Going Full Circle?

In December 2015, the European Union published the long-awaited Circular Economy Package. The measures and targets will drive Europe towards greater resource efficiency, closing the loop on product cycles and retaining the value of resources within European borders.

I was invited once again to conduct a set of interviews with industry experts for Grant Thornton’s Waste Annual Review.

In this discussion, Stuart Hayward-Higham of Suez calls for greater cooperation between players, while Lee Marshall of LARAC would like to see more flexibility and support for councils. Fiona Ross of Pinsent Masons says sustainable resource management needs to take centre-stage in the UK and Hannah Lawrie of Ricardo Energy & Environment sees the challenges of greater producer responsibility. Meanwhile, Mike Read of Grant Thornton considers the market incentives that will be needed if a circular economy is to flourish.

The Push for Higher Recycling Performance

The EU Circular Economy Package has introduced measures to increase the amount of material collected for recycling – but without any demand from manufacturers, the future is uncertain. “The Package received a mixed reception, in particular because the final recycling targets were lower than in the draft package,” explains Fiona Ross of Pinsent Masons. “This version was meant to be more ambitious, but in the end what we’ve got is a broader package. It looks not just at waste management but up the chain and into the manufacturing sector, though those broader measures have yet to be developed.”

For now, the focus is firmly on local authorities delivering higher recycling rates. The goalposts have moved again and until the Package is transposed into national legislation there is a great deal of uncertainty.

Hannah Lawrie of Ricardo Energy & Environment says it’s very difficult for local authorities to know how to invest their money. “Is recycling more important than social services? Until we have clarity about fines for non-compliance, it’s difficult to know whether local authorities will believe achieving higher recycling rates will be worth the push.”

Lee Marshall of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, LARAC, shares these concerns: “Local authorities don’t have much flexibility with their finances: they have a single pot of money and so increased recycling has to come at the expense of other services.”

With austerity continuing to bite hard, local authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although Wales and Scotland will probably be able to meet the higher recycling targets, England doesn’t have appropriate supportive mechanisms in place.

“Some people cite the potential of source separated food waste collections, and hold Wales and Scotland up as examples – but those governments have invested seriously to enable both the collection and treatment of food waste on an economically viable basis,” adds Lee Marshall.

In Wales, authorities have been subject to fines for missed recycling targets for some time, but that approach has been balanced by Welsh Assembly Government support for food waste collections (including via the Collections Blueprint) and investment in treatment infrastructure.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government has been very proactive in driving the circular economy concept, spearheading a Circular Economy strategy which will be launched later this year. They have issued a strategy consultation document titled “Making things last”, invested in a Remanufacturing Institute, developing the Household Recycling Charter and National Brokerage System for recyclable materials, and most recently undertaking an overarching review of residual waste infrastructure.

In England, Defra has taken a back seat.

Fiona Ross of Pinsent Masons identifies the missed opportunities: “There was such a pushback from government around the source-separation versus commingled question, and in hindsight maybe a firmer stance towards improved quality would have helped. Without source-separation it’s more difficult to produce a quality material, so in a way maybe we missed a trick by allowing authorities to continue with commingled collections.”


Download the full report, including the sections:

  • Whose Responsibility?
  • Is Pay As You Throw the Answer?
  • Risk is the Hot Potato
  • The Pull – Creating Demand Within Europe
  • And If We Don’t Get It Right?

The interview piece is on pages 12-17 of the Grant Thornton Waste Annual Review 2016.

With thanks to Mike Read, Saeefar Rehman and Maria Loftus of Grant Thornton, and to the interview panel:

  • Stuart Hayward-Higham, Suez
  • Lee Marshall, LARAC
  • Fiona Ross, Pinsent Masons
  • Hannah Lawrie, Ricardo Energy and Environment
  • Mike Read, Grant Thornton