The UK Waste Strategy

Materials World magazine
,
31 Jan 2019
Plastic bag floating underwater (Shutterstock)

The UK government recently revealed its new waste strategy. What is being proposed and is it likely to succeed? Rhiannon Garth Jones gets insight. 

Refundable deposits on plastics and consistent, comprehensive council recycling services are among the plans under consultation in the recently announced UK government Resources and Waste Strategy. Ambitious research projects will also receive funding under the initiative and incentives for industry to produce products that last longer and can more easily be recycled will be introduced.

The strategy, which is part of the wider shift in industrial policy towards a circular economy, aims to change the way the UK makes, uses and recycles plastics. Other areas of focus include making producers of damaging waste legally responsible for it, and improving on-packaging recycling information for customers. 

Currently, many materials are recyclable in some areas and not others, while certain councils charge for garden waste disposal. This new strategy aims to end this ‘postcode lottery’ for recycling, ensuring that each council provides the same recycling services and removing charges for garden waste collection. To begin with, this will involve an agreed minimum stanrdard for refuse collection and recycling across England to reduce the barriers to joint working between disparate local authorities. 

Additionally, clear and consistent labelling on packing will be introduced so consumers are more aware of what can be recycled. Plus, manufacturers will be encouraged to design products that last longer and are easier to repair, reuse and/or recycle, or will incur higher fees by not meeting the criteria. 

Meanwhile, electronic tracking of refuse shipments will be used to reduce waste crime and firms that produce materials will be made responsible for the cost of disposing of those items, which will include small articles such as drinks cartons, but may extend to larger ones like electrical goods and cars. 

Will it work?

The plans, which are the first update to the government’s waste strategy for over a decade, are set to come into force in 2023, although they will be subject to consultation during the start of 2019. One of the proposals already put forward is a bottle deposit-return scheme, but implementation has been hit with delays.

Recycling rates across England have flatlined for the past five years and concerns about plastic pollution, the environmental impact of food waste and recyclables shipped overseas are growing. There is an added urgency to implementation now that China, Malaysia, Poland, Thailand and Vietnam have banned or restrited waste exports from the UK. The government hopes this approach will encourage more sustainable design while raising money to fund local recycling projects, a move which has been welcomed. 

'While an overhaul of our waste system is definitely a step in the right direction, for this ‘producer pays’ strategy to be a success, manufacturers must bear the full cost of dealing with the harmful waste they produce, including its collection,’ said Campaign to Protect Rural England, Litter Programme Director, Samantha Harding. 

Software Business Development Manager Steve White of infrastructure management firm Yotta is more hopeful about the strategy, saying, ‘One of the most positive elements of the Resources and Waste Strategy is that it brings together a lot of strands that all have an impact on our recycling in England, and also has the potential to align approaches with what is happening elsewhere in the UK’.

‘To make this joined up approach to recycling services delivery work,’ he says, ‘of course, it will need to be underpinned by a technology architecture capable of managing service delivery – connecting different asset and service areas and building further connections between councils, residents, frontline workers and back-office teams.’

Much of this technology is actually already in use. For instance, the supermarket chain Iceland recently announced that 311,500 plastic bottles have been recycled since it rolled out a reverse vending scheme across five sites last June. The machines accept any Iceland plastic beverage bottle and repay customers with a 10p voucher for every bottle recycled, to be used in store. 
As Internet of Things technology improves and becomes cheaper, we could well see it playing a significant role in improving recycling on the go. White suggests that, ‘rather than just using connected devices to determine how full a bin is, the relevant authorities will also be able to use it to sort by material type, determine the weight of the contents, identify ambient temperature, take carbon dioxide readings, and so on’.

Detlef Gross, who represents the German soft drinks trade association in UNESDA, the Europe-wide body, has acknowledged that, while many many European companies such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden demonstrate success with this, 'setting up the infrastructure for the deposit return scheme took a lot of time and effort'. But he believes it was worth it.

However, while only 1-3% of non-reusable bottles still go unreturned in Germany, the overall percentage of reusable bottles in circulation has actually sunk from 80% to below 50% since the introduction of the scheme. As such, critics argue that the deposit scheme means it is in supermarkets’ best interests to use non-reusable PET bottles to streamline the return process.

That’s why White believes that, ‘the single most important aspect of this is having a coherent strategy and delivering on that. Whether it is extended producer responsibility which will affect the packaging we receive with all our deliveries, or standardisation of the materials collected at the kerbside, or separate food waste collections, or the focus on waste crime, the key will be joining all this up. Ultimately, it is having a coherent overarching strategy, consulting on these and making changes to our practice that addresses all this that will ultimately make the biggest improvement to recycling in the UK’.

Research

Developing innovative new materials and recycling methods is also crucial. The eight new research projects, based at higher education institutions, are multidisciplinary collaborations that will explore innovative methods of manufacturing and recycling plastics that will meet the needs of consumers and businesses. So far, £8m of funding has been announced for these projects as part of the strategy, coming from the Plastics and Research Innovation Fund. 

UK Science Minister Chris Skidmore has identified plastic waste as a particular problem, stating, ‘we are committed to tackling this problem, from developing a plastic-eating bacteria to finding new ways to recycle. These projects have the potential to lead us to a cleaner, greener economy’.

One promising research project aims to create bacteria-based recycling technology that will break down plastics into other reusable materials. While another will develop biodegradable biopolymers and a third aims to tackle the problem of microplastics in water using graphene membrane filters. 

UKRIn Lead for the Plastics Research Innovation Fund and Executive Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council, Professor Duncan Wingham, believes, ‘These eight multidisciplinary research projects will lead the way in finding new solutions to our current use of plastics, through recycling methods and developing alternative materials. UKRI is drawing UK researchers together with companies to address the challenge of reducing plastic waste entering the environment and creating an economy that is free from plastic waste.’

Research projects

Exeter Multidisciplinary Plastics Research Hub: ExeMPLaR
University of Exeter – led by Professor Peter Hopkinson
 
RE3 – Rethinking Resources and Recycling
The University of Manchester – led by Professor Lin Li
 
Designing Out Plastic Waste
University College London – led by Professor Mark Miodownik
 
Evolving a Circular Plastics Economy
University of Hull – led by Professor Carl Redshaw and Dr Pauline Deutz
 
UKRI Circular Economy Approaches to Eliminate Plastic Waste
University of Cambridge – led by Professor Erwin Reisner
 
Advancing Creative Circular Economies for Plastics via Technological-Social Transitions (ACCEPT Transitions)
Queen's University of Belfast – led by Professor David Rooney
 
Plastics: Redefining Single-Use
University of Sheffield – Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures - led by Professor Anthony Ryan
 
Holistic Integration of Technology, Design and Policy for a Greener Plastic Future
Imperial College London – led by Professor Jason Hallett