Professor David C. Wilson
Waste & Resources Management Consultant
Visiting Professor in Waste Management
Imperial College, London

Revaluing Recycling

Europe and North America have a problem with sustainable recycling. China’s ban on imports has thrown the problem into sharp focus: where are the markets for the materials we are collecting for recycling to meet the targets? And how do local authorities balance their already curtailed budgets as prices for recycled materials plummet? DCW’s May CIWM column explores the history of recycling over the last 40 years, and concludes that our existing policy support measures, focusing on increasing supply rather than demand, are not fit for purpose. He argues that we need to rethink recycling to make it a sustainable foundation for our future circular economy; and makes the case for considering explicitly the embodied social, environmental and technical values alongside the market price.

DCW has for the last three years chaired the Steering Committee for an interdisciplinary research project at the University of Leeds, funded jointly by the Natural Environment and Economic and Social Research Councils, to develop a new analytical framework which considers all four of these dimensions of value. The new CVORR (Complex Value Optimisation for Resource Recovery) tool should facilitate future work in this area.

What sort of solutions are suggested by applying complex value thinking? Current approaches focus on increasing the technical value of the recycled materials, for example through separation at source of individual streams rather than co-mingled materials. They also place the risk of fluctuating prices squarely on local authorities and their contractors; and they in turn plead for Government support for new recycling capacity within the UK. But even with support, such facilities need to compete in a global market, and many UK reprocessing companies have failed over the last decade. The obvious place to look for answers is the companies who place on the market the products which become waste, particularly single trip packaging. The complex value framework would suggest that a fundamental rethink of existing systems for EPR (extended producer responsibility) is required. Producers need to meet all costs for collection, sorting and recycling of their products when they become wastes; and to ensure that markets exist for the recycled materials, for example by taking an ownership stake in the reprocessing facilities and using a minimum % of those recycled materials in their products.