The value of stuff
“We want to treat waste as a resource.” is a constant refrain from the great and the good, but how do we make that happen?
The obvious approach is to try and create robust markets in secondary (recycled, recovered, pre-loved?) materials. The problem is that all commodity prices vary massively and extremely rapidly in the modern global economy. My cousins are farmers and they have to buy their seed and fertiliser long before they have a clue what wheat prices will be like at harvest – this year they did OK because of the terrible problems that Russian farmers had, but next year – who knows?
Recyclate prices can vary even more as they can go from positive to negative. You can see this very visually with scrap metal – if the value drops too low, scrap yards put on a gate fee and you will start to see abandoned old cars dumped on the road. When the price soars, anything metal starts to go missing – a couple of months ago a van was stopped by police in a neighbouring street to mine – with a cargo of half-inched manhole covers in the back.
So how can we deal with this uncertainty?
1. Penalise the alternatives: taxes on the extraction of raw materials or the landfilling of waste level the playing field by internalising the costs to society of those activities.
2. Expand and broaden markets: a steady demand from a wide range of potential markets will even out the peaks and troughs. Organisations both public and private can use their buying power to boost these markets.
3. A realistic view of risk: I’ve seen far too many start ups build their business plans around unrealistic assumptions on material value/costs and then struggle when the real prices don’t comply with their wishful thinking.
4. Use of trusted standards for the quality of materials – the UK Government and its WRAP quango have been working on a set of standards called PAS for some time – eg PAS 100 is the standard for soil conditioner/compost.
5. Use of trusted labels/certification schemes for recycled material – so the customer can make informed purchasing decisions without fear of greenwash.
Overall, though, we need a general change in attitude to ‘waste’. As my own little aphorism has it, “Waste is a verb, not a noun”.