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How Cities Can Make Billions out of Waste

Waste aggregatesMany local authorities manage waste contracts and waste facilities. To increase recycling and support moves towards a closed loop or zero waste economy, it is vital to find profitable uses for recyclates.

Waste processors will therefore benefit from a new European tool and protocol designed to give confidence to buyers and sellers of products made from recycled materials.

These days many products are manufactured from or contain materials that were once something else. We are used to recycled paper, but many objects, such as pens, can be made from recycled plastics. There is a long list of products - ranging from road surfaces and building materials to compost - that can, and should, be made from materials that would otherwise, or in the past, have being buried in holes in the ground where they end up emitting greenhouse gases.

The buzzword is resource efficiency. In economic terms it's about finding value in waste. But value is only acquired by winning the confidence of consumers, and they need to be assured of the quality of the finished product.

It is for this purpose that Quality Protocols (QPs) have been designed which set out quality criteria for the production and use of products made from specific waste types. If manufacturers comply with the criteria in these protocols, then the fully recovered product will no longer be considered as waste, and can be removed from any regulatory controls concerning waste governed by environmental legislation and watchdogs.

QP checkerIn England, it is the Environment Agency which fulfils this role. As part of a EU Life+ funded partnership program the Agency has developed a new online tool called a QP Checker (screen grab, right), to provide an easy, quick and cost-effective way for both new and existing producers to check whether they meet the QP quality requirements and any other specifications.

The tool creates a user report that documents performance and identifies any areas where improvement is needed. It can also be used as an internal audit check, or to support a more robust and consistence compliance regime.

The tool, which is free to use although currently quite clumpy, was developed in close cooperation with a wide range of industry partners and stakeholders. All data generated remains confidential to the user.

At present it is only available for compost and recycled aggregates, but in future other products and processes will be included. Already work is in progress on a QP Checker for the digestate from anaerobic digestion.

There is also interest in producing a Checker for pulverised fuel ash. This interesting byproduct of industrial combustion can be used to make a form of sustainable concrete - sustainable because it locks up atmospheric carbon, whereas normal concrete contains cement which is high in embodied carbon.

The Environment & Business Manager at the Environment Agency, Roger Hoare, explains: "High quality waste-derived products not only benefit the environment through improved resource efficiency, they also benefit producers' bottom line through improved profit margins.

"The Quality Protocols programme as a whole is delivering multi-billion pound benefits to business and councils.

"To date, the QPs have resulted in an estimated 21 million tonnes of materials being diverted from landfill, savings of around 40 million tonnes of virgin raw materials and approximately 130 thousand tonnes of carbon. We estimate that by 2020 around £3.5bn in terms of increased sales and £1.5bn in terms of reduced regulatory burden will be realised."

It's now being realised that there is a huge economic value in the waste gathered from domestic and business properties by municipalities and their contractors as well as the private sector every week. But only if there is sufficient market for the products generated.

Quality protocols have been developed for the following processes or products:

  • the production and use of quality compost from source-segregated biodegradable waste;
  • the production of aggregates from inert waste;
  • the production of processed cullet from waste flat glass;
  • the manufacture of secondary raw materials from waste non-packaging plastics;
  • Biodiesel derived from waste cooking oil and rendered animal fat;
  • Anaerobic Digestate;
  • Tyre-derived Rubber Materials;
  • Gypsum from Waste Plasterboard;
  • Pulverised Fuel Ash.

LIFE logo

"By supporting producers who opt for QP compliance, we hope to encourage market growth and end-user confidence," says Roger. "The EQual programme is also helping regulators to promote greater resource efficiency by supporting a clear and consistent regulatory framework to assist with wider End-of-Waste decision making and compliance assessment."

EQual is demonstration programme, supported by EU LIFE + funding, designed to encourage businesses to use more and better waste-derived material in new products.

EQual logo"The QP Checker tool complements the revised and updated Aggregate Quality Protocol published in October 2013 and the MPA welcomes any support and guidance for new and existing producers of recycled aggregates," says John Bradshaw-Bullock, Technical Adviser to the Mineral Products Association's Aggregates, Asphalt and Slag Product Groups. "This easy to use tool readily identifies whether the recycling operation is sufficient to ensure that the aggregate has achieved End of Waste and has therefore been legitimately removed from the waste steam. It is important to ensure that recycled aggregates gain maximum credibility and use within the market and this tool facilitates that process."

The QP Checker web tool has been developed by the consultancy Ricardo-AEA. Its technical director, Phil White, believes the production of safe and fit-for-purpose waste-derived products offers "significant benefits, including reduced use of virgin raw materials leading to reduced cost and environmental impacts throughout the supply chain. However, if these products remain classified as waste this potentially stigmatises them, restricting market development."

This trailblazing initiative deserves to be emulated in other parts of the world, but it should not be underestimated that the protocols are the product of years of stakeholder consultations and hard work. But, given the financial let alone environmental benefits, the investment will be worthwhile.