Labour MP Alan Whitehead outlines the ideas behind his Renewable Content Obligation Bill, which is being discussed in the Commons today.
The 'Waste hierarchy' adopted by successive UK waste strategies puts disposal of waste to landfill at the bottom of the hierarchy of desirable outcomes and the reuse of waste materials in new products - waste as a resource - only below minimisation at the top of the tree.
We are doing well at collecting and separating waste ready for re-use as a resource, but less well at actually using it. A significant proportion of collected waste is either shipped out of the country or ends up in landfill or incinerated when it could be used for more energy and carbon efficient purposes.
If waste which could be used as a resource for new products ends up incinerated or buried, then much of the purpose of the painstaking collection and sorting of that resource is overthrown.
Export is not a bad end use for recyclates in its own right, and in some instances (such as scrap metal) provides outlets for materials not usable in the UK.
In other instances, exports are being undertaken into what have recently been seen to be very uncertain markets abroad when they could be effectively incorporated into manufacture of goods in the UK.
The Renewable Obligation Bill provides powers to require specified products to contain a designated amount of recycled material when put on sale in the UK.
The aim of the bill is to 'close the loop' in recycling of waste materials and packaging, ensure that best use of recyclates is made, and secure long term stable markets for recyclates.
The bill anticipates the continuing success of extracting useable recycles from the waste stream, and puts mechanisms in place to ensure that the end use of the recyclate is, wherever possible, in known and secure markets in the UK by means of recycled content.
The principle adopted in the bill is not new - it is similar to that of the Renewable Obligation for electricity supply and the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. It means a rising 'target content' for designated products introduced over a period of time, with a 'buy out' price fixed for the failure of designated product manufacturers to comply.
In this way, there will be a level playing field for all designated production areas, and a reasonable time frame for adoption of initial and eventually higher targets.
The types of products that could be designated would be those that can incorporate known recyclate streams relatively easily, such as:
- construction materials incorporating ash, ground glass and aggregate;
- heavy duty plastic products using recycled mixed recovered plastic;
- higher quality plastics recycling separated specific types of plastic;
- glass bottles incorporating recovered cullet;
- packaging and cardboard products using recycled paper and cardboard.
Many companies and products do already incorporate recyclates, but the complaint of those which do is that they make voluntary efforts at their own expense.
A universal regime which enabled known recyclate streams to be matched with product ranges - perhaps requiring an overall target to be met by means at the discretion of companies required to comply - would both give a fair marketplace for all relevant products, and guarantee the elusive reliable quality market for hard-won recyclates.