Striking the right balance

20th June 2013 Posted by

Recent reports in the trade press of the difficulties experienced by plastics recycling facilities in England and Wales should come as a warning to policy-makers who base their waste management strategies on ever-higher materials recycling targets, while at the same time placing a ceiling on the percentage of waste sent to energy recovery. A successful recycling-based strategy requires all elements of the waste management chain to work in concert – appropriate collection systems; consistently high participation rates; technologies that can separate the complex mixtures presented to recycling facilities; stable markets for the recovered materials. A failure anywhere along this chain will place the entire strategy at risk, especially when a non-landfill alternative such as energy recovery is constrained.

The recycling of plastic waste, especially of mixed plastic rigid pots, tubs and trays (PTT), validates this paradigm. Collection systems have not been up to the job of capturing material of consistent quality, impacting the financial viability of recycling facilities which in addition have had to sell into a soft market. The net result has been facility closures or reconfiguration of the facility to process more commercially viable waste streams.

A waste management strategy that focuses only on recycling is high-risk if carried to extremes. If the policy objective is to recycle as much waste as possible, then the appropriate policy levers are those that give recycled materials a value in the marketplace such that recycling is favoured over energy recovery, and the entire waste management chain is so aligned. Recycling materials that the market does not value, or is not prepared to pay an economic rate for, is not commercially supportable. The logical outcome to constraining energy recovery under these circumstances would be that these materials will either not be collected, or if collected they will be consigned to landfill.

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