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Zero Waste To Landfill: A Flawed Target?

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By Mark Hall of waste management company

The concept of Zero Waste to Landfill – changing one’s company or organisation’s ways of working so that all of its refuse is recycled in one way or another – is eminently achievable under the right circumstances.

However, it has to be recognised that there’s no utopia where companies are rushing to fulfil this target, because there’s just as many organisations that don’t care for recycling as there are that do.

We’ve got to go further and look at what Zero Waste To Landfill actually means, as while it is certainly a good thing not to dump your refuse into a big hole in the ground and cover it over, what happens if the alternative is only marginally less desirable? There are even claims that the term has been hijacked by interest groups to mean something else entirely.

With legislation and regulations in Scotland pointing their way towards total recycling regimes, questions have to be asked if people are willingly coming along for the ride, or are they being forced – for right or wrong – to get away with the very bare minimum.

No Zero Waste Utopia

Is Zero Waste to Landfill achievable? Can companies, organisations, and even households change their so that 100% of their refuse is diverted away from burial? In the most general, broad terms, we can answer in the positive, but enthusiasm for these targets is patchy to say the least, and there’s certainly no utopia of people rushing to become Zero Waste companies.

Naturally, for businesses, there’s the financial incentive of avoiding landfill altogether. Zero landfill means zero landfill tax, and while they would still have to pay to have their refuse removed by commercial waste collection companies, it’s through a regime that keeps the company accountant all smiles.

But even while current legislation in England and Wales that mean organisations “must take all reasonable steps to prevent and reduce waste”, it’s very clear to waste management companies like Business Waste that some companies pull their weight while others do not. It’s undeniable that enthusiasm for even the most basic of recycling varies from business to business.

Take two neighbouring companies on an industrial estate for an example that we see just about every day.

Company A presents their waste, sorted to the very last piece. Their general waste bin is the least full of the lot, and it’s abundantly clear that a lot of thought has gone into their waste policy. It is – after all – costing them money, and the more they send to landfill the more expensive it becomes. It’s not unusual, our operators tell us, to meet an employee clutching one piece of waste, (usually made of a composite of metals, plastics and looking like a concept model from Robocop) saying they weren’t sure which bin to put it in, and can we have some advice please?

Company B, on the other hand, aren’t all that different to Company A. They present their waste in the hierarchy demanded by regulations, the only difference being that the general waste bin is full to the brim, the lid half-closed like a badly-packed suitcase. The question we ask them (tactfully, of course) as waste collection invoices change hands, is “How would you like to make this more than a little cheaper?” Sometimes the message gets through, but all to often we hear “We can’t be doing with this waste of time”, before “global warming myth” comes up, and we politely make our excuses.

The Company Bs of the world see waste management as a problem they wish they could simply bury in the ground. And they do, quite literally.

On any given day there are Company As and Company Bs, and a complete spectrum in between. Asked about Zero Waste To Landfill, the first comment is always “Yes, but how much will it cost me?”, and the success on getting the message over depends entirely on convincing company bosses of the long term (financial and environmental) gains balanced against the short-term investment to change ways of working.

The Scottish Way

The Scottish government seems to think that a zero waste policy is an aspiration worth chasing. The implementation of the Waste (Scotland) Regulations of 2012 illustrates that Edinburgh clearly believes that they can become Europe’s most resource efficient region.

Looking at the context of radical policy-making north of the border, Scotland has proven to be, time and again, the testing ground for just about any sensible legislation that eventually catches the eye of the London parliament and becomes law in the rest of the United Kingdom. We’ve the Scots to thank (amongst others) for the surcharge on disposable plastic bags which will prevent hundreds of millions of the things being thrown away every year. And if you want to park your car illegally without being clamped, that’s Edinburgh too, and an argument for another specialist journal.

Scotland’s phasing in of tighter waste management controls sees an end to all biodegradable waste going to landfill by 2021, and all waste contractors must now provide collection and treatment that offer “high quality recycling”. One of the most important aspects of a Zero Landfill and Zero Waste policy and its implications is the new ban on metal, plastic, glass, paper and food going to landfill or incineration if it has been collected separately for recycling.

That last point is absolutely vital, and is the difference between a true Zero Waste policy and one that has been co-opted by certain parts of the waste management industry.

Zero Waste And Energy Recovery

The most intense part of the debate over Zero Waste To Landfill is that surrounding what’s euphemistically been termed “Energy Recovery”, but is, in real terms, burning refuse and converting it into useful heat and electricity.

We are, in the main, convinced that energy recovery is a good thing, and has diverted many thousands of tonnes of waste away from landfill where it could not otherwise have been recycled.

However, there are those who say that the use of energy recovery as a first resort rather than a last and selling it as Zero Waste policy are wrong, and openly misleading.

Pressure groups such as the Zero Waste International Alliance argue that the term has been hijacked in order to promote incineration schemes when further recycling of resources still remains possible. The groups says that some regions have hit 80% recycling rates without the need for what they see as “deliberate resource destruction” through energy recovery processes.

There’s specific anger from ZWIA aimed at the Gwyrdd energy recovery project in South Wales, which they describe as “another example of companies and their financiers seeking to grab community waste cash under the guise of waste-to-energy”. There are also claims that energy recovery is not the most efficient way to deal with waste. From a purely physical point of view, there’s entropy in every system that converts one form of energy to another, and burning business and domestic waste is no other. Even in the most efficient plant, heat disappears up the chimney, and what campaign groups see as perfectly good resources are sent up in smoke.

The Environmental Services Association, on the other hand, disputes claims that energy recovery is used far too freely, saying that the presence of these schemes doesn’t dent recycling rates. In fact, ESA’s Barry Dennis says, energy recovery is only ever used as a last resort for waste that can’t be safely recycled or disposed of elsewhere. “Some of our rubbish can and should be recycled… But a significant amount cannot be recycled and it is this residual waste which energy from waste plants are designed to treat,” he said last August.

The inherent danger with incineration for energy recovery is that while the pendulum is clearly swinging towards this end, it could become a ravenous monster eating up all waste whether recyclable or not.

The Scottish regulations clearly put an end to those fears, at least north of the border, as waste collected for recycling must indeed be recycled. However, elsewhere, environmental groups are keeping a close eye on figures, claiming that a profit motive is enough for corners to be cut.

Is 100% Possible?

Even in the most efficient recycling system, is probably not entirely possible to reuse every single resource in the strictest definition of Zero Waste To Landfill.

Inevitably, there are still going to be materials that are going to have to be set aside at some point. Whether we send those to landfill or not is open to some discussion, especially when such waste is deemed to be hazardous.

Yes, when you factor in energy recovery schemes, a 100% Zero Waste To Landfill policy is certainly possible, even if this approach is not what some Zero Waste campaigners have in mind.

We have to be pragmatic about what’s possible with current technology, and – indeed – what we’re able to do with patchy enthusiasm for the concept both from businesses and people in power.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of adopting a Zero Waste policy, it’s something that is worth chasing, and chasing hard. is committed to helping companies and organisations reach their recycling targets – no matter how ambitious – by offering free expert advice on how to adjust their ways of working to reduce landfill waste. As with many things in business, it’s driven by the bottom line – reducing waste reduces costs, and you don’t need much more motivation than that.

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