A radical rethink of recycling and waste policy is required to put the UK on a more sustainable path, according to a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).
The report, ‘Waste as a Resource: A sustainable Way Forward’, advocates an approach that prioritises waste streams according to their usefulness to materials and emissions reduction, and to their utility to the wider energy system.
The original concept of a ‘Waste Hierarchy’ was adopted by the UK Government in the 1990s but viewed and still views waste as a problem rather than as a resource and thus does not fully deliver on the targets for which it was designed.
In the report, the IMechE recommends that the Government replace the Waste Hierarchy to drive prevention of waste at source, climate change mitigation and the recovery of energy and materials – valuable resources which will reduce imports and boost the UK’s economy. The primary premise of its replacement must acknowledge that reducing or preventing waste of all types is paramount, and that not producing the waste in the first place has by far the most beneficial effect on the environment.
The UK should also prioritise dealing with all waste streams in a more effective manner. Rather than the almost exclusive focus on the small proportion of total waste arisings which are ‘household’ waste, they should develop more effective strategies for dealing with commercial, industrial, construction, demolition, and agricultural waste.
Additionally, the report says that the Government should adopt a long-term zero-to-landfill approach and publish independently audited, transparent data on the recovery and destination markets of all materials and energy including heat, transport, and electricity.
Lead author, Professor Ian Arbon said: “We need to stop seeing waste as a problem and to start seeing it as a valuable resource and use it to maximum advantage. Our proposed modification to the Waste Hierarchy, which reduces it to four tiers, removes the unhelpful competition between ‘recycling’ and ‘recovery’ and helps to focus attention on minimising landfill.”
Head of the IMechE’s engineering policy unit, Matt Rooney, said: “The UK could and should be making much better use of our waste streams. The recent cost-of-energy crisis has emphasised how important affordable domestic supplies of energy can be. The fact that so much waste heat from many of our power stations, for example, is simply lost to the atmosphere is something we need to change to build a more sustainable energy system.”