With the ongoing energy squeeze across Europe, the continued fall-out of Covid-19 and recent concerns in Great Britain that a shortage of CO2 gas was going to threaten food and drink production, expect there to be much comment in the coming months about ‘resilience’.
‘Resilient infrastructure’ is already one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It means that the infrastructure which keeps day-to-day life going – be that waste-water treatment, electricity generation, our hospitals or waste management facilities – should be able to cope with exceptional circumstances. Given that we live in an era of climate breakdown and growing global political uncertainties, it’s safe to presume that the number of exceptional circumstances we need to manage will increase – be that more extreme weather events, international supply chains being disrupted for months because of an unforeseen blockage of the Suez Canal, or bin lorry drivers being poached by rival industry sectors. In the world of waste management, resilience is a major consideration. Households in just the arc21 region produce 15m wheelie bins’ worth of non-recyclable rubbish every year – that’s almost 300,000 every week or over 41,000 every day. If there was a break down in this “supply chain”, which includes the waste infrastructure which deals with our rubbish, the implications would become very real, very quickly. Where would the rubbish go? Would it still be able to be collected? What would be the impact on public health and the environment? As we don’t have sufficient infrastructure at present to deal with this rubbish, we rely on landfilling or exporting it overseas. Landfill is clearly not a sustainable solution – apart from illegal dumping it’s the least desirable way to deal with our waste. In any event, landfill capacity in Northern Ireland is running out and the recommendation of the UK Climate Change Committee is that we should move at pace to reduce our reliance on it (they’ve called for a ban on key bio-degradable waste going to landfill by 2025). Exporting Waste isn’t Resilient Turning our waste into a Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) for export or just simply sending waste, including recyclable material, overseas is clearly not a solution either. NI’s Environment Minister has recently stated that: “neither this continued landfilling nor export of RDF are sustainable methods to address Northern Ireland’s future waste arisings” and the direction of regional, national and international policy is moving against this practice. The UK Climate Change Committee, for instance, wants waste exports phased out by 2030 and locally, the policy is to follow the ‘proximity principle’ of dealing of waste close to where it is produced. There are many strong environmental, economic and financial reasons why we shouldn’t rely on international waste commodity markets to manage our waste problem (just look at what’s happening at the minute with the gas market), but we also need to get out of the exporting habit because it isn’t resilient. Part of that is due to waste markets such as China and Turkey deciding that they don’t want the environmental headaches that come from managing Europe’s rubbish. International regulations such as the Basel Convention have also closed some waste markets completely which is why UK plastic waste exports to Asia have plummeted this year. There are other reasons too, such as the shortage of HGV drivers in the UK. How do you truck waste to ports if there are no drivers? The Norwegian waste trading firm Geminor is already warning the shortage will create unpredictability for continental thermal treatment operators in terms of volumes, delivery and prices. The further we send our waste, the less control we have over what happens to it and the more exposed we are to uncertainty (including price). The best way to address this lack of resilience is to address the clear gaps in our waste infrastructure by building new facilities here.