Science & Environment

Targets to boost recycling may backfire, say engineers

Image caption The report says councils focus too much on the quantity of recycling

Pressure on local authorities to meet targets of keeping waste out of landfill is at risk of backfiring, a report has said.

The document by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) says councils are focusing too much on the quantity of recycling rather than quality.

This is tending to produce a poor-quality stream of recyclable material.

Because of this, the lower-grade material sometimes has to be sent to landfill anyway.

The report says the waste industry must change its culture so the focus is not only on increasing the quantity of recycled materials but on retaining the quality and value of reusable materials.

This would allow recycled materials to be fed back into the economy as first-rate saleable goods.

Circular economy

The syndrome is particularly acute with paper recycling. One of the UK's main paper mills has been rejecting some British recycled paper because shards of glass in the paper have been tearing the mills.

In its State of the Nation: Waste and Resource Management 2011 report, the ICE says the changes needed would cost between £10-20bn by 2020.

But it says the progression to a "circular economy" where recovered and recycled materials are good enough to be routinely brought back into use could contribute 10% to CO2 reduction as part of a broader efficiency drive.

The EU Landfill Directive states targets for reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill sites in the UK.

The targets are set against a 1995 baseline: Reducing 25% by 2010, 50% by 2013, and 65% by 2015.

The government's "Waste Strategy 2000" introduced targets to recover 45% of waste by 2010 and 67% by 2015.

Most recycled materials have a lower CO2 footprint than raw materials. The ICE says 50% less energy is required to recycle paper compared with making it from timber.

Tax opportunity

Jonathan Davies from ICE said: "The UK's waste management policy has been too narrowly focused on diverting waste from landfill.

"But we still need more action also to drive up the quality of the material being produced. Without this, the UK could generate increasingly poor quality recycled materials for which there are few buyers, and ironically their most likely final destination is landfill."

The report says council tax payers could benefit from the change in approach, as producing and selling higher value recycled materials will generate more income for councils.

It says ministers should utilise some of the £842m per year generated by Landfill Tax to help capitalise the proposed Green Investment Bank, and support new low-carbon waste technologies.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: "We welcome this report by the Institute of Civil Engineers - a very timely input to the current review of waste policies in England. It contains some interesting ideas and policy suggestions which we will look at in detail as part of our review."

Shifting priorities on waste presents many challenges. Many councils have moved to co-mingled waste in which domestic waste is sent to recycling centres where items are separated by air-blowing machines like giant tumble-driers.

The system is cheaper than separation by hand, but can leave fragments of waste in the wrong recycling streams - glass in paper is a particular problem.

Another challenge is developing markets for recycled materials. The UK waste industry is fragmented with different councils adopting very different approaches.

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