The UK Metals Council (UKMC) welcomes the recent publication of the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy. The document focuses predominantly on the challenges of single-use plastics, the confusion over household recycling, issues with packaging, food waste and waste crime, and as such, has much to commend it.
However, for the UK Metals Council, the body that represents the UK metals sector, it is not clear whether the total lack of content related to metals should be taken as a compliment or a serious cause for concern.
It’s certainly the case that no material has better sustainability credentials than metal. Metals are infinitely recyclable. Recycling & re-use saves an enormous amount of energy and carbon dioxide. In fact, in the British Standard BS8905:2011 – Framework for the assessment of the sustainable use of materials, metals are formally classified as permanent materials for this very reason. It is also true that compared with other materials, the recycling infrastructure and ease of recycling of metal is impressive, and the re-use rate exceptional. For example, it has been estimated that 75% of all the aluminium that has ever been mined is still in use today, with the figures for steel and copper being equally extraordinary. In addition, it is often costlier to manufacture from newer lightweight materials; these materials are less readily recyclable and can also create physical hazards such as dusts when being worked.
That said, by not including metals in their Resource and Waste Strategy, even as an example of sustainability best practice, Government runs the risk of the very great contribution metals are making to the Circular Economy being overlooked and side-lined with regard to policy and development funding in favour of newer and seemingly more exotic materials, such as carbon fibre which are actually less sustainable materials.
While many materials (including plastics) have been introduced to society with great success, revolutionising the way we live, metals have just been quietly getting on with their job, and doing so for thousands of years. This perhaps explains part of the problem: metals in all their forms are so familiar and so good at what they do that they are just taken for granted - by everyone, including Government.
Metals are, sadly, not seen as exotic or exciting, but try achieving the Circular Economy without them. For example, the strategy document highlights the fact that in 2016 the UK achieved an overall recovery rate for end of life vehicles of 92%. The point the document makes is that, although the figure is high compared to many other waste streams, it was below the target of 95%.
The point that the document should be making is not that the target was just missed, but how we should celebrate and build on that fact that the recovery rate was so high compared with other waste streams. The answer to this, of course, is that the vehicles being recycled were of a traditional construction and so predominantly made out of easily-recycled metal.
The concern for the UKMC is what will happen to the end of life vehicle recovery rate in the future as more and more easily recycled metal is replaced with other far less recyclable materials in an attempt to save weight to increase effective vehicle range? The risk of replacing one problem with another is, sadly, looking ever more likely.
With regard to making what the Resource and Waste Strategy refers to as ‘sustainable material choices’, it is hard to see a better choice than using metals for many end uses, a point that the document fails to make anywhere. It is not enough for a material to be recyclable in theory, it needs to be recycled in practice, and that requires a strong commercial demand, driving the necessary investment in infrastructure, facilities and equipment. This is exactly the case for metal, unlike the situation for many other materials where facilities do not exist.
The document does concede that the process for achieving end of waste status is over burdensome and needs to be made easier, and here the UKMC agrees as this problem does affect the metals sector despite metals enviable recyclability.
The Resource and Waste Strategy also highlights the need for Britain to take an international lead in the area of sustainability and waste, which in itself is a laudable objective. However, there are areas where we need to put our own house in order as we are well behind the curve. For example, the UK exports over 80% of the metal it recovers from the waste stream each year. This high percentage of export is not a choice, but a necessity due to the lack of domestic demand. This lack of demand being caused by the erosion of our various metal industries over many decades and the current unattractive economic climate in the UK that discourages inward investment, with high and uncompetitive energy costs & business rates being two examples.
Another important area raised by the Strategy is the need for resource security, which, from a national perspective, is going to be impossible to achieve if the UK has to export most of what is recovered for processing elsewhere.
Government needs to remember that to achieve an effective and sustainable Circular Economy, not only must the materials themselves be recyclable, with an infrastructure in place to recover them for re-use, but there must also be the economic climate in place to facilitate the investment in the infrastructure to encourage and enable the use of recycled materials; for metals in the UK this is the missing step.
The challenge for Government is therefore to support the UK metals industry is such a way that new investment can confidently be made and this gap in the domestic Circular Economy effectively filled, thus reducing our reliance on offshore solutions and maximising the environmental, economic and resource security benefits to the UK.
UK METALS COUNCIL
The UK Metals Council is the body that represents the UK metals sector to government. It comprises business leaders from the full spectrum of the supply chain, from primary manufacturing to recycling. Its vision is that by 2030, a modern and progressive UK metals industry will be supplying high-quality, innovative and competitively priced products to a wide range of customers. It will be the principal supplier to the UK’s main manufacturers and infrastructure projects, and a leading global exporter.
To achieve this goal, representatives from across the sector are coming together to shape the industry’s future. The UK Metals Council comprises stakeholders from the full spectrum of the supply chain, from primary manufacturing to recycling.
A new strategic approach has been developed supporting a clear vision for 2030 where:
• The UK captures the maximum value from its manufacturing, construction and infrastructure supply chains.
• The Metals Industry is placed at the heart of any future circular economy.
• Critical ingredients for long term success, such as skills and innovation, are embraced throughout the industry itself.