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Why we're not 'done' on recycling

It’s often an eye-opener to people that recycling is actually the ‘least bad’ option for materials.

Iain Gulland | 19 Dec 16

In fact recycling, which we've all been trained to recognise as inherently good, uses the most energy and loses the most value from materials.

It’s also often assumed to be the easiest bit to get right, because it’s so prevalent in our daily lives. I’m often told that we should ‘move on’ and focus on the bigger wins offered by inner loop activities like repair, remanufacture and designing out waste.

Of course, they are important and we are directing our energies in that way. But it’s ultimately too simplistic to say that recycling is ’done’.

Recycling, though well-established, remains genuinely challenging in terms of achieving a circular economy. There are three key reasons for this, in my opinion.

Firstly, the logistics which underpin how most of us recycle have evolved from a public health background and that manifests itself in people attaching limited value to the services they receive. We know that recycling’s good, but often don’t understand why. So changing mindsets is important.

The economic angle of recycling should be recognised alongside the environmental one, and the balance between persuasion and compulsion should be right to ensure full participation.

Secondly, the whole recycling ecosystem, from collection through to end use is hideously fragmented, and the big loser in that is quality.

Stretched, inefficient supply chains, underpinned by low value export markets have allowed low purity to be tolerated. It’s only very recently that the quality message has started to be widely taken on board.The impetus now is very much for a more consistent, more efficient and ultimately higher quality system at every level.

And thirdly, because the wider economy is still predominately linear, that makes the markets for recycled materials volatile and exposed to global trends, creating a risk to investors. 

Brexit and its aftermath is only highlighting a vulnerability that will persist until we make big steps towards a more circular system. So designing-in recyclability and circularity at the outset – matching up products with collections systems – will have to be given far greater consideration.

In Scotland, we are clear that recycling is an integral part of our plans for a circular economy. We’ve built our policy approach around four, inter-connected pillars which directly address the challenges outlined above.

First, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 set out requirements for the separate collection of key materials, including food waste, and prohibit any separately collected material going to incineration or landfill. They create a minimum standard which has created a cultural shift around recycling, especially with businesses.

Second, the Scottish Household Recycling Charter, a joint initiative between national and local government, sets out a more consistent approach to household recycling collection systems, supported by a Code of Practice. Consistency can help with householder participation but it can also help provide greater economic benefits through higher quality. 

Third, the Scottish Materials Brokerage Service is delivering collaborative contracts for waste and recyclable materials from local authorities and other public bodies of sufficient scale to help local authorities and public bodies achieve a better deal, and reduce risk from price volatility. This will support the business conditions for investment in domestic reprocessing in Scotland by providing certainty in the volume and duration of supply of valuable materials.

Finally, the statutory Code of Practice for Materials Recovery Facilities introduces a sampling procedure to improve transparency of waste moving through our economy, and importantly to improve the quality of materials arriving for sorting.

Each of these elements needs to work together and recognise the impacts of change in one area on another. Our approach is to take a 'whole supply chain' approach to recycling, recognising that all players need to work together to supply and demand high quantity and high quality recycling, identifying and working with key partners to deliver improvements.

The work we are now doing to align the materials brokerage with the recycling charter is a good example. With 20 councils already signed up to the charter, the opportunity exists to take a strategic view on the infrastructure which will be needed to manage the commodities which will emerge from the twin-stream system for dry recycling.

The charter will deliver known, large quantities of materials at a consistent specification to the market for sorting and reprocessing. The brokerage approach for these materials can be the ‘grid connection’ for recycling to be truly part of a circular economy. It will create increased opportunities to add value to those materials before sending for onward processing, increasing the overall value chain in Scotland.

Linking that again to our circular economy investment funds, worth £18 million over the next three years, there exists the means in Scotland to invest in genuinely innovative schemes to utilise sorted materials and feed them back into the Scottish economy.

Innovative opportunities around plastics and paper, for example, could complement our established and strategically important glass reprocessing sector and provide feedstock to resurgent manufacturing industries. The jobs and other economic benefits could be significant.

There will be challenges ahead, that much is clear. We don’t know what the future will hold in terms of European Union membership or access to European markets. Commodity prices are volatile and the changing exchange rate is having an impact across the waste and resources sector. And it’s unknown how quickly circular design principles will be adopted across different products.   

But these issues will be temporary. The opportunities of a circular economy are for the long term. By harnessing innovation and taking a strategic view of how we manage materials within our economy, we create the conditions for long term prosperity. Recycling might be the outermost loop of the circular economy, but by doing it right, we make sure it provides the uppermost benefit.

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