Worldwide, waste generation is rising fast. We created 1.8bn tonnes of solid waste in 2013. By 2016 it was 2bn tonnes. There is an urgent need to decouple waste production from economic growth and rising living standards.

According to a report last week (The Economist 20 Sep 2018) politicians around the world are increasingly aware of the economic, ecological and human cost of waste and the missed opportunities it represents.

In the developing world this translates to a growing understanding that spending on efficient waste collection systems is a wise investment in public health and cheaper than dealing the consequent problems of large scale uncollected garbage. In the developed world it flags a need for much better support for recycling and resource efficiency.

Exporting the problem

The UK recycling rate for household rubbish is around 45%. About half this recycling is carried out in other countries. For example, the UK has shipped more than 2.7m tons of plastic waste to China since 2012, according to data from Greenpeace quoted in the Guardian recently (Nazia Parveen, The Guardian 23 Jul 2018).  

There are a number of good reasons this should change, not least because China banned the import of waste at the start of this year, making it harder for us to simply export the problem, and forcing us to re-evaluate.

We are not short of innovation in this sector. We have the ideas and the technology to make clothes from recycled plastic and packaging from mushrooms. We can recover precious metals from electronic waste and power vehicles with spent coffee grounds. We urgently need our policies and systems to catch up.

A huge opportunity

The head of a circular economy capital investment company told me recently that one of the biggest challenges facing start up businesses whose models are based on the use of recycled materials, is reliability of supply. This is a major market failure of our time and a huge opportunity.

I find it hard to understand why our economy should be skewed towards the widespread use of, for example, over-engineered single-use plastics which are known to create huge ecological problems with dire environmental and human consequences.

We need positive policies to encourage large-scale investment in recycling supported by efficient and consistent collection and sorting systems so that recycled materials always offer a competitive alternative to virgin stock, regardless of the uncertainty of commodity prices.

Policies such as extended producer responsibility are working well in the electronics sector, encouraging valuable material recovery. Why not broaden the system to other sectors? Use tax incentives to encourage use of second-hand materials by manufacturers? Harmonize recycling systems across the UK?

Promising a circular future

Perhaps China’s ban is exactly what we needed to kick-start a serious, joined-up approach to reducing unnecessary waste, reusing materials efficiently and recovering value through recycling.

In November Defra will publish a new 25-year strategy for the management of resources and waste that promises to embrace the principles of the circular economy. Lets hope it delivers on that promise, and starts to change the way we look at that valuable resource called waste.