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The UK’s growing waste infrastructure problem

By - World Infrastructure Journal

The UK’s growing waste infrastructure problem

In the same week that the UK begins to prepare for shortages of one of the chemicals required for the treatment of wastewater, experts at the Resource Infrastructure Conference have made a convincing case for waste infrastructure becoming a larger area of priority for policy makers.


This week the Environment Agency announced that shortages in a water treatment chemical would mean that firms could begin to “discharge effluent without meeting the conditions” laid out in their permits, provided they obtain a written agreement. While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been quick to clarify that there are no firms currently experiencing shortages of ferric sulphate (the chemical in question), the fact that such a precautionary measure has been introduced is still rather concerning. As such, the message of the experts assembled on the seventh of September for the Resource Infrastructure Conference – who argued that urgent action was needed to address an impending crisis in the UK’s waste infrastructure – was rather convincing.


Discussing Defra’s recent target of recycling 65 per cent of municipal waste by 2035, Jacob Hayler (executive director of the Environmental Services Association) made the case that a greater emphasis needed to be placed on ensuring that infrastructure could be delivered. As he went on to explain, “there’s so much going on. So many policy changes, introducing so much uncertainty” – and the result is a sense of inertia and people “sitting on their hands waiting for clarity. ”

That said, he expressed confidence that the UK could deliver the infrastructure needed to meet “ambitious targets,” but only with “the right policies” in place. “If we get the right policy in place that creates the right incentives, then it’s doable – we do have 10- to 15-years’ time to get it right. We need the clarity and long-term stability, and then we need the market to deliver it. ”


There was also discussion of the need for a more “consistent and comprehensive” system for the UK’s collection of waste data. Simone Aplin (technical director at Anthesis) made the claim that Defra’s current system of collecting data (which is centred on annually performed estimates) was no longer fit for purpose. Instead, she proposed, Defra needed to implement a “granular” real-time system that could provide more regular and more accurate data, which would in turn assist the construction of future waste infrastructure in the UK. While she noted that plans to implement such a project were already promised, she also made the point that this upgrade was not being pursued urgently enough.

In short, the concern raised by the panel was that waste infrastructure simply isn’t high enough on the government’s list of priorities – and the impending reality of wastewater going untreated as a result of supply shortages only underscores the validity of that message. As Tim Rotheray (director of innovation and regulation at Viridor) put it, it is “mind blowing” that waste is not regarded as critical infrastructure by the UK government – especially as effective management of waste is crucial to any push towards net zero.


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