2021 – A story of progress, platitudes, more storms and more waste

As we hurtle towards the end of 2021, the pace of business, especially in the waste sector is showing no sign of slowing down. While in the broader sense it’s good for business, it’s also an indication of the additional pressures being placed on the industry in general. A recent report published that the Leeds City Council spent an additional £5.1 million (https://www.letsrecycle.com/news/extra-5-1m-spent-by-leeds-for-covid-waste-pressures/) on waste management in 2021 as a direct result of the pandemic. This is just one example of the additional demands being placed on the waste industry

In this our last blog post for the year we wanted to review 2021 in light of what’s changed and more importantly what needs to change but hasn’t.

COP26 a cop out

Great fanfare was made about COP26 and leaders emerged impressed with the promises they made. But we won’t be holding our breath while we wait for action. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has been blunt in her analysis, calling the conference a complete failure. Adding that trying to solve the climate crises with the same methods that caused the problems is futile. Her most scathing comments were reserved for the global powerhouses: “The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action.”

Chasing greener infrastructure

As a gentle reminder of the urgency of the climate crisis, early winter storms have wreaked havoc, causing disruptions in power supply, sanitation, as well as road and rail infrastructure. Energy shortages are also causing prices to soar and many are quick to blame renewables for the inconsistent supply. In the second quarter of 2021, renewables only accounted for 37.3% (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1021989/Energy_Trends_September_2021.pdf) of supply. A stark contrast to the growth it had been experiencing since 2019. Less favourable weather conditions have been blamed, but there is another element that has been overlooked. While overall investment in the renewable sector is growing and this should support greater levels of supply in future, the reality is demand is growing exponentially too. This highlights that there is far more involved than simply switching to renewables. Energy efficiency and technologies that can contribute to grid resilience need to play a greater role.

Can the waste sector contribute to the energy supply?

Generating energy from waste has been in place in Europe and the UK for some time. It is often seen as a solution to deal will burgeoning volumes of waste that can’t be recycled and would otherwise end up in landfill. EfW may be able to support energy supply, but the problems are that it’s not renewable. Is continuing to invest in large scale EfW projects a good idea? I think more localised, smaller, facilities are going to become the norm.  So what are the other solutions that can help reduce the growing piles of waste that we continue to generate while aligning with net zero goals?

Tackling the recycling challenges

There’s a great deal of credit due to the players in the waste sector who are approaching collections and recycling from a different perspective. They’re utilising some of the most advanced technologies available to build state of the art processing facilities capable of recycling a broad range of materials. Using artificial intelligence for more effective sorting and implementing adaptable recycling methodologies enables them to process more materials more efficiently. The facilities have also been designed to be able to scale as volumes of recycling increase.

There is also a great deal of collaboration taking place with retailers playing their part in reducing packaging and aid in recycling collections. Deposit return schedules have been trialed in Scotland and are dues to be implemented in April 2022.  Introducing a fee for plastic grocery bags has reduced consumption by 95%. All of these small but deliberate efforts are making an impact not only on recycling efforts but also in greater consciousness about packaging and similar single use items that are easily discarded.  However, recycling systems are only as good as the markets for the end materials. We’ve seen some major issues with end markets, and until we sort out local markets, closing the loop, exporting materials is going to cause us issues.

Big scale changes

In terms of legislation, there appears to be a greater environmental push towards achieving circular economies. These laws do serve a purpose, but as we’ve seen in the past with landfill tax in the UK, aren’t always sufficient to usher in changes in behaviour. Industry media reports an increase in fly tipping during the pandemic. Cases of illegal dumping and unethical waste management practices continue to plague the industry and undermine the good work that many are involved in.

Plastic trading continues to remain a controversial topic. Statistica (https://www.statista.com/topics/4918/plastic-waste-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/) published a report highlighting a strong majority of the public support the idea of banning the export of plastic waste. This highlights yet another challenge in the industry. Trading is an integral part of waste management and it’s likely to continue to cause heated debates.

Our takeaway:

Like most years, 2021 has been a year of opportunities and challenges. Despite our efforts, there’s a strong awareness that we need to achieve more in terms of the climate crisis. Not only that, but we need to accelerate positive outcomes. I’m proud to be part of an industry that is constantly looking for ways to improve and make a bigger impact. This gives me hope that despite ongoing pandemics and climate catastrophes, together we can start to turn the tide.