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Essay: Waste management in the UK

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  • Waste management in the UK
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The population of the United Kingdom is growing which, in turn affects the growth of the economy and the consumption of raw materials. It is also a catalyst for an increased production in waste which has an adverse effect on the environment and climate. The growth in the population also means that more houses are required as well as retail parks, hospitals and business parks which increases the demand for raw materials, however, this demand is counteracted by the decrease in the availability of raw materials.

Waste is regarded as the by-product of a living society and it is a challenge for the current population to learn and understand how to manage the waste in order to become a sustainable society. The most common form of sustainable waste management at the moment is recycling, however, not all the waste material can be recovered in this way and inevitably the remaining waste ends up in the landfill site.

The waste management in the UK faces a problem that cannot be solved by recycling only, despite its relative success, especially in Wales. I order to complement the success of recycling, the waste industry needs to engage in communication with the renewable energy industry, in particular the waste to energy sector. Despite there being a few plants operational in the UK, only a handful are currently in use in Wales and it is this gap in the waste market that needs to be exploited in order to meet the growing demand in renewable energy.

With energy from waste plants, waste can be regarded as a valuable energy source and can result in solving two problems, treating non-recyclable materials and generating a significant amount of energy, to be used as heating or electricity. The introduction of energy from waste plants in a country the size of Wales could potentially, along with other renewable energy generation methods, make the country a ‘zero waste’ country as well as reducing the carbon footprint considerably.

The development of energy from waste technology over the past decade means that it is a form of renewable energy that is highly regarded as sustainable and environmentally friendly and could solve the challenges in both the waste and renewable energy sectors in Wales, as well as the UK.

In order to ascertain whether waste to energy generation in Wales would be a viable option it is important to understand the current waste management situation in the country and examine the current waste streams to see how each county is performing in terms of recycling, landfilling and, if applicable, energy generation from waste.

A successful waste management model is required if Wales are to benefit from introducing waste to energy plants throughout the country. One such model can be found in Sweden, where their waste management model has proved very successful over the last 10 years. It relies on the communication between waste contractors, local authorities and the public in order to ensure it adheres to the waste hierarchy defined by the European Union’s Landfill Directive.

Therefore, in this paper, the case study of Sweden’s waste management system will be examined in order to highlight which areas Wales could adopt into their own waste management system to become successful. The focus of the study will be on waste to energy generation as the current state of recycling in Wales is of a relatively high standard and therefore it is believed that a successful waste to energy program would ensure that the volume of waste going to landfill will be dramatically reduced as the energy generation progresses.


Waste Management in the UK

Landfill sites are constructed in order to store waste; however, there are strict regulations in place which determine how a landfill is constructed and what type of waste is allowed to be disposed in it. A landfill site is usually built in sections or cells, and each cell is built so that the waste disposed within it is contained and cannot contaminate the surrounding countryside. A cell is usually excavated within exiting ground and is then lined with clay, a geomembrane liner and a geotextile liner. These layers act as a barrier to stop leachate, which is a by-product of decomposing waste, from seeping into the surrounding land.

Landfill cells also produce methane gas from the decomposing waste, this gas is controlled by a pipework system and is pumped out of the landfill and is burned to produce electricity. It is very important that landfill construction and waste disposal is regulated strictly as the consequence of poor construction or the over-tipping of waste can have a serious effect on the environment.

There are three types of waste that are disposed of in landfill sites in the UK, inert waste, hazardous waste and non-hazardous waste. Inert waste is usually harmless and contains materials such as broken up concrete, bricks, aggregate and other waste materials generated from construction projects (EA, 2010).

Waste is categorised as hazardous when it contains chemicals or substances that are detrimental to human life or the environment (Anon., 2015). Non-hazardous waste is classed as harmless waste and includes materials such as organic matter which is generated from food waste and garden waste, this type of waste is generally used in the production of compost (Anon., 2013). Table 1 shows the various categories of waste generated in the United Kingdom from residential, which is the volume of waste generated through to agricultural waste, the composition of each waste category is also shown.

Table 1. Types and sources of waste (World Energy Council, 2017)

According to Iacopini (2008) the UK government and local councils have a considerable challenge ahead of them taking the country into the 22nd century with regards to the disposal of waste and its environmental impact. Additionally, Iacopini (2008) suggested that the increased push towards recycling and composting is not doing enough to reduce the burden on landfill sites and that alternative methods of waste disposal need to be developed sooner rather than later.

A European Union policy currently in place has set targets for improving the climate and increasing the use of renewable energy, labelled as the ’20-20-20’ targets which have been given the deadline of 2020. These targets include;

  • “A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
  • An increase in the contribution of renewable sources to energy consumed in the EU to 20%, and
  • A 20% improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency” (NAW, 2013)

Additionally, the UK have set their own targets through the Climate Act, 2008 where they aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by 2050 and they have identified that renewable energy sources will be a vital element in order to achieve this target (Climate Action, 2017). In addition to this, the UK Renewable Energy Strategy was conceived in 2009 in order to ensure the UK met the EU target of 15% of UK energy from renewable sources by 2020, this target is continually tracked through the governments annual publication of the Renewables Roadmap (NAW, 2013).

Despite the UK governments policies and targets it could all be turned on its head due to Brexit, with the country facing a waste backlog due to the diminishing opportunity for the UK to export the waste to EU countries if a hard Brexit occurs as predicted. In addition to this, there has been a crackdown in China on importing recyclable materials and this is coupled by the UK governments failure to commit to the construction of new EfW and recycling facilities in this country (Scott, 2017)

In addition to this, the amount of available landfill space has reduced dramatically over the last few years as the waste management companies have not invested in new landfills due to the fact that it is not seen as a future solution for waste management

(Scott, 2017). According to David Palmer-jones, CEO of Suez UK, a leading waste management company in the UK;

“Landfill tax has been incredibly succesful in shifting waste material away from landfill, and into EfW facilities, but the associated speed of the decline in landfill has outpaced the delivery of new, alternative, infrastructure, which is what has led to a shortfall. There were thousands of landfill sites in the 1990’s but by 2020 there will only be about 50 in the entire country” (The Guardian, 2017)

This is further exasperated due to the fact that the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs are failing to do anything about this looming crisis due to the fact that they are more concerned about dealing with agricultural policies in preparation for Brexit (Scott, 2017).

Scott (2017) also maintained that the UK government needs to come up with clear, hard policies on waste and recycling once the UK is out of the European Union, waste infrastructure cannot be conjured up in a flash, it can take up to seven years for an EfW plant to be up and running.

Despite the prediction of a waste crisis following Brexit, this could be a great opportunity for the UK to re-configure waste management in the country and take positive steps towards increasing the recycling and EfW capacities through a collaboration between the government providing clear ambition and clarity, and the waste sector providing the skill and knowledge in waste infrastructure.

De Castella (2011) stated that if alternative methods for waste disposal are not found and waste is continually sent to the landfill sites the European Union’s landfill directive will have an increased impact on the local communities due to the increase in landfill tax, which inevitably will be paid by the population through income and council tax.

Landfill Tax was introduced in the UK in 1996 in order to help the country achieve the obdurate main objective set out in the European Union’s Landfill Directive which was to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and encourage more recycling. Landfill tax is divided into two bands, inert waste and non-inert waste with the cost per tonnage on non-inert waste considerably higher than inert waste (360environmental, 2017).

However, in April 2018 Wales will become the first country in the UK to introduce an additional band that has a higher rate under a new Welsh Assembly scheme called the Landfill Disposals Tax which aims to prevent any illegal waste activity and tackle any potential tax evasion. There are currently 25 landfill sites in Wales which are operated by 20 landfill site operators, the tax implemented by the Welsh Assembly will be paid by the site operators who in turn will pass the cost on to the waste operators. (Perchard, 2017).

In addition to this will be the Landfill Disposals Tax Community Scheme where communities affected by waste disposal to landfills will benefit from grants which the Welsh Assembly hopes will help change the behaviour of the waste industry in Wales as well as making a difference in people’s lives through using this money to improve communities, support biodiversity and other environmental projects (Moore, 2016).

Mark Drakeford, the Finance Secretary for the Welsh Assembly has reiterated the Welsh Assembly’s vision for the future of waste management in Wales;

“By replacing the landfill tax with landfill disposals tax from April 2018, publice services in Wales will continue to benefit from the revenues raised by tax. Wales is at the forefront of waste policy and landfill tax is an important element of achieving our goal of a zero waste Wales” (Moore, 2016).

Iacopini (2008) stated that an agreement is in place between European legislators, UK government, local councils and environmental groups to try and minimise the amount of waste going to landfill and increase the recycling and the re-sue of materials, as well as finding more sustainable ways to manage and control the waste produced by the UK.

In addition, Eurostat figures from 2006 showed that the UK was trailing behind other European countries when it came to the percentage of household waste that was disposed in landfill. The UK sent approximately 69% of the waste to landfill, whereas Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands send 32%, 38% and 39% respectively

(Iacopini 2008). Updated figures from 2014 showed that the UK had improved slightly with 61% of household waste going to landfill, however, the EU Directive targets requires a 65% reduction in the use of landfill sites by 2020 (Iacopini, 2008).

Iacopini (2008) argued that ignoring the need for better waste management and control would create both financial and environmental problems for local council authorities and despite the continuing push for increased recycling there is a need for developing more energy from the waste the UK produces.


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