As for Scotland, Zero Waste Scotland, the local movement is pushing for the introduction of measures in line with the circular economy through a specific programme aimed at SMEs. Furthermore, it promoted specific studies in the sector to assess how to make the country’s leading production sectors more circular.”


Such as?

“In the field of natural gas and oil rigs in the North Sea, they are researching into what they can do with them in the future. And they are also trying to introduce the principles of the circular economy in the building sector. Glasgow, in particular, declared it intends to become a circular economy city, therefore local matter flows are under scrutiny. In Scotland many foundations are cropping up in order to back up the circular economy. So, the situation is really interesting, except for SUW, as I have already mentioned, where the situation is not as positive as in Wales and it evolves more slowly.”


How would you define the state of the art of the circular economy in England?

“Hopeless (laughs)! The government lost any interest, the situation is really disappointing with consequences for the whole country. I live in England and I am the chairman of a consulting company: with the current government I don’t think we will work much over the next few years. We mostly try and help local governments not to lower the quality level of their services within an extremely critical financial context due to the reduction of resources being allocated by the government, which in the accounts of English municipalities cover most expenditure for waste management and are bound to be further slashed in the future. Many organizations fight for the circular economy, but we have not got consistent national policies to reach this goal: the central government has a very tepid interest in this and passes the burden of taking the necessary actions to private companies. A measure taken by the United Kingdom, though, hit the mark and was very successful: the introduction of a landfill tax.”


How much is it?

“Given that in the UK landfills are almost exclusively privately managed and that these apply about a €30 tariff per tonne, the tax is about €100 per tonne, so altogether €130.”


What are the advantages of such measure?

“I looked very closely at waste management systems in many European countries and I strongly believe that it is far better to introduce a high landfill tax rather than outlaw those plants, as they do in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Banning landfills leads to oversize the incinerating power of the installation. In the UK, such overcapacity does not exist. So I believe that, by contrast, those countries where it does exist, are very grateful to the United Kingdom for having kept its landfills operational, otherwise they would not have waste to incinerate, a part from that coming from Italy (laughs).”


What’s your take on the European hierarchy of waste that instead sees energy recovery incineration before landfilling?

“A series of analyses that I carried out on cost effectiveness never revealed that the required added costs from waste incineration are justified by gaining added benefits. This is one of the reasons why I believe that the United Kingdom did the right thing when it did not ban landfills. After all, if we are going to go down the alleyway of the circular economy, the main priority must be matter recycling, saying goodbye to landfills and incinerators. In other words, the two options at the bottom of the European hierarchy of waste that cost money are not given much opportunity to make money and they lead to loss of matter. The European hierarchy should be revisited: it used to work in the past, when waste incineration replaced energy production generated by coal, oil or gas plants. But today the situation has changed: energy production is increasingly diverted to the use of low carbon sources. On the contrary, burning waste entails greenhouse gas emissions just like any other combustion process; nor will it be possible to offset them by eliminating greenhouse gases from coal plants because in the United Kingdom we are about to ban their use. So we will no longer be able to say that burning waste does not make burning coal necessary.”


Quite apart from your critical stance on waste hierarchy, do you think that the European legal framework made waste policies more circular in the United Kingdom?

“It undoubtedly had a positive effect: without the waste framework directive and other directives on packaging, landfills and electrical and electronic equipment, today we would not be recycling more than 5% of SUW. For years we had suggested recycling targets, but we did not have effective measures to reach them. The message that reaching such targets was a good thing, regardless of the fact that Europe was imposing it on us (laughs), was understood in the last part of the latest labour government when, on the wake of the benefits that were starting to materialize on the horizon by increasing the recycling quotas and better waste management, in the United Kingdom the first national waste management system was started, quite independently from Europe’s mandates. But then the situation changed. The following coalition government resumed raising the same questions of over ten years before, while the current English government does not seem to be interested in the least in such policies, with the aggravating factor of having an impact on the whole of the UK.”


Could Brexit affect the future development of waste management policies?

“I should think so. The problem is that this sector is closely influenced by the current regulatory measures. With no legal obligation, cheaper waste management solutions tend to prevail, accompanied by the risk of illegal activities, which have soared over the last ten years. The landfill tax was successful, but this kind of procedures opens its gates to the possibility of making money via criminal activities in order to avoid paying tax, a serious problem which we have not yet dealt with adequately.”


What should be done in order to improve the performance in matter flow management within the UK and beyond?

“Over the years, Eunomia put forward many proposals. With regard to conventional waste management, for example, we think the introduction of an incineration tax should be desirable, to back up the existing landfill tax. To improve consumers’ behaviour we would like a security deposit on beverage containers and a tax on disposable items to be introduced, such as that on plastic carrier bags already introduced, with great success, all over the United Kingdom. Another important measure is the extension, by law, of the guarantee on white durable home appliances, such as fridges and washing machines. A security deposit on small home appliances such as toasters for example should also be introduced. Today, in the UK they are sold for peanuts, around €10 or even less; precisely because they are so cheap they are of very bad quality and they break quickly, often within the guarantee period. However, people could not care less about guarantees, and since they are so cheap, instead of having them replaced, they buy new ones. That is why a security deposit could push people to take them back to the shop, thus allowing for some material recovery, instead of ending up in the mixed waste garbage bin.”


What do you suggest for bulky waste?

“One proposal is about second-hand furniture, that may be restored in dedicated centres in order to improve its appearance and quality, making it look as new as possible and then resold at a higher price compared to how much it would be sold as pre-owned furniture as it is. It is a recovery modality which has a market in the UK, where a number of companies in this field have been operational for a while, thanks to investments in improving restoration techniques.”


What did you suggest in the building sector?

“In order to reduce waste production in the construction sector, a ‘bond’ that acts as a form of non-compliance fee could be introduced to incentivise better waste management. This would work as follows: in the design phase of the project, the company develops a waste management plan which specifies its objectives in respect of reuse and recycling. At commencement of the project, a bond is paid to the public authority. If the company meets its targets, it will be refunded the compliance fee it has paid in the project phase, minus a small administrative fee; if targets are not met, it will lose some of the refund (the amount lost being in line with the extent to which the target was missed). This system could work as an incentive to realize construction projects which are oriented – since the project phase – to minimize waste, and maximize the recycling of the waste which is generated. In public projects, procurement processes could establish very high targets for recycling. This measure is already used in some parts of the USA and South-East Asia quite successfully.”


As to the creation of new jobs, what is the situation ahead according to the scenarios you envisaged?

“There are many organizations, as Zero Waste Scotland, and consultancies, as Eunomia, which have produced analysis and documents that show the positive linkage between circular economy, resource efficiency and new job creation. But I’m convinced that without a shift in the industrial strategy of the government these goals cannot be achieved. This is the reason why many people in the sector, who are convinced of the benefits for the occupation, are frustrated by the government’s inaction, and see the industrial strategy as a key mechanism to move maters forward in England. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the circular economy in the industrial strategy is not especially strong.” 



Eunomia Research & Consulting, www.eunomia.co.uk

A Resourceful Future – Expanding the UK Economywww.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/a-resourceful-future-expanding-the-uk-economy