Where now for waste in the UK?

The UK general election held on December 12th has produced the first stable majority government in the country since 2010, and the first such Conservative majority government since the mid 1990s. That prospect may of course thrill you or leave you deeply apprehensive. But one fact is inescapable; with a parliamentary majority of 80, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has an opportunity to reshape policy over the next five years, in more or less whatever way he wishes.

What might the effects of this be for the waste management industry? In the near and medium term, I suspect quite limited. The Conservative manifesto for the election makes only a handful of references:

‘We will continue to lead the world in tackling plastics pollution, both in the UK and internationally, and will introduce a new levy to increase the proportion of recyclable plastics in packaging. We will introduce extended producer responsibility, so that producers pay the full costs of dealing with the waste they produce, and boost domestic recycling. We will ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, consulting with industry, NGOs and local councils on the date by which this should be achieved.

‘…We will increase penalties for fly-tipping, make those on community sentences clean up their parks and streets, and introduce a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass.’

Recycling and better use of plastics heads the field. None of these proposals is new, and many of the details have yet to be fleshed out. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these, will be covered in the next Queen’s Speech (which, while neither binding nor necessarily comprehensive, details the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year) due in the coming days.

There’s clear commercial opportunity here for anyone involved in the plastics recycling industry, in two principal ways. Firstly, the promotion of greater recycling should spur the development of technologies to this end, in manufacturing, sorting and recycling of plastics.

Secondly, the government has flagged greater controls on exports of plastic waste, with a proposed ban on shipments to developing countries. This is in line with developments under the UN Basel Convention, which I looked at the other day. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/lucky-97-basel-amendment-andy-crofts/) To date, the UK has shipped a lot of plastic waste abroad, to China until 2018 and thence to a range of countries in Asia and Africa. If this trade stops, then this provides a strong incentive for the development of greater domestic capacity. This driver is not UK -specific, but global; for example, I recently looked at Brightmark, a company looking to do just this in the USA. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/making-plastic-waste-valuable-turn-fuel-andy-crofts/). The opportunities are becoming global.

So much for plastics, what about the wider waste industry? In the past few years it has become harder to build new Waste-to-Energy plants in the UK. This follows a decade or more where new WtE was seen as the best replacement for landfill. The government cut funding for investment projects a couple of years back, citing the achievement of its landfill reduction aims. You can agree with that or not, but this has, I think, tended to lead to a drive for larger facilities with greater economies of scale and therefore greater likelihood of profitable commercial operation. This in turn brings greater risks in negotiating an already lengthy planning process. One such project is the 500,000 tonne per year facility planned in Andover, Hampshire, where a planning decision is due in 2020. Other plants have already been cancelled on planning grounds, such as Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, where a 350,000 tonne plant was due to be built by Veolia, but was refused planning in February 2019.

I wouldn’t expect the new government to rush to change this harder approach to the WtE sector. It is keen to burnish its green credentials – a slightly surprising ban on fracking was announced earlier this year – and greater investment in large WtE projects probably doesn’t fit that agenda, however unfair this may be to the modern technologies now employed.

What will happen then? It may well be that small is beautiful. One new British company caught my eye recently. Heru is based in Stratford-upon-Avon, and is developing a series of small-scale WtE units that can potentially be used by businesses or even domestic homes to dispose of waste and generate power from it. Questions remain to be answered about cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency, but on paper such an approach looks game-changing if the numbers can be made to work. Test plants are in operation, with a six month trial concluding in September this year. A WtE plant in every home? It’s an intriguing idea.

And I haven’t even mentioned Brexit. Sterling rallied on news of the Conservative victory, and there is now the prospect of a more stable and orderly UK exit from the EU beginning next month. Quite where that transition will end up is open to question, but business planners will be glad to put the political horror show of the past couple of years behind them. The short term effects of Brexit on the waste sector should be muted. Trade in waste products between the UK and EU will continue, following agreements reached over a year ago, and fears of logistical difficulties at the ports will surely now recede as Johnson’s EU deal passes the new parliament in the coming weeks. In the longer term, there is scope for the UK to develop environmental approaches which differ from the EU. This is unlikely to be a political priority, however, and if it does happen will more likely be in areas of conservation unrelated to the waste sector.

Andy Crofts – Chief Analyst, AcuComm