How a lack of reliable data is restricting progress in waste management

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Image credit: Elly Walton/

David Burrows asks what is being done about the lack of reliable data in waste management.

In April, I visited the microbial cell laboratory at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. It was for an article about Europe’s booming bioeconomy, and there was a start-up on site taking whisky byproducts and using them to grow omega-3-rich microalgae to feed farmed fish.

Given the scale of the supplier (Diageo) and the potential market (Scotland wants to double its aquaculture production by 2030), this could be a big, profitable business. But fish food represents a fraction of the potential to turn one man’s trash into another man’s treasure if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – there is more data available.

“No-one wants to tell you what’s in [their waste],” MiAlgae founder Douglas Martin told me. He’d actually assumed it would be easy to source waste, but then spent months chasing distilleries. If only businesses would pull their shorts down and show us their byproducts, it would be much easier to use and exploit them, he suggested.

It’s a reasonable point, and one that has been made before. In 2013, a Ricardo Energy & Environment report for the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management on commercial and industrial (C&I) waste noted the complexities in surveying this particular stream and how the “myriad caveats and assumptions” required have made the reliability, representativeness and accuracy of the available data “highly uncertain”.

Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at the think-tank Green Alliance, says she has seen presentations detailing how C&I waste is sometimes counted up to six times.

“WasteDataFlow has proved an incredibly useful tool for measuring waste managed by local authorities, and it shows that effective measurement of waste information can be done,” she explains.

“Unfortunately, municipal waste only accounts for a small proportion of all waste arisings – just 13.7%, in fact – so it’s unfortunate that we have nothing like the same level of accuracy for commercial and industrial wastes.”

A history of silence

Indeed, there’s so much uncertainty around the issue that Defra has had to fairly substantially – and regularly – revise its estimates about C&I waste in recent years.

The 2013 CIWM report noted the data available at that time “was unanimously considered to be unfit for purpose … and does not have the detail or granularity to assist in commercial businesses decision making”.

Fast-forward to 2016, when RWM ambassadors published a report aimed at stimulating the debate around waste data. The authors at Ricardo found the biggest gaps in data were in areas of waste management not covered by regulation or where deregulation has occurred.

The most significant of these remained data on the arisings of C&I and construction and demolition (C&D) wastes. The authors said: “There is currently no duty on waste producers to report data unless their waste is subject to regulations such as producer responsibility legislation or if it is hazardous waste.”

Jamie Pitcairn, director for Ricardo Energy & Environment in Scotland, said: “The location of the C&I waste arisings is not recorded, which makes developing regional circular economy strategies challenging,” he says.

“So too is the fact that we do not understand what materials are in this stream – so if we don’t know what resources are being generated, we don’t know what the alternative uses could be.”

It’s the same point Martin at MiAlgae made. However, this lack of data doesn’t only hinder the ability to accurately map the potential availability of secondary materials and the innovators looking to prevent materials ‘leaking out’. It also makes it very tricky to plan for future infrastructure needs and undermines investment in C&I waste treatment facilities.

“Before you can properly handle something, you need to measure it,” says Peake. “It’s impossible to say, for instance, what level of residual waste infrastructure we actually need in the UK because we don’t know the true level of waste arisings.” This also makes it “impossible” to set targets to reduce waste generation and increase recycling outside the narrow scope of municipal waste arisings, she adds.

Slipping behind

EEF, which represents manufacturers, has argued that the UK will fall behind other major economies if it doesn’t get to grips with material flows.

The organisation’s Materials for Manufacturing report in 2014 called for “sound data, as cost effectively as possible, on the generation and fate of recyclables and residual waste, regardless of where it originates”. At the heart of decision-making on resource use must be good data, EEF said; and until that is in place, it is “nearly impossible to recommend sensible policy options for this stream of activity”.

Of course, new waste policies have been thin on the ground for the past decade. This all changed with the Industrial Strategy, the 25 Year Environment Plan and, come the end of the year, a new Resources and Waste Strategy. At January’s Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum, Lee Davies, head of resource efficiency and circular economy strategy at Defra, said future

policy must be rebalanced in favour of the waste hierarchy – recycling has been the focus, but it is areas such as remanufacturing and waste avoidance that could “really deliver” the circular economy ambition.

Davies is also fully aware of the black holes in waste data – and the importance of trying to shed some light on the parts of the system that have proved hard to reach.

“If we're thinking about setting better objectives, setting the right targets and focusing our attention, then we need to be able to measure the things that are important to us,” he said. He then put up a diagram showing resource flow in the UK, and in the middle was a thick, grey one labelled ‘balancing adjustment’. It’s a term used by statisticians, Davies explained, “which it turns out means ‘we don’t actually know what it is’”.

Indeed, within the UK economy there is a huge amount of stuff, as Davies put it, that isn’t identified or tracked – and some of it is the very resources we need to get our hands on and harness. “We need to think how we can get better data and use that data, not just to target our policies, but also to enable people to access those materials and resources,” said Davies.

It’s a critical question – and finding an answer should be a government priority, according to its own top scientists. In December, Sir Mark Walport and Professor Ian Boyd, the government’s and Defra’s chief scientific advisors respectively, published From waste to resource productivity – their take on future policy direction.

One of their “strongest recommendations” was for the government to put in place the fundamental building blocks of data gathering and analysis to ensure this information is available – and public.

To have the greatest impact on resource productivity, we need to know the amount, type and quality of waste – and where it is generated, they noted. “That knowledge should be openly available, so that everyone with an interest in waste and its prevention and management has access to the same datasets.”

It seems they may have taken the advice on board. In May, the government announced a new wave of funding competitions for tech firms to develop solutions to tackle some of the major social challenges we face – and one of them will focus on waste.

Defra will be looking for help with a new technological approach that could help record, check and track waste, helping boost productivity, reduce costs, and protect both human health and the environment. This will look at current systems such as EDOC and WasteDataFlow, as well as other areas where smarter data sharing might be useful.

It’s an important move, as Peter Jones, a senior consultant at Eunomia, suggests. “EDOC is too limited in reach at present to give any insight. To get that, you need to look at Environment Agency site returns, national C&I surveys, published waste compositions, and landfill tax data as key sources – and that’s to name just a few.”

Tightening up on data, he notes, will also be part of the revised Waste Framework Directive, in which new targets will apply to municipal rather than household waste. “We’ll have to provide a decent estimate of how much of that waste is collected and recycled,” says Jones.

Of course, mention tech and data and blockchain inevitably follows. Ricardo’s Pitcairn paints a picture of its potential: “If every item sold had a bill of materials with associated tonnage, this combined with sales data and transfer notes could create a self-validating constantly moving map of where products are, and therefore where different tonnages of materials are within the supply chain at any given time.”

Add to this private waste management collection data and it’s not unfeasible to imagine having a live material flow model, with the inclusion of losses where material is collected as ‘waste’ for either re-use, recycling or recovery, he says. That would certainly make life easier for the Douglas Martins in this world.

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