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Policy – clarify the context and ask the right questions

21st December 2017 Posted by

In our busy lives we often find ourselves firefighting and sometimes, when questions are asked, we flip in to quickest answer mode. The government has been busy recently asking many questions of the waste and resource sector and we very much welcome the engagement and to try and answer asked questions.

But, once we have time to stop and think, we contemplate if the right questions are being asked and is so, are they asked in the right context.

For instance, questions around plastics, like: should single-use plastics be banned or taxed, should plastics be buried in landfills; used for energy recovery; recycled or chemically recycled? As these are complex questions, we need more detail and context to deliver the right answers.

A large group of multicolored plastic bottles and containers

I feel we need to start with a definition of plastic, to establish if we are being asked about plastic from fossil sources (geological oil for instance) or plastic made from renewable sources (agricultural and renewable oil for instance). For the former, it’s clear we should minimise its use, make best use of it once made, through closed loop recycling and then recover the energy embedded in it whilst we still operate in a fossil fuel based economy.

However, when we are substantially weaned off fossil fuels, then perhaps the best treatment for the fossil based remainder could be carbon sequestration in landfills. If the plastic is sourced from sustainable and renewable sources the answer to some of these questions could be substantially different. This exposes the need for clarity and the importance of timing of the questions being asked. Let’s remember the carbon targets in the UK that the National Infrastructure Commission is working towards are for 2050.

Once we determine which plastic is in question, based on its source, we need to understand if we are being asked about current plastics and their current sources or are we talking about plastics in the system in 2030, 2040 or even 2050. So the question should be, what we do with today’s fossil fuel based plastics and what should we be doing in the future, accounting for a possible change to bio plastics – those that are sourced renewably.

Once we explore the ‘what should we do’ question a little further, then perhaps we should seek context clarification too?

UK energy policy has encouraged the use of virgin wood biomass to an extent that millions of tonnes are now consumed in the UK power market. The UK government has applied rules to the domestic and international sourcing of these fuels, seeking sustainable and renewable sources for them. So in this context the UK government is promoting sustainable and renewable virgin wood for energy production. If then, paper and cardboard was sourced from the same sustainable and renewable forests, should these be recycled (as we strive to do today) or are they in effect biomass with an intermediate use and therefore go the same route as biomass to energy. There is a potential context conflict here even with land and water management are included.

So if we apply the same context to renewable and sustainable oils, on the one hand we are seeking to use them to displace fossil fuels and on the other hand we are seeking to recycle them. Is a bioplastic made from the same primary source as a biofuel just biofuel with an intermediate use?

“You just want to burn everything!” I hear some cry. Well no, I want the right questions with the right context across the value chain, where the right answers and if necessary the right supportive scientific evidence can be delivered. I also want ambitious well founded and constructed policy on which actions today & tomorrow can be aligned.

Get the right questions with the right context across the target value chains and we can find routes to deliver long term beneficial change. Ask the wrong questions with the wrong context then we risk delivering the wrong answers or ones where we do not understand the full range of consequences.

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