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Website woes

1st July 2016

Have you spent any time seeking information on the Environment Agency website ? In other words: that which is available on the "dot gov" website. It has improved recently and regular users will know how to negotiate their way through the pages to the content they require; others are likely to be baffled. Regular users will also recognise the wealth of quality information that is present and may know how to access it. Again others may be baffled.

Electronic communication in the digital age

Electronic communication is a crucial component of 21st century life and well-designed, navigable websites are a necessity of the digital age.

Would it really take much effort and money to put it right and to improve the appearance and accessibility of the information? A quick review of overseas regulatory authorities' websites shows just how much better the presentation and functionality could be. When you get a minute have a look at some English-speaking country websites. For instance, take a look at NEMA, the authority in Kenya or the New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority website- it will make you think?! I don't know, but surely the EA site cannot continue with its current presentation for long?

Fair enough, it is not the be all and end all of the EA's environmental mission to have a swish website, but the website is poor, and everyone knows it. I recall a time when folk used to say, on searching for materials in England & Wales, that they would simply "Google it" or even search the SEPA website in preference to the EA!

Why is this important? Well it matters because we live in the age of the internet, social media, and the prevalence of electronic means to access and disseminate information. The benefits of a good website are well understood and well documented.

Here is an example - you will see what I mean. My Grandfather on my Father's side was a published author, and his best work, a gothic mystery about a roc set in Afghanistan and the West Country was published in 1915 by William Rider & Son. This publishing house also published later books by Bram Stoker before his death in 1912. You can find an e-copy of the work on the internet in seconds. Search "Agar Halfi the Mystic" - try it.

Now try and find information and guidance dealing with waste exemptions, it is all there and is comprehensive, but certainly not straightforward.

Circular Economy Package

25th January 2016

It feels quite overdue - how can we be in the 21st century and only just legalising circular economy policies? - but the European Union has now adopted a new Circular Economy Package (CEP) designed to "stimulate Europe's transition towards a circular economy which will boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs".

Announced in December 2015, the Package actually constitutes amendments to a number of existing Directives connected to waste, and an Action Plan - entitled "Closing the Loop" - which together are intended to guide and drive Member States in developing their circular economy.

The Package increases the "preparing for re-use and recycling" common EU targets for municipal waste (65%) and packaging waste (75%) by 2030, which, along with limiting the landfilling of municipal waste to 10% by 2030, helps to push the economy away from the old "take, make, dispose" model. However, these targets have been misquoted in a few places, and instead cited as "recycling targets", with no mention of preparation for re-use. This is confusing, as the two terms have very distinct legal definitions, and the misquoted text can imply that the CEP has completely overlooked the second tier of the waste hierarchy.

The main criticism by industry experts concerning the re-use and recycling targets is that the two are combined. Zero Waste Europe points out that "recycling is for materials (paper, plastic, etc) whereas preparation for re-use should address products". The revised legislation does include encouragement for Member States to increase the percentage of products "prepared for reuse", but with no legally binding target specifically aimed as this section of the waste hierarchy, it could be deliberately or accidentally ignored. That would be a shame when one beneficial aspect of the CEP is job creation, as repair and refurbishment are labour-intensive activities and creating demand in this sector will contribute towards employment creation.

The Circular Economy Package sets much-needed targets to promote preparing for re-use and recycling, and so boost the circular economy

To stimulate the market for secondary raw materials and recycled materials, the Package aims to address concerns over the quality of these, by working on "EU-wide quality standards for secondary raw materials" in order to boost confidence of operators in the single market. Further plans to smooth out this market are to amend existing rules on "end of waste" criteria to enable recycled materials to be reclassified as non-waste whenever they meet a set of general conditions, which are the same across the whole EU.

An amendment to the Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) adds to the lists of "wastes not accepted in a landfill" any waste that has been separately collected for reuse or recycling, or any bio-waste. Concerns have been voiced by some that, whilst this change is commendable because waste collected separately specifically for the objective of reuse or recycling should not be sent to landfill, it does not also exclude incineration as a potential disposal option.

A very encouraging proposal from the CEP is that the Commission will amend the Ecodesign Directive, which currently focusses only on energy-efficiency, to also address issues such as reparability, upgradability, durability, and recyclability of products. This change would very much promote resource-efficiency, and the circular economy.

Altogether, the Circular Economy Package sets out some ambitious and comprehensive plans to drive the EU towards a circular economy. There seem to be some concerns and holes in the Package from reviews that have been published online, but accepting that every new venture might have some initial hiccups, hopefully overall this is a very promising move.

If you'd like to learn more, you can read the Commission's press release or Q&A, the response from WRAP or Zero Waste Europe, or news articles from Resource or edie.net.

Feeding AD

2nd December 2015

I've read two opposing articles recently about the merits of anaerobic digestion. However, I'd like to mention the second article first.

The anaerobic digestion industry seems to have exploded (not literally) in the past few years, with an exponential increase in the number of AD plants. The technology is a great solution to dispose of our organic wastes, with the added benefit of recovering biogas for generating energy, and producing digestate for fertiliser. Win win. Fewer tonnes of waste sent to landfill, and useful products derived from that waste.

However, the AD industry is potentially facing a setback. The government has been removing, cutting, and reviewing various grants and incentives that have previously aided the renewable energy sector. The industry fears that these changes will have disastrous consequences for their sector; squeezing margins and threatening future growth.

This could be a big blow to the sector that deals with some of the 16-18 million tonnes of food waste, 90-100 million tonnes of agricultural slurry, and 1.7 million tonnes of dry sewage sludge that we produce in the UK (www.biogas-info.co.uk), and generate over 500 megawatts of electricity.

But there is a but. The first article I read painted the AD sector in less rosy colours. It acknowledges that AD is a brilliant solution for disposing of organic wastes and producing renewable energy, but then goes on to highlight the consequences stemming from the economic viability of the technology. Yields of biogas from the organic wastes mentioned above are reportedly quite low; agricultural slurry produces only 15-20 cubic metres of biogas per tonne. Purpose-grown crops can deliver much higher biogas yields, from 200 to 600 cubic metres of biogas per tonne.

Land is being used to grow food purely to feed anaerobic digesters

Ominously, this makes the digestion of high-yield crops much more attractive to AD operators, thanks to government incentives such as FiT (Feed-in Tariffs) and RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive). Land previously used for food production is being used to grow feedstock for AD plants. The area required to grow enough maize to "feed" a 1MW AD plant is around 450 hectares. Across the UK, the total area of maize being grown for biogas is estimated at around 25,000 hectares in 2015 - that's over 34,000 football pitches! Maize is also one of the worst crops for causing soil erosion, compaction, and run-off, and requiring high levels of pesticides and fertilisers, leading to all sorts of other environmental issues.

A technology that was developed to treat waste and recover energy from that waste, is now more focussed on maximising the energy output, and the financial income, instead of its original purpose.

#PlasticBagChaos

16th November 2015

Monday 5th of October 2015 saw anarchy in the aisles of English supermarkets…

The 5p charge for single use carrier bags was introduced.

Newspapers were covered in headlines declaring that "Plastic Bags Chaos Looms" and fears of a surge in supermarket trolley thefts. Meanwhile, Twitter exploded with tales of people's realisation they could now be millionaires, all thanks to their stash of carrier bags under their kitchen sinks, with which they could undercut the supermarkets by selling at a bargain price of 4p.

The English don't seem to be coping well with the 5p carrier bag charge

The English don't seem to be coping well with the 5p carrier bag charge

(You can read more tales of plastic bag chaos in "The English public have lost their minds over the carrier bag charge" and in "England has gone into meltdown over the 'plastic bag crisis'" ).

This video from Defra provides a good overview explaining the 5p charge for single-use plastic carrier bags.

All in all, the English just couldn't cope; a stark contrast from the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish, who have taken on the charge like a duck to water. They have seen incredible decreases in plastic bag use since the introductions of the charge. On the anniversary of Scotland's introduction of the 5p charge, between 2014 and 2015, it was revealed usage decreased by 80% - that's 650 million bags; Wales have seen a 71% decline and at least £17m raised for charities and Northern Ireland have seen a 72% drop.

Compared to the rest of the UK, England have different conditions as to where the 5p charge is put in place and so it will be interesting to see if in a year's time England will have similar rates of declined usage as the rest of the UK.

However, two weeks after the introduction it was reported that the plastic bag charge is having little effect on shoppers' behaviour, and that the charge should actually be increased. With people already baulking at the charge, would it really be a good idea to increase it to 20p, 30p or even 50p? And at two weeks in, surely it is too soon to really see the impact of the levy? After the chaos that followed in the early days after the introduction it is obvious to see that it is going to take time for us to adapt and remember our bags for life each week. If the rest of the UK can get used to the charge, then I'm sure England can too. We must all remember that the 5p we spend on carrier bags will also be going to charity.

The CIWM conducted an on-line survey recently asking will the new "tax" succeed in reducing single use carrier bags, and 9/10 members said YES!

We will be following this story and are intrigued to see how England performs over the next year.

And, finally, remember your bags next time you head to the supermarket!