UK seeks a “zero waste economy”

It is a mistake to look upon waste as an inconvenience that we have to get rid of, says Barry Sheerman, the UK Member of Parliament for Huddersfi eld. He has long championed the notion of “urban mines” and the…

It is a mistake to look upon waste as
an inconvenience that we have to
get rid of, says Barry Sheerman, the UK
Member of Parliament for Huddersfi eld.
He has long championed the notion of
“urban mines” and the idea that, as he
puts it, “waste that flows from towns and
cities is not rubbish, but a resource that
we should use rather than digging holes
in the earth.”
Sheerman made these comments
when he set the scene as chair of a meeting in the UK parliament, held under the
auspices of the Parliamentary Offi ce of
Science and Technology (POST) and the
Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group, a “forum informing the
debate between parliamentarians, business leaders and the sustainable resource
community.” The event, “Valuing Resources: The Science and Economics
of Recycling,” marked the launch of a
POSTnote “Maximising the Value of
Recycled Materials.”
The remit of POST, an office of the
UK Parliament, is “to help parliamentarians examine science and technology
issues effectively.” Chris Tyler, POST’s
director, told MRS Bulletin that the organization tries to anticipate issues that
will rise up the political agenda. It then
prepares background material on the
underlying science and technology. The
POSTnote points out that “The waste
and recycling sector in the UK was valued at £11 billion in 2011 and is forecast
to grow by 3–4% a year in this decade.”
Since 2004, the amount of material
recycled in the United Kingdom has increased by 50%, amounting to an extra
48 million tons of material recovered.
There is, though, pressure to increase the
percentage of material recycled. The UK
government has said that it sees a “zero
waste economy” as a priority for sustainable resource management. However,
rather than legislating to tell the industry what to do, the focus is on voluntary
approaches to recovering high-quality
material for recycling by domestic and
international reprocessors.
While the POST event dealt with science and technology, the speakers and
the audience also highlighted several political issues that can get in the way of
technical solutions to effective recycling
of waste materials. In particular, the current hot topic in the recycling community is the need for a code of practice
for plants that recover reusable material
from domestic, commercial, and industrial waste.
The key to effective recycling, according to Chris Dow, CEO of Closed
Loop Recycling, a commercial recycler
of plastics, is to be able to determine how
materials are given value, and how they
can be returned as far back up the chain
as possible. “The most important thing is
quality,” said Dow, “and another important factor is consistency.” Technology in
the shape of automatic sorting systems,
with near-infrared technology and laser
sorters to separate out flakes of different
materials, can do a lot to achieve quality. “It is incredible technology and it
has allowed us to get to new levels of
recycling,” said Dow.
In 1996, the UK government began
imposing a charge on all waste dumped
into a hole in the ground. This landfill
tax drives much of the economics of recycling, says Marcus Gover, Director of
Closed Loop Economy, with WRAP (the
Waste & Resources Action Programme),
a nonprofi t company backed by government funding from England, Northern
Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. “The land-
fill tax has been there a long time. It has
worked very well.”
Sheerman agrees that the landfill tax
“has been a mover,” but cautions that “it
has not been a magic wand.” As it is, for
example, the United Kingdom already
exports large amounts of recovered plastics for recycling in China, which can
handle the lower grade raw materials that
are uneconomical for local processors.
One way to reduce the need for these
waste exports would be to raise the quality of the material recovered from waste
disposal. A recurring theme of the POST
meeting was the idea of a code of practice
for materials recycling facilities, MRFs,
pronounced murfs. An MRF takes mixed
waste and uses a range of technologies
and manual sorting to “separate materials based on size, weight, magnetism or
chemical make-up,” as the POSTnote
describes it.
Many MRFs have already signed up
to a voluntary code of practice. And the
UK government is consulting on a wider
implement of the concept.
Any code of practice will have to
accommodate a range of variables.
Nick Cliffe, of Closed Loop Recycling,
pointed out that the composition of a
bale of recovered waste plastic “varies enormously. It varies from area to
area of the country, between countries.
There are seasonal variations as buying patterns change depending on the
weather.” So an MRF cannot state the
exact composition of a bale of recovered polymer. “Those are the sort of
certainties that you need when you are
dealing with the material, not long after collection.” However, after sorting,
he pointed out, contamination levels
can be measured in parts per million.
While codes of practice can do much
to improve the quality of materials recovered at a separation plant, research
can help to improve the “recyclates.”
There is pressure on the industry to recycle more and more polymers, and to
process mixed plastics, rather than carefully sorted materials. This will not happen without technological improvements
and some research and development.
Dow sees mixed plastics “as a dawn
of a new era for recycling,” but it will
take research to get there. “The amount
of money being spent on investment in
UK seeks a “zero waste
economy”MRS BULLETIN • VOLUME 38 • MARCH 2013 • www.mrs.org/bulletin 203
NEWS & ANALYSIS SCIENCE POLICY
Mixed plastics—can materials research deliver a new era for recycling? © WRAP 2013.
research and technology on sorting technologies is growing all the time,” said
Dow. Much of that research has been
supported by the public sector, through
such organizations as WRAP. “Fortunately,” Dow added, “we have got them
to stimulate the private sector.” This has
made it possible for companies to explore
areas that people think would be too
risky for them to invest in on their own.
One idea that Dow described is the
development of new materials “with
something added to the bottle when it is
being manufactured.” As he put it, the
idea is “just throwing another additive
in, what we call a marker.” That marker
would enable an optical sorter to detect
what type and color it is and to put it
in the right recovery stream. “Fantastic
stuff,” Dow enthused.
Gover suggested an even more sophisticated way of marking material that
could ease waste sorting, especially if
the idea is to produce “food-grade materials” so that recycled polymers can go
back into food packaging. If a material
has not previously been used to contain
food, then it cannot go back into food
packaging.
“If it has been used for detergent then
it cannot go back into food grade,” Gover explained. This throws a heavy burden
on the sorting process. It has to be an automated process to make it economical.
“Where we have been making progress
there is to actually make diffraction gratings that can be molded into the plastic
and then can actually give a signal that
can tell the sorters that this was food
grade before and therefore can go into
food-grade polypropylene,” Gover says.
But not all food-grade material will go
back into food packaging, so it has to
lose its “marker” during processing.
“You want something that disappears
when it is recycled. A diffraction grating can be built into this material and
when it is melted it has gone again.”
He added that this is not something
he would have expected to have seen in
packaging and waste a few years ago.
“It is really showing how we are using
science to help us,” he said.
One topic that barely arose during
POST’s meeting was the role of the European Union (EU). Cliffe did point out
that there are European standards for
recycled materials that are destined to
come into contact with food, and “these
are slowly taking over from national legislation.” There was, though, no mention
of the “EU Waste Framework Directive,”
under which the European Commission
may introduce a range of measures such
as laying down end-of-waste criteria for
specifi ed waste streams.
POST points out that the EU’s directive “is the main policy instrument
covering recycling and diversion from
landfi ll.” There is as yet no sign that this
would be one of the measures that the
UK government will want to include in
its plans to renegotiate the country’s role
in the EU.