Newry recycling and processing business Re-Gen Waste brought together some of the industry’s top experts together with Ulster Business for a discussion about the future of an ever-evolving sector and what it holds for all of us in a post-Brexit environment
(Technical director, WDR & RT Taggart)
(President, The Local Government Technical Advisers Group)
(Recycle NI and Retail NI)
(Former chief executive of ARC 21)
(Director of product sales, Re-Gen Waste)
(Managing director, Re-Gen Waste)
(Editor, Ulster Business)
John Mulgrew: What’s the current state of the energy and recycling sector at the moment?
Joseph Doherty: In the mixed-waste market we are currently diverting waste from landfill to energy creation, shipping waste derived fuel to Sweden. Landfills are closing, there’s reduced capacity in NI so we need to find other ways to deal with the waste.
Adrian Thompson: I think there has been a dramatic shift, certainly among local authorities – treatment, rather than landfill. We now only have two landfills, so energy recovery is the mainstay going forward. Where that happens, and how it happens, are the main challenges for the so-called ‘black bin’ market. Looking at the recycling sector, there are pressures. We are dealing with global commodities – plastic, paper and card. Those markets are changing.
Glyn Roberts: There’s the Government’s Environmental Bill which effectively restricts exporting of waste to developing countries. That is going to be a challenge. Does it open up more opportunities, locally? Or does that put added pressure on to the existing sector? The key thing for where the sector is – it needs to be at the cutting edge of this environmental ‘new age’. It’s part of the zeitgeist – it’s where society is, and this sector has to be part of that. The recycling and waste sector has a huge opportunity to be part of the overall Northern Ireland economy.
Ricky Burnett: It’s evolving. It’s becoming more mature. We are at that crossroads. The interesting thing for me is the influence that manufacturers will have on this. The producer responsibility on packaging is just the start, and I don’t think people realise how significant the changes are going to be. It will mean manufacturers will have a bigger say in the sector, and they will become much more influential.
Celine Grant: From my perspective on the recycling side, I think it’s quite concerning that the Government is trying to push for a more circular economy in the UK and Northern Ireland. But the bigger concern probably is yes, they want to bring things closer to home, but there are issues like energy costs – they are not putting the infrastructure in place to make that happen.
John Mulgrew: Looking at our waste, where is it now going and will this change?
Joseph Doherty: Much recycling waste has been going to places, such as the Far East, but that is slowly coming to an end. Certain companies were not reprocessing the waste in accordance with regulations and they do not want to be seen as the ‘dump’ of the world. There are a lot of people who have been employed in those countries as a result, and have seen an economic benefit, but there is a question over how it was dealt with. Europe needs to deal with it at home, and the UK Government is looking to create the right environment by which investment can happen here.
Andrew Cassells: There are a couple of key drivers. The main thing that has come around recently is the whole shift in terms of the climate change agenda. The speed in which it has taken off has been phenomenal. It’s a challenge to everyone… the other thing is the proximity principle. In other words, trying to deal with the waste as close to the manufacturing process as possible.
John Mulgrew: With Brexit upon us, are there any advantages in the UK leaving the EU?
Joseph Doherty: Depending on how it looks, there is a potential that Northern Ireland could be seen a place with added value. For us, we could buy plastic bottles from England and ship it home at a lower tariff, add the value, for example sorting and grinding it, and then ship it into Europe. Northern Ireland (potentially) could be a place to add value, going to GB and into Europe. But the disadvantage is the labour. I think we will be at a disadvantage dealing with the Republic of Ireland. They will have access to lower-skilled labour, and NI won’t.
John Mulgrew: And what does that mean from the labour perspective?
Joseph Doherty: At the moment, difficult would be welcome, impossible is where we are possibly going. That’s where it almost becomes a shut door. We have around 150 lower-skilled staff in the plant. Before Brexit, we had around five staff turning over each month. That then increased to 20 and 30 after the vote. With that instability, we are going back up to bigger turnover numbers. We are walking in to an impossible situation which forces us down the route towards big investments in technology… I’d hope that the waste industry will be able to allow people in, not meeting the points system.
Ricky Burnett: There’s not a chance of that happening. Everyone will be fighting their own corner. Waste has always been the Cinderella industry. Northern Ireland is a small place. That has its challenges and its disadvantages, but it also brings some advantages and strengths. What is going to have to happen is the public and private sector will have to work closer together. There need to be forums set up where manufacturers, public sector and public sector providers start working more closely together. The challenge is the real pace of change.
Glyn Roberts: I think the issue is the different sectors shouting individually, but I think there has to be a stronger, collective view around getting greater flexibility – giving the Assembly a say on the future arrangements. It should be a devolved matter.
Adrian Thompson: It’s another critical service. It has to be viewed in that manner. If there isn’t anyone there to do the job, it just backs up.
John Mulgrew: What changes are we experiencing in terms of waste collection and what’s the public’s perception?
Joseph Doherty: We have been in business for 16 years. In that time we’ve gone from having very few blue bins to having blue and brown bins in every household. Half of the waste that would have gone to a landfill is now being recycled.
Andrew Cassells: We are collecting more waste than we ever were. The introduction of the brown bin – we didn’t collect green waste before, and there’s an argument to say that we shouldn’t be collecting it.
Adrian Thompson: I think there is a requirement for green waste collection in certain places, such as urban areas.
Celine Grant: I think another problem for the waste sector is that there is so much negative press – you don’t see the positives. When you see some of the coverage, it is often sensationalised. When we hosted an open day, it made people more aware of the industry – they saw firsthand how the waste is dealt with and where it actually goes. Do we need to have a shift alongside the public sector to drive home that message?
Adrian Thompson: One of the things that has changed the public perception is David Attenborough. Once they see littered oceans and animals being affected, right in their face.
Glyn Roberts: It’s the big challenge of how you weave an economic system with one harmonious and never-ending bundle of recycling and re-use – from the consumer to the manufacturer and retailer, everyone has their part to play in this.
Ricky Burnett: Everyone has their own role to play and everyone fits in somewhere on the chain. We need to get the forums together so the chain can actually meet and talk about how we derive these solutions. I think Northern Ireland has a lot of very smart and intelligent people, but just doesn’t lend itself to bringing them together in the right way.
John Mulgrew: Will there be a further move towards further automation within the waste sector, and what other changes are we likely to see?
Joseph Doherty: We are probably going to be forced to go that way – surviving with fewer staff. However, the quality of automated sorting is not as good. An optic can pick 3,000 units a minute, but gets some wrong, whereas a person doesn’t get them wrong.
Adrian Thompson: It’s a bit of a balance. With us, while there is a massive move towards automation, you still have the issues remaining. A machine is picking a material, but it can pick the wrong material. That leads to a potential contamination, so there is still that end requirement of quality control by staff.
Ricky Burnett: I keep hearing the word ‘consistency’. Why not make packaging of a certain material, and you are only allowed to use that material. Once you get a level of consistency that will make automation so much easier. It will effect all the parameters.
Andrew Cassells: It’s a discussion about what point in the process do you get the material out, and back into manufacturing? You can do a curb-side collection, the household is separating it, if you do blue bins, it’s all going in and you are separating it. We are talking about going one step before that. And DRS (deposit return scheme) is a step. You put a value on it.
Ricky Burnett: I think there are some well-founded concerns over DRS. That it’s coming in too early. Let the producer responsibility bed in, and then look to do it. But it doesn’t look like it’s going that way and that’s a worry.
Joseph Doherty: The worry for me is that we change to suit the changes in consistency. Then the DRS could come in and rip that out. Would we be better knowing where we are earlier, and then readjust?
John Mulgrew: Where does Northern Ireland sit in terms of places to invest in the next few years?
Ricky Burnett: It depends on what you want to invest in. There are difficulties. A lack of devolved government for three years has presented real difficulties. There are things that could be done to make it more attractive.
Glyn Roberts: The infrastructure piece is where it is all at now. Unless we sort it quickly, we are never going to realise the potential of this economy. It’s not just the big ticket things, such as the A5 upgrade and the York Street Interchange, but it is also about the infrastructure around towns as well. There are going to have to be a lot of difficult questions asked. The Budget being produced at the moment is going to be critical, and the new Programme for Government. It has to be about solutions.
John Mulgrew: As we heard towards carbon neutrality by 2050, could we eventually see businesses and people having individual carbon allowances?
Ricky Burnett: It’s a bit easier to design a system around businesses than personal allowances. I think personal allowances are a long way down the line. You are looking at things such as lifestyle, and that is a really big thing for people to get their head around. It’s different for businesses.
Joseph Doherty: Until we really get people to accept making choices – but businesses are already doing that. Big energy users are already measuring in carbon. But at some point it will have to come. I think councils are going to be forced down the road of collecting the bins less often, or reducing capacity in the bin.
Andrew Cassells: The reduction in frequencies in other jurisdictions have been driven by budget issues… it opens up the whole argument as well about who pays, and what groups in society can pay. You have to make it fairly straightforward for the householder. Those who want to recycle will do it, and will always do it.
Adrian Thompson: You have to make it simple and easy to use for the general public, and that’s where you get involvement and participation.
Glyn Roberts: I think there is a huge potential for this sector (waste) and its future growth. There are huge opportunities. With the right framework and support from government, I think the reprocessing sector really could be part of the next generation economy in Northern Ireland.