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Nowadays, our consumeristic culture has led to rates of purchasing that have not been seen before and this has led to an increased turnover of items being thrown away. Public awareness of the importance of waste management has emerged although relatively late. Thanks to the growing sensitivity to environmental and climate issues, a common thread linking these issues have become apparent.
The UK’s current waste management situation
England has made huge steps under this perspective to face a waste pile increasing year after year. The latest report from the government indeed states that this country passed from the 168 million tonnes of total waste produced in 2010 to the 187.3 million tonnes of 2018. England accounts for 84% of the UK’s yield, whose 63% is constituted by the categories ‘mineral wastes’ (e.g., stones, bricks, road surface’s components) and ‘soils’ (earthen materials). Such a high value reflects the predominant impact of demolition, construction, excavation, and other industrial activities. In the UK, waste collection is supported by an efficient (made up of mostly private companies) service system. This is evident in England at county and town levels. Local government authorities benefit from a certain degree of independence in this respect and can administer solutions to specific local needs in the form of services or new installations to aid the recycling and processing of waste. Private companies often manage these public utilities.
Hazardous wastes and their regulation
Despite representing a minimal proportion of the waste produced (between 4 to 5 million tonnes in England), hazardous wastes must be handled consciously. All have industrial origins and are subdivided into six classes: general industry, water treatments, construction and demolition, oils, and chemicals. In England, these rejects are rigidly regulated according to the Government’s Strategy for Hazardous Waste Management. At the international level, the legislation on this subject originates from the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their disposal and an Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Council Decision on the Control of Transfrontier Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations. OECD protects countries external to the European Free Trade Area from the indiscriminate transfer of wastes. Besides, this organization regulates the transport of rejects across its area following environmentally-driven principles.
Recycling and energy conversion
To cope with this surging problem, the UK is progressively replacing a linear dead-end approach with a circular strategy for waste management. As of 2018, recycling or other forms of recovery involved over 50% of the total waste production. To bring this matter closer to the general audience, it is noteworthy that one third of recycling concerns typical household materials. These have been categorized in the following classes: residual waste, 55%; dry recycling, 27%; unspecified organics, 16%; and separately collected food waste, 2%. Additionally, leftovers directed to energy-recovery treatments have surpassed incineration facilities without R1 accreditation in 2018. In this regard, domestic wastes appear to be suitable for energy conversion, constituting 80% of the total amount transiting through recovery facilities. Moreover, energy conversion commonly referred to as waste to energy ‘kills two birds with one stone’ since it offers a profitable outlet option to materials that are not available for reuse or recycling and require dismantling. In parallel, the average consumer shall be content to know that his/her household rejects represent ‘only’ 34% of what becomes incinerated. As a remarkable example of the possibility to efficiently dispose of household rejects, 44.7% of England’s domestic wastes have been reused, composted, or recycled in 2018. Overall, this corresponds to make 176 kg out of 394 kg of rejects produced per capita available again.
On the other hand, landfilling is placed at the second position in the list of waste processings, accounting for 23.6% of the entire waste production in 2018. ‘Soils’ and ‘mineral wastes’ play a dominant role here (58% and 6%), while household materials are present with a minor fraction (10%). Therefore, wastes other than leftovers are unfortunately subjected to this destiny. Also, ‘soils’ materials make up 90% of the backfilling materials. Regardless, newly stipulated policies are intended to decrease the relevance of landfills as waste outputs. As a result, energy recovery facilities with R1 accreditation have increased from 37 to 40 in two years (2016-2018), and the waste tonnages treated have followed a proportional positive trend.
Following and understanding the flow of waste in the UK
Understandably, not all waste types can be tracked according to the Waste from Households (WfH) protocol, which thus is considered to yield only indicative estimates. For instance, this method cannot register wastes derived from healthcare, street filth, and gully drainages. Asbestos, plasterboard, and rubble are not assessed as well. Moreover, individual UK countries can apply distinct protocols and measure different parameters. For example, certain packaging rejects may be over- or under-represented depending on the step of the manufacturing chain at which they are evaluated. Ambiguity might also exist regarding the precise definition of ‘recovery’ versus ‘recycling’, like in the case of metal wastes subjected to incineration. Shifting the focus locally, commercial companies can voluntarily register in the national electronic duty of care (EDOC) system, which enables tracking rejects along the production sequence. To date, more than 11’000 firms adhere to this system.
Future perspectives and goals
Despite the commendable efforts carried out by the UK, much remains to be done. However, at least on paper, some good news is on the horizon. The UK promulgated the 25 Year Environment Plan to preserve the natural landscape’s quality and biodiversity over an intergenerational period. This plan stands on top of the hierarchy formed by the other policies related to such issues (e.g., Resources and Waste Strategy, Waste Prevention Programme for England, Waste Management Plan for England). It has ambitious goals, such as a drastic reduction of carbon emission and international agreements. On a smaller scale, the whole policy system proposes to enhance domestic recycling in different ways. For example, it promotes the door-to-door collection of dry leftovers, the separation of garden wastes, and the weekly gathering of alimentary wastes. Ultimately, these measures are expected to substantially raise the fraction of household recycling, reaching up to 65% before 2035.
– HM Government (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications (Accessed: 27/09/2021).
– Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Government Statistical Service (2021) UK Statistics on Waste. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-waste-data (Accessed: 27/09/2021).
– Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (2021) Waste Management Plan for England. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/waste-management-plan-for-england-2021 (Accessed: 27/09/2021).
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