Is England lagging behind Scotland and Wales when it comes to waste reduction? Caroline Hand investigates.

Scotland already has its zero waste plan in place, with new statutory targets to prevent the landfilling of recyclable materials. Wales is following suit with its ambitious target to recycle and recover 70% of waste by 2050. And though England may not yet have published its new waste strategy, there are encouraging moves towards a zero-waste economy across the border.

The south east of England has been singled out to receive funding under a relatively new EU scheme: the European Pathway to Zero Waste, or EPOW. Funds are provided by the European Commission’s “LIFE plus” funding stream, which funds environmental and conservation projects. The scheme is administered jointly by the Environment Agency and WRAP following the demise of the South East England Regional Development Agency. It is not a completely new initiative, but builds on the success of a previous waste reduction scheme, “Pathway to Zero Waste”, which focused mainly on the recovery of construction waste.

“Zero waste” is better understood as “zero waste to landfill”, but the scope of the scheme extends beyond merely diverting waste from disposal to recovery. There are eight distinct strands to the scheme.

  1. Promoting recovery and reuse through the establishment of new quality protocols.

  2. Developing the market for recycled materials.

  3. Tackling waste crime.

  4. Facilitating the development of new recycling and recovery infrastructure.

  5. Setting up a waste exchange.

  6. Introducing new electronic tools to help businesses reduce their waste impact.

  7. Demonstrating new methods of collecting, converting and presenting information on waste to aid recycling.

  8. Supporting best practice through advice to businesses.

Together, these different initiatives are keeping recyclable materials out of the waste stream, increasing recovery capacity so more waste can be recycled, and making it more attractive and economic for businesses to use recycled materials. The end result is that valuable resources remain in the local economy and are not lost to landfill, illegitimate export trade or illegal dumping.

New quality protocols

Quality protocols are standards or specifications which set the criteria for “end of waste”. In other words, if a recovered material complies with the protocol, it is not a waste and can be purchased and used in the same way as any other raw material. Unlike some recovered materials, it is not subject to waste regulation so the user will not have to apply for an environmental permit, register an exemption or obtain a waste carrier’s certificate. Protocols already exist for a range of materials, including waste-derived compost.

EPOW in the south east is working on two new protocols, one for meat and bone meal from rendering, and the other for asphalt removed from roads during resurfacing. The meat and bone meal is useful as a fertiliser and source of phosphorus, while the tarry material can be used as a recycled aggregate provided certain hazardous substances can be dealt with. This is possible through a cold-treatment procedure.

Once a quality protocol has been drawn up, it is important to publicise it so that reprocessors are encouraged to recover wastes to the specified standard, and businesses can have confidence that these waste-derived products will meet the expected standards of performance and safety.

Tackling waste crime

The EPOW funding is helping the Environment Agency become more effective in its fight against waste crime. One specific area of concern is the illegal export of waste, and particularly WEEE — the focus of the Agency’s Securing Criminal Waste Exports Project. This is an intelligence-led approach, which tracks illegally exported waste from cradle to grave. EPOW has provided the resources for the Agency to publish a good practice guide on waste exports, primarily for local authorities, which explains their legal duties and advises them on how to audit contractors and exporters, ensure correct documentation is in place, and track their waste to ensure that it reaches the intended destination. The guidance has been well received for its clear, common-sense approach.

The Agency is also confronting waste criminals through “intervention days” involving large numbers of Agency staff. The aim of the intervention days is to cause widespread disruption for waste operators, making it difficult for anyone to dispose of waste illegally. Additionally, the Agency tracks unauthorised waste movements, and raises awareness of legislation and best practice surrounding the consignment, transport, treatment and disposal of waste generated by the construction industry. This is a national initiative and, in the south east, two high-profile illegal waste sites have been tackled using these techniques.

Waste tyres

An EPOW-sponsored study examined the motives behind illegal tyre storage and evaluated the success of various public sector campaigns to reduce tyre crime. The report found that the best place to tackle tyre crime is through intervention at the point where money changes hands. In other words, businesses need to be discouraged from handing over tyres to illegal operators, and instead given greater opportunities to find legitimate dealers. Criminals can be discouraged through approaches which ensure that they do not profit from unpermitted tyre collection and storage activities: for example, the Agency can invoke the Proceeds of Crime Act. One of the project’s main recommendations to local authorities was that data collection across different projects and partners needs to be more consistent, with a proper baseline being set.

Waste exchange

A new waste exchange for businesses in the south east has been set up under the auspices of EPOW. The South East Waste Exchange was developed by WRAP and is run by Waste Producer Exchange, an online waste-trading programme. While all kinds of waste materials can be traded, the scheme concentrates on construction and demolition wastes. On a random day, the site was offering consignments of paper and card, wood, textiles, one used tyre, plastics and non-ferrous scrap. The scheme is free to join and simple to use — rather like trading on eBay.

New waste infrastructure

Many of the essential metals used in consumer electronic goods (such as smart phones) and industries of national significance (such as aircraft and defence) are in short supply, with the EU being entirely dependent on imports, particularly from China. The EU has identified 14 critical raw materials, which include tungsten, platinum, antimony and beryllium. A key priority is to promote resource efficiency for these materials, and increase recycling and recovery. Some of these materials are much easier to recycle than others, so EPOW has conducted a study to identify recovery opportunities, ranking them in terms of practicability and whether they can be implemented in the short, medium or long term. For example, the best short-term solution is to increase recycling of catalytic converters, whereas in the long term the magnets from wind turbines could be usefully recovered.

Encouraging green procurement

Starting with the public sector, EPOW is providing advice on sustainable purchasing. This should increase the uptake of good-quality recycled materials. EPOW has produced a suite of training materials for public sector employees, covering furniture, textiles, ICT and reuse in general. The intention is for this good advice to be passed on to the private sector.

EPOW will run until October 2013, by which time it will be possible to evaluate more fully the success of these various initiatives in improving resource efficiency. Hopefully, the lessons learned will be applicable more widely in the UK and Europe.

Further information

Further information on the EPOW partnership is available on the Environment Agency website.

Last reviewed 25 June 2013