In the run up to the Brexit vote, a close friend of mine proudly declared that he was siding with the leave campaign. This prompted me to complain about an article I had seen in The Telegraph which cited getting rid of “stupid recycling bins” as a reason to leave the EU. To my surprise, he wholeheartedly agreed with the article. He went on to claim that the EU’s legislation and targets for recycling were flawed because, “Throwing everything in a landfill is a more economically viable and environmentally friendly way to manage waste”.
Regardless of my stance on the UK’s membership of the EU, the conversation got me fired up. Being the son of shameless hippies and something of a tree hugger myself, I feel a great sense of fulfilment and responsibility when I take the recycling out. I wasn’t going to let my friend threaten this smugness but I found that my attempts to change his mind were let down by my lack of knowledge in the area. Emotionally I didn’t want to believe him but I had to concede (to myself) that there was a possibility that he was right.
Is recycling “just another bureaucratic and pointless policy forced upon us by the EU”? Even worse, are the benefits of recycling a myth altogether? The altercation I had with my friend motivated me to do some research on the subject; I am pleased to report that recycling not only benefits the environment but also the UK’s economy by extracting value from waste, protecting our resources and developing world-leading expertise.
Domestic and household recycling benefits the economy present and future by extracting value from waste. In 2013, the waste management sector in the UK added £6.8bn of Gross Value Added (GVA, a measure of a sectors contribution to economic growth) and supported 103,000 jobs. In the same year, £0.5bn worth of dry household waste was recovered and £5bn of commercial waste was exported. Additionally, material recovery and landfill diversion boast economic benefits in the labour market; they support jobs which are diverse geographically and by skill level. In fact, in 2012 the average GVA per work force job (productivity) in the waste management sector was above the national average, and contributed per head more to economic growth than real estate and management consulting.
Waste management also adds value through energy waste reduction and energy extraction. Less energy (and therefore fewer emissions) is required to recycle the 44% of material which is recovered from household waste than would be required to produce it from scratch. This is the most true for aluminium; the recycling of which reduces the energy cost of production by 95% and the least for glass, which is 25%. In 2014 a combination of residual waste treatment, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas capture generated £450m of electricity (9Twh) from waste; an equivalent solar energy output would require an area twice the City of Cambridge covered with PV Panels.
Recent improvements in resource efficiency have boosted the UK’s economy; simply by making more with less and putting less into landfill. The consumption of domestic and imported materials per pound of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has reduced by approximately 40% since 2000, despite a 20% increase in GDP. It is possible that a proportion of this improvement can be attributed to services outperforming manufacturing but is still an impressive achievement.
Managing, reusing and recycling waste has made the UK’s businesses and consumers less vulnerable to volatile raw material prices. In the last ten years, iron ore prices have bounced between $50 and $200 per metric tonne and crude oil (for plastic) between $30 and $140 per barrel. By closing the loop on waste (See Catherine Joce’s series on the circular economy) and keeping material in the system, manufacturers are better protected and more competitive. Could this be why China is importing waste…?
A Global Opportunity
Even if my friend had read this article and been convinced to agree that recycling benefits both people and planet, his original wish has been granted and Brexit is upon us; we are soon to be free of the oppressive shackles of the EU’s waste reduction targets. Will the Government use the Telegraph’s article as inspiration and get rid of the troublesome recycling bins? Could we regain our pre-EU title of “The dirty man of Europe”? I rather hope not.
My suggestion is that we use our position as a front-runner in science, technology and engineering to make the UK a world leader in resource and waste management. By using our expertise in machine vision and machine learning we can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of single stream waste sorting facilities. Our world leading designers and engineers can optimise everything from construction materials to Fast-Moving Consumer Goods for re-manufacturing and re-use. This approach will allow us to continue to reap the economic and environmental benefits at home but also to add value to ourselves and the World by exporting our technology and services.