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Zero waste – who’s going to pay?

22nd May 2012 Posted by

With 29 million tonnes of active waste still going to landfill in the UK, the concept of zero waste seems a long way off. Our industry estimates that the cost of transition to a more resource efficient future is between £10 and £20 billion. Any investment in this area relies heavily on the continued landfill tax increases imposed by the Government and the confidence this gives. Without this strong fiscal measure, the underlying economics of the significant investment required would not be sustainable.

One of SITA UK's landfill sites

Therefore, there is an irony surrounding the one market driver imposed by the Government, landfill tax. On the one hand, it has the impact of shifting waste out of landfill and into a combination of recycling and energy-from-waste facilities. At the same time, it impacts upon the profitability of the major waste companies who have provided the UK with cost efficient residual landfill waste treatment over the past years.

What does this mean then for the ambition of zero waste? Will we reach a point where the pace of transition slows considerably, starved by a lack of investment and leaving significant amounts of residual waste to continue to go to landfill? After all, there is still an abundance of void landfill space in all areas of the UK except for the south east of England.

I am convinced that despite the financial pressures placed upon the waste industry, at present, due to the pace of transformation, the waste industry believes and wishes to be a part of the ideal of a more resource efficient world. However, with a total investment of over £10 billion required and the end for large scale public investment through the private finance initiative (PFI) system in sight, I wonder if the total investment required to tackle the remaining public and industrial and commercial waste streams will be able to come from the waste industry alone.

Therefore, if there is insufficient investment, or a lack of the underlying economic conditions to build the number of new facilities required to ‘put waste to good use’, then the political aspiration of ‘zero waste’ may take much longer than anticipated with the result being that valuable materials and potential energy are lost into landfills.

With the excellent green growth potential that this transition presents you would have thought that the Government would be actively speaking to our industry to do all it could to make their aspiration of zero waste a reality rather than a slogan.

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