November 20th, 2015
by Peter Jones
Details are starting to emerge of the forthcoming European Commission Circular Economy package proposal, now expected early in the New Year. If the leaks are accurate, and the package is translated into a directive in something like its current form, there will be a great deal of thinking to do – first for officials at Defra, and then for anyone involved in collecting waste that contains biowaste.
It has been reported in MRW that the draft package contains the following text as an amendment:
“Member states shall ensure the separate collection of bio-waste where TEEP and appropriate to ensure the relevant quality standards for compost”
Naturally, a clear signal from Europe about the direction of travel is encouraging for those who support the Renewable Energy Association’s campaign for the introduction of UK-wide mandatory separate collection of biowaste. The fact is, the Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and composting industry is going through a tough time – encouraged by energy subsidies and a decade of positive signals from Government, a great deal of new capacity has been built; but five years of local authority austerity and Eric Pickles’ relentless focus on residual waste collection frequency did little to encourage the expansion of food waste collections.
Less than zero?
As a result, AD gate fees are down considerably on where they were even two years ago – depending on the calorie content and contamination of the waste, it’s now possible to find a gate fee of £0/t for household-type material. I doubt that this is a sustainable price in the long term, and there is a real risk that we’ll start to see some facilities and operators getting into financial difficulties unless the availability of feedstock improves.
In this context, the prospect of a big push on biowaste collection from the EC might well seem like grounds for celebration for an industry much in need of some good news on feedstock. However, if I were an AD or IVC plant operator I wouldn’t be hanging out the bunting just yet.
An important question is when any new requirement might take effect. There has been talk of a date as early as 2020, which will seem awfully soon for collectors faced with the prospect of changing services, but may not come soon enough to save some biowaste treatment facilities in England. They’d need to rely on the package leading to some pre-emptive action, whether locally or at a national level. Indeed, it is possible that, faced with the prospect of needing to legislate on biowaste in the foreseeable future, Defra might become a little less reticent about taking action to increase the food waste collection in England in time to help hit the 2020 target of 50% recycling. However, only a very brave investor would rely on it!
If the aim is to bring about a real increase in the quantity and range of biowaste collected, the leaked wording may not be ideal – especially if governments transpose the requirement word for word into national legislation. We’ve already seen the introduction of a requirement to separately collect dry recycling where TEEP result in negligible change in collection systems in England, for reasons I explored in a previous blog. What proved to be a damp squib in the context of dry recycling could be positively saturated when applied to “biowaste”.
- The term biowaste encompasses both food and garden waste. If the current wording was applied to waste collection, it would seem possible for a local authority collector to argue that it complied with the requirements simply by arranging for collections of garden waste – which the vast majority already do.
- Even if legislation were to require collectors to consider food and garden waste separately, there is likely to be plenty of room for councils and commercial waste collectors to argue that in their particular circumstances, separate food waste collections are not practicable. A good deal of effort has gone into making this case in respect of separate collection of dry recyclables, and faced with the prospect of making significant changes to their systems in order to accommodate separate food waste collections, we might well see a similar slew of studies produced with the aim of seeing off this risk.
- For councils already committed to collection contracts, vehicle fleets or treatment facilities, it may be difficult to contemplate separately collecting biowaste until these come to the end of their lives.
- If any new requirement is focused on collectors, it seems unlikely to have much impact on the commercial waste sphere. In Scotland, we’ve seen food waste collections dramatically increase through the application of a requirement on producers, and this approach would be much more effective in achieving the aim of increasing diversion than would a new obligation on collectors, who lack any real means to require a waste producer to buy services of a particular kind.
So, it seems that the wording seen in the recently leaked text wouldn’t stand much chance of bringing about a major advance in the amount of household or commercial food waste collected if transposed word for word in England. There’s just too much wriggle room available to make it a realistically enforceable requirement.
That’s despite the fact that many local authorities operate collection systems where they find it TEEP to separately collect both food and garden waste – just as some already separately collect four streams of dry recycling. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see whether the work being carried out to draw up a limited number of standardised household recycling systems will allow any options in which food waste isn’t separately collected.
I suspect, though, that campaigners for mandatory separate collections of food waste still have a long way to go. If they’re to succeed, they’ll need to persuade Defra to transpose any new rules in a way that stands a chance of actually leading to change. Meanwhile, Defra remains nervous of imposing any additional costs on waste collectors – a concern that the industry would be well advised to address.
However, the alternative for Defra may be to subject waste collectors to the uncertainty and expense of dealing with unclear legislation. If the choice is between making collectors spend money on improving recycling, or on working out arguments to avoid doing so, I know where I’d rather see efforts focused.