In the UK, high commodity prices, landfill tax and some surprising collaborations are boosting recycling rates.
As waste rolls along the conveyor belt, infrared beams sort one type of plastic from another, and bursts of air set them on the right path to melt-down – and eventual reincarnation…
Optical sorting, as this process is known, is one technology helping to drive a sharp improvement in the UK’s household recycling rates.
Last year, for the first time since records began, local authorities recycled, composted or reused more waste than they sent to landfill. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 43% of household waste was recycled in 2011/12, up from just 11% a decade before.
Despite the extra complexity and cost in collecting and sorting different kinds of refuse, forward-thinking local authorities are finding that their waste bills are falling as their recycling rates rise.
One success story comes from north-west England. The authorities that formed Cheshire West and Chester, a new unitary council, four years ago, budgeted for a 15% cut in annual household waste collection costs. Following a tender in which bidders had to show how they would maximise income from recycled material, the new body is set to save more than 30%, or ₤£3.5 million – while also lifting recycling rates. The tender was one of the first of its kind in the UK to recognise the economic value of waste, says Phil Scott of engineering and project management group AMEC, the lead technical advisor to the council.
And the winner? The infrastructure services company May Gurney. One particular innovation in the new contract sees the company sub-contract a local non-profit furniture reuse network to collect bulky goods. It’s one of the first times a third-sector organisation has been involved in a major waste collection procurement for a council.
The furniture network will, in effect, now be paid for work it was already doing: namely collecting and selling unwanted but reusable household items donated by the public. Under the previous contracts, virtually all bulky waste across Cheshire West and Chester went to landfill. The network is now finding a use for almost half of it.
There are wider benefits, too, such as new jobs. Gary Cliffe runs a charity within the network that aims to create jobs for ex-offenders, disabled people and others struggling to find work. “You can’t underestimate the difference financial stability makes”, he says. Amongst other things, the income from the contract has subsidised a new recycling line: mattresses.
Aluminium cans fetch £700 per tonne, up from £450 in 2009
Importantly, says Helen de Lemos, the council’s Waste Strategy Manager, the service is a powerful reminder to the public of the value of recycling. And there’s plenty of value to recognise. Aluminium beverage cans top the pile, fetching £700 per tonne, up from £450 in 2009. The scale is rising, too. Growing quantities of recyclable material are, in turn, supporting large-scale processing. A plant in Essex that processes nearly 10% of plastic bottles collected for recycling in the UK, for example, is set to double its capacity this year.
However, the biggest economic factor in favour of recycling is landfill tax, says Dr David Greenfield of Iese, a local government consultancy. The UK’s levy is set to rise to £80 a tonne in 2014, which means it will soon cost £880 to send one lorry with an 11 tonne load to landfill.
Like AMEC, and Cheshire West and Chester, Greenfield sees tenders which promote ‘competitive dialogue’ between the procurement team and a range of bidders as a key way to inject innovation into recycling. He’s not the only one looking forward to a new culture around old stuff. – Virginia Marsh
AMEC is a Forum for the Future Partner.
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