The UK could miss out on a massive opportunity to create a flourishing multibillion pound economy from waste, according to a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee out today.
The report, entitled Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy, calls on the Government to grasp the nettle and change the way we view waste – seeing it as an opportunity rather than a problem. It also makes a clear call to the Government to create a Waste Champion, to take on the job of developing a “brass from muck” bioeconomy - one that could see enormous economic benefits as well as a considerable number of green jobs.
Although there are many kinds of waste generated from a variety of sources, the Lords inquiry looked specifically at waste which contains carbon (see Editor’s note).
While preventing the creation of waste in the first place is a laudable policy goal, it is inevitable that there will always be waste—or unavoidable by-products—such as orange peel, coffee grounds or waste gas from factories and power stations. Using cutting edge technologies, wastes such as these can be converted into valuable products such as fuels, flavours and fragrances, plastics, paint or pharmaceuticals.
One product which could have a huge economic and environmental impact is aviation fuel. New technology is being developed which uses a microbe to convert waste gases from steel mills into jet fuel. This aviation fuel will emit 60% less carbon than the fossil fuel it replaces. Another project aims to convert around 500,000 tonnes of waste normally destined for landfill into 50,000 tonnes of low-carbon jet fuel.
Around 100 million tonnes of carbon-containing-waste are available every year, which could potentially be exploited as a resource.
The potential size of this bioeconomy, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is estimated to be in the tens of billions of pounds.
Technology has the potential to produce, from waste, nearly 40% of the petrol used in the UK. The Department for Transport estimates that this is worth about £2.4bn.
There are also environmental benefits, such as diverting waste from landfill and capturing greenhouse gases, to be had from harnessing the waste-to-wealth technology.
There is, however, no single, clear source of information about the extent of our waste resources, making it difficult to establish a picture of the quantity and quality of available waste in the UK.
The Government should begin treating waste as a resource, rather than a problem and create a Waste Champion, within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to develop a high-value bioeconomy from waste. Currently, Government policy lacks both coherence and certainty.
The Government needs to look again at its incentives for certain sectors in this field and not others, and work to make sure the market is not distorted.
The report urges the Government to reduce the amounts of waste that are exported – exporting waste generates CO2 from UK transport, removes a potential resource from this country and removes the potential for creating green jobs. It’s estimated that we could produce 150,000 tonnes of bioethanol with the waste we exported in 2012.
We recommend that the UK look to other countries, such as Brazil, the US and China, for examples of developing bioeconomies.
The Government should create a more standardized system of waste collection across local authorities in order to maximise the potential of waste as a resource.
Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Lord Krebs, said:
“Our investigation has revealed that the UK, which generates hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste every year, has the scientific know-how and the industrial will to turn this waste into wealth.
But we are concerned that the Government is not seizing this opportunity - there is a huge amount at stake here, economically and environmentally, and no single department appears to be leading the way.
We are calling on the Government to create a Waste Champion, a Minister who can co-ordinate action and policy across different departments so this chance is not missed. The Waste Champion should not only ensure that the UK has the ideal environment for a waste bioeconomy to flourish, but also come up with a long-term vision to maintain it.
Our report clearly shows that where there’s muck, there’s brass. Waste, traditionally seen as a problem, needs to be viewed as a hugely valuable resource, one which could generate a substantial economy of its own. We must not let this opportunity pass us by.”
The Committee’s report, Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy, will be available on the Committee’s inquiry webpage on Thursday 6 March.