John Woodruff Speaks - Harmonisation – Pain or Panacea?

John Woodruff Speaks - Harmonisation – Pain or Panacea?
16 June 2017

Before moving to Ricardo from the public sector, I was fortunate enough  to be part of the industry steering group which helped develop WRAP’s Consistency Framework. The group included representatives from the Environmental Services Association, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, Local Government Association, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, the Resource Association, the Recycling Association, the British Retail Consortium, Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

This wide range of perspectives ensured that the final document was informed by a rare combination of views, ensuring the political imperative was balanced by comprehensive data modelling, operational practicality, financial realism and the concerns of reprocessors regarding the quality of materials collected.

It has been interesting to appreciate from a consultancy perspective, how elements of the Framework have mirrored the initiatives being considered by waste collection authorities across the country.

Many of the projects Ricardo carry out revolve around identifying potential efficiencies from revising waste collection services. A primary driver for this is the ongoing austerity agenda, which translates as reducing budgets and the need to do more with less money. This approach, whether directly informed by the Framework or not, certainly mirrors the Framework’s ambition to achieve efficiencies whilst increasing recycling rates and, crucially, improving the quality of material being delivered to the reprocessing sector.

It is this latter element that needs to be incorporated into any options analysis of kerbside recycling collections.

WRAP hopes that as collection services across the country become more consistent, the public will gain a clearer idea about what can and can’t be recycled, and as a result, improve the quality of the recyclate they present for collection.

The quality agenda should always be a high priority and England’s stalling recycling rate provides a salutary lesson. Between 2011/12 and 2014/15, the tonnage of material collected for recycling tonnage increased by 300,000 tonnes, but the tonnage rejected during the sorting process increased by 154,000 tonnes.  

Was this increase a result of better sorting and feedback from MRFs or a further sign that the public is increasingly confused by what they can or should recycle?

During this period significant market and legislative forces may have placed an increased onus on MRFs to achieve high quality materials.  The fall in material values from their peaks in 2011; China’s Operation Green Fence which came into force in 2013; and the Government’s intervention with the introduction of the MRF Code of Practice (Schedule 9A of the Environmental Permitting Regulations), whose first reporting period commenced in October 2014, could all have contributed to the increase in rejects.

Undoubtedly, England and Wales have in place a startling array of different collection systems, amounting to over 300, when taking into account variations in material streams, containment and collection frequencies, which certainly poses challenges for joint working, consistent communications and resident understanding.

This is where the analysis of collection services needs to stretch to cover the entire journey that our discarded products and packaging take. An important element of the move to greater consistency in the materials collected, and the manner in which they are collected, needs to be a focus on the growing issue of contamination from non-target materials, and the associated costs of removing these materials. Ultimately collection services (and the associated communications to residents) must ensure that reprocessors are presented with consistent, high quality materials as a feedstock.

Analysis of collection services therefore needs to focus on more than just direct service efficiencies by incorporating the impact on the quality of the material collected, and how this can be improved. Is it time to ensure that the sorting and reprocessing sectors are involved in the development process for collection service changes?

Ricardo has found this to be an extremely useful approach, and the exchanges of information, practical approaches and concerns have proven very positive. This is particularly the case when Waste Partnerships have commissioned an integrated analysis covering the options for collection services and the associated impacts on their reprocessors.

As always, there is no simple solution because every authority starts from a unique service configuration and Harmonisation certainly can’t happen overnight. However, an integrated approach is crucial. Recycling isn’t just about collection: it’s also about the supply of feedstock to reprocessors, whether directly or through the MRF sector. If this aspect is embraced and incorporated into service reviews, reprocessors will become more involved in obtaining their goal of more consistent inputs. That will, in turn, lead to consistent feedback on contamination and quality issues, enabling consistent and practical messages to be communicated to residents. Like a virtuous circle, this approach ensures municipal collections are recognised as a source of an alternative raw material, emphasising the concept of waste as a resource.

As always, there is a similar appreciation of these issues from a consultancy perspective. However, Ricardo’s wide customer base, encompassing as it does clients from across the waste sector from collection, through sorting and reprocessing to ultimate end users of recycled material, enables us to have a valuable perspective of, not only the diversity of the current range of collection methodologies, but a strategic oversight of how an emerging cross-industry consensus is beginning to emerge.

For information about options appraisals and other technical work areas visit our website or contact me direct:

John Woodruff,
Principal Consultant -  Resource Efficiency & Waste Management,
Email: john.woodruff@ricardo.com
Tel: +44 (0)1235 753119.