Research & Reports

ESA report calls for ‘smarter’ recycling targets

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has called for ‘smarter’ measures of recycling progress to replace the current weight-based metrics, in the second of two new reports that looks at what it will take to meet the recycling targets proposed by the EU Circular Economy Package (CEP).

The ‘Why wait? Weight isn’t working: Smarter measures for the circular economy’ report, written by Ricardo Energy and Environment for ESA, suggests that instead of an absolute target for recycling, individual material streams could each have their own target in a ‘dashboard’ of metrics tailored to each.

This ‘dashboard’ approach would introduce new metrics that maps behaviours across the value chain (production, consumption, end-of-use and end-of-life) in order to reduce environmental impacts through the lifecycle of a product.

The CEP, which the UK government has confirmed will apply to the UK despite its departure from the EU, sets new recycling targets of 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035, as well as individual targets for different packaging materials.

In the ESA report, it is acknowledged that the current weight-based targets for municipal waste have been useful in driving performance to date, but states that these targets can also create perverse behaviours.

For example, a focus on weight can lead to heavier materials such as garden waste – for which the best environmental outcome is home composting – being targeted for collection, rather than those with a greater negative environmental impact, such as plastics.

Further to this, a focus on weight and therefore quantity can compromise the quality of the material collected, with less incentive to remove contaminants from the collected material.

Those weight-based targets are focused on materials at their end-of-life has also failed to push producers and designers to create products that are more durable or easier to recycle.

While conceding that performance will still have to be recorded on a weight-based basis in order to comply with the requirements of the CEP, the report suggests that smarter measures should be used to create a more sophisticated system that combines weight-based reporting with smarter ways of collecting data and information.

“Everyone has a responsibility to improve environmental performance – from the producers of the goods we purchase to the local residents, businesses and public-sector organisations that consume them and the waste management professionals that manage them at end-of-use and end-of-life,” the report said.

“We need to establish smarter measures for our transition to a circular economy and understand what behaviours are required across the value chain (production, consumption, end-of-use and end-of-life) to drive this transition.”

The behaviours the report has highlighted as its main targets include:

  • Designing products for durability and recyclability;
  • Increasing the use of recycled content in products;
  • Minimising waste;
  • Collecting a consistent set of materials; and
  • Reducing contamination.

The report also states that new metrics will need to be implemented at a national level and secondary level to drive environmentally sound behaviours among individual stakeholders. National metrics to consider include:

  • An economic target for resource productivity;
  • Using carbon as a way to measure environmental performance;
  • Circularity and secondary material use; and
  • Industry compliance and regulation.

In order to transition to a more sophisticated waste measurement system, different requirements will be needed of different stakeholders in the value chain.

Local authorities will need to continue reporting against weight using the WasteDataFlow system, while the report suggests that indicators from the Scottish Carbon Metric could also be used to develop a carbon performance rating. It is also suggested that more waste composition analyses should be undertaken, in order to develop individual targets for certain waste streams.

Metrics for producers as part of a producer responsibility framework could include targets for material recovery and the percentage of recycled content in products, encouraging producers to design for recyclability and limit their environmental impact throughout the lifecycle of the product.

Meanwhile, the report suggests that government will need to invest significant extra resources into waste management to help facilitate the recommended changes.

“Current EU waste policy measures success or failure on the basis of how heavy something is when it is recycled,” said Jacob Hyler, ESA executive director.

“There is clearly scope in a post-Brexit world for us to do something much smarter, which actually focuses properly on environmental outcomes and enables us to capture more value from our waste resources.

“This report examines how we could bring this about in practice, and offers a clear and pragmatic route-map for introducing new metrics alongside our current weight-based system, which could offer us the future flexibility to phase out the most problematic materials and decarbonise our waste and recycling system most effectively.”

The first of ESA’s two-part report on the EU CEP, entitled ‘An economic assessment and feasibility study of how the UK could meet the CEP recycling targets’, can be accessed from here.