Waste Wars: The capital fights back

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

London’s household recycling rates might be among the lowest in the country, but the city is making great strides in other key waste management and sustainability areas, the mayor’s senior advisor on environment and energy Matthew Pencharz explains to Geraldine Faulkner in an exclusive interview

Fat bergs, Star Wars and buses that run on biodiesel were three of the topics that popped up in conversation recently with Matthew Pencharz, senior advisor on environment and energy to the Mayor of London.

Fat bergs (the vast quantity of fat that forms in the sewers of the capital when people dispose of it down the drain) because, the senior advisor says, it is one of the many waste issues that need addressing in London; Star Wars because it is a personal interest; and buses that run on biodiesel because they are an initiative that has been introduced in the London borough of Barking, and Pencharz is very enthusiastic about the whole concept. But more on all three later…

Low recycling rates

More importantly, how are all things waste in London? At 34%, the capital is said to have one of the lowest household recycling rates in England, while recycling rates for inner London are reported to be even lower, at 16%.

Pencharz is keen to look at the wider context. "It's a mixed picture in London. Let's not forget it's a very diverse place with the highest turnover of population in the country and where we have local authorities who all do things slightly differently. The outer boroughs have figures that are more in line with other parts of the country.

"In fairness to London, no one is going to celebrate some of the recycling rates, but there are other urban areas, such as Merseyside, that have similar figures. It wouldn't be fair to call us 'the naughty schoolchild of recycling'," states the senior advisor. "Indeed, we're pretty well in line with other boroughs, as the whole country has flatlined. This is not an excuse, it's an explanation."

The mayor's spokesperson on waste draws attention to the change in the way people consume goods.

"We use a third less paper because we are consuming media in a different way. It's interesting also to see how packaging has been reduced; plus there are resource issues and prices on recyclates that are increasingly reliant on quality, resulting in processing prices going up and up. With less weight and less volume being generated, it affects the UK's current weight-based targets."

Pencharz points to the municipal and business waste strategy issued by the mayor in 2011, the aim of which was to reduce the climate change impact of such waste in the capital and to take a more "outcome-based approach – [by] moving waste up the waste hierarchy to achieve the greatest carbon savings, and by setting a CO2 equivalent emissions performance standard (EPS) for London's municipal waste – a world city first".

Weight of waste -vs- carbon value

Pencharz says: "If you collect lots of wet leaves and grass, it will be better in urban areas but, having said that, there is not much value in green waste compared with other, lighter materials. On the other hand, if you collect more packaging, it has more value in it; not in weight, but in how much value there is in the product in both carbon and monetary terms. Carbon is also of economic value. However, having said all that, clearly more needs to be done to boost recycling."

Which is why Resource London, a partnership between the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) and WRAP, the government-sponsored initiative to encourage people to reduce waste, has been created to generate more efficiencies in London boroughs. Before, the two organisations had different corporate identities, but with Resource London they are, according to WRAP, working together to "help London achieve its 50% recycling targets by 2020, by providing a wide range of support to waste authorities across London".

Jointly funded by LWARB and WRAP, the initiative is expected to run until March 2020.

Potential for efficiencies

"Resource London is planned to run for the long term," states Pencharz.

"The first stage is for five years, and then they'll review the progress that has been made. There is potential for efficiencies within London boroughs, whether they are unitary or waste partnerships such as the South London Waste Partnership [run
by Kingston, Croydon, Merton and
Sutton boroughs]. Local authorities have been astonishingly good at maximising efficiencies, but fiscal tightening is going to continue, and so they will have to find more savings. I hope Resource London is going to be at the forefront of that drive." With London's population hitting 8.6 million earlier this year, the pressure is on the mayor's office to make adequate waste management provisions for the capital.


Hence the launch of a consultation on a 2050 London Infrastructure Plan in July last year, in which Boris Johnson said: "The infrastructure plan also outlines plans to deal with waste by moving to a circular economy where goods are designed to be reused and recycled. By 2050 it is the aim that very little waste will require disposal, which would result in £5bn of savings from 2016 to 2050."

Pencharz picks up the theme. "We're going to have to think about homes, transport links, education, healthcare and waste to accommodate the growing population and how to deliver the infrastructure," he acknowledges. "We're thinking about how to have a more circular economy model with more land use and around 40 new waste facilities; not big ones with chimneys, but smaller remanufacturing sheds on industrial estates that are more localised.

"We are also exploring the viability of procuring services such as lighting from companies such as Phillips and GE, ensuring items are reusable and cheaper over time.

"The Department of Energy & Climate Change has done this as part of its refit and it is reported to be working well. It is a good example of how we could have a more circular model and thinking about how we can minimise the use of virgin materials and getting better value out of existing resources."

Repair and reuse

Other laudable schemes being undertaken by the mayor's office are harder to measure, for instance the repair and reuse target, which has been reduced from 120,000 tonnes a year by 2031 to 30,000.

"The challenge is that we don't have good data on reuse," admits the advisor.

"A lot of the work is carried out by the London Reuse Network [an initiative made up of charities, social enterprises and non-profit organisations that work together to promote reuse across London] and has shown some pretty exciting developments, such as young people refurbishing office furniture that goes into Nissan huts on construction sites for companies that need furniture but won't go to IKEA."

Looking ahead to 2025, how close is the mayor's office to achieving the target of achieving zero municipal waste direct to landfill? "I think we're going to hit that sooner rather than later," states Pencharz confidently.

Riverside energy from waste

"Now that Belvedere [otherwise known as the Riverside Resource Recovery energy from waste facility in the London Borough of Bexley] is taking care of 25% of London's municipal waste, and the new Beddington EfW facility in South London is going ahead, I'm pretty confident that our municipal waste won't be going directly to landfill by 2025."

The capital is also making great strides in combined heat and power. See EfW facilities such as SELCHP's district heating network in South East London, which supplies 2,500 Southwark properties with heat and hot water via a 5km pipework system. "SELCHP is working well and there are new developments appearing in the area near the facility and connecting into the combined heat and power network," confirms Pencharz. "There is also the Lee Valley heat network in the London Borough of Enfield that is coming on line, along with the housing zone, which is expected to unlock the barriers to supplying residents with sustainable low-carbon power and heating. We have a target where 25% of London's energy demand will be met from local sources, and a large proportion of that power and heat could come from EfW."

Despite challenges such as 'fat bergs' in London sewers, which require spades and high-pressure hoses to be dispersed of (residents need to have convenient 'used cooking oil and fats' collection points and services so they are not tempted to tip the stuff down their drains), there are lots of positive initiatives taking place in the capital.

Fuelling London buses with waste

"Used cooking oil and other food waste products are being used to produce biodiesel to fuel London's red buses in Barking," says Pencharz with a smile. "We hope to have 15 garages with buses running on biodiesel this year. Two big bus manufacturers including Volvo have now gained Euro 6 certification, and they wouldn't want to start using the B20 blend [20% biodiesel and 80% diesel] now that it complies with their warranties.

"There are also a number of refining companies looking at building biorefinery capacity in London. It is all very exciting as it's a project we've (forgive the pun) driven through our bus fleet."

And finally what is the connection with Star Wars? Along with Pencharz's wife and two daughters, tea, his bicycle and the Herne Hill lido, they are the things that Pencharz says he couldn't live without… not forgetting a waste-free capital of course.

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