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Ensuring recycling quality can cut emissions by 10%

17 Jan 2011

Pressure on local authorities to increase the rate of recycling to avoid exceeding landfill allowances could see the quality of recycled materials degrade to such an extent they are unusable and sent back to rubbish tips, according to the Institute for Civil Engineers (ICE).

Progressing to a more circular economy where recovered and recycled materials are high enough quality to return to the UK market could cut carbon emissions by ten per cent by reducing the demand for raw materials, it said.

ICE has outlined an approach, costing between £10bn and £20bn by 2020, which it said could unlock the potential value that is caught up in the waste sector.

This level of finance is necessary to combat the dwindling investment resources that will be available for the sector in the coming years ahead of the government’s recent plans, according to ICE.

Its plan involves creating a malleable infrastructure over the next 40 years that would be able to evolve to cope with the changing demands placed on it.

The State of the Nation report advises the UK government to facilitate private investment in waste and resource management infrastructure to tap into this value and shift the emphasis from quantity to quality in the recycling sector.

For infrastructure investment to be protected as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) comes to a close, it recommends that the central UK government should foster private investment in the sector through favourable legislation and unleashing funds from the Green Investment Bank.

The government must help create a commercial policy and regulatory environment that is conducive to investment in infrastructure ‘at an affordable price’, the ICE report said.

Improving data methods is also a big focus of ICE’s scheme, which is in line with the UK’s National Infrastructure Plan 2010 that signalled the government’s commitment to financing the sector.

Direct financial support for infrastructure procurement for municipal solid waste projects is likely to come to an end with the death of the PFI, according to ICE.

ICE has called for more investment to be routed into the reuse sector particularly, to preserve goods for re-entry into the economy at a minimal cost.

It warned that the ‘quantity not quality’ approach to processing waste could render recycled material such as paper, glass and plastics unfit to be reused commercially.

The utopian vision of ICE’s report involves a sector shift in the waste sector that would change its emphasis towards retaining the value of reusable materials and returning reusable goods to the economy in a saleable condition.

Most recycled materials have a lower carbon footprint than raw materials that are produced and manufactured into finished goods through a carbon intensive process.

ICE presents an array of intriguing statistics, such as recycled paper requiring half the energy needed to make compared with making paper from raw materials.

It also quotes studies in Western Europe that suggest that the proportion of waste that can be recycled viably in the UK municipal, industrial and commercial sectors could rise by a fifth in the next decade.

ICE waste and resource management expert Jonathan Davies said, ‘The UK’s waste management policy has been too narrowly focused on diverting waste from landfill and local authorities are stepping up to the challenge to avoid fines by increasing the quantity of recycled material.

‘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.’

Click here to read the full report

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