The Waste Hierarchy ain't carved in stone
I was at the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) yesterday – catching up with contacts and the latest in the waste industry. One of the interesting points coming out was that the new Waste (England & Wales) Regulations 2011 – to give them their full title – now enshrine the waste hierarchy. Whether this is a tick box exercise or not, what I always find interesting is that nobody ever subjects the waste hierarchy to the Toddler Test and asks “why?”.
Let’s get one thing straight. The waste hierarchy is simply a rule of thumb. It has no basis in science or economics whatsoever.
Some people look at me as if I have blasphemed when I say that.
Take nature. Nature is very inefficient – a birch tree releases 15-17 million seeds every year, but at best only a few saplings will result. What happens to all the millions of ‘wasted’ seeds? They are recycled as nutrients back into the system. The waste hierarchy says we should prioritise minimising waste over recycling, yet clearly nature does the opposite – preferring recycling over minimisation. And nature is sustainable, we’re not.
I’m not just being a smart alec here – there are practical scenarios where religious adherence to the hierarchy will end up in a suboptimal result. Say you produce 11 tonnes of a particular waste a week and you can get any amount over 10 tonnes collected and put to good use by a recycling company, it makes no economic or environmental sense to invest in a new technology which only produces 9 tonnes if that 9 tonnes ends up being landfilled at a higher cost because no-one can afford to collect and recycle it. I have seen a similar situation happen in reality.
As with all rules of thumb, the waste hierarchy should always be used in conjunction with a dose of common sense. In fact the new legislation does have a caveat which allows companies to ignore the hierarchy if they can demonstrate good environmental reasons to do so. Very wise.