(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the waste disposal industry
The last two decades or so have seen much tighter waste disposal and environmental protection legislation introduced as the UK government and the European Commission have made efforts both to reduce the volume of waste produced and to minimise its impact on the environment.
Tougher waste management rules affect businesses at every stage of the process:
- waste producers have a 'duty of care' to ensure that their waste is disposed of properly
- waste collectors must be licensed and must transport, store, sort and process waste safely and correctly
- the final disposal of waste, often through landfill, must be done in accordance with strict guidelines
Recent years have seen more businesses brought into the waste carrier licensing regime too.
Not all of the changes have seen greater regulation though - in 2014 the waste transfer note system (but not the system of hazardous waste consignment notes) was relaxed a bit under the government's Red Tape Challenge.
A landfill tax was introduced in 1996, increasing the cost to skip operators of waste disposal. The tax has increased steadily over the years. In 2012 HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) caused concern in the industry with a ruling that fines (very small particles) from trommels (cylindrical waste sorters) and other screening machines would move from the lower rate of landfill tax to the (very much) higher rate. After carrying out a consultation exercise, HMRC ruled that from April 2015 waste loads containing trammel fines will need to have a 'loss on ignition' percentage - the amount of non-inert material in the load - of no more than 10% if they are to qualify for the lower tax rate.
More and more skip operators are having real difficulty finding somewhere to take their waste at all. As landfill sites close their doors in many areas operators find that they have to drive further and further to unload. Unfortunately, this has become less and less economical, particularly at times when fuel prices are high.
Tougher rules on waste disposal aren't all bad news for skip hirers though. Most local councils have been forced to clamp down on what private householders can dispose of as domestic rubbish, making a hired skip the best alternative waste disposal option in many situations.
Recycling and waste minimisation have become hot topics, and many initiatives have been set up to encourage business and industry to reduce the volume of non-recoverable waste that they produce.
The economic downturn which began in the late 2000s resulted in difficult conditions for skip hirers. The construction industry, a major user of skips, saw its workload fall dramatically. Unfortunately, key costs like landfill waste disposal and fuel continued to rise, affecting most operators' profitability. The economy remained weak during the early 2010s, although by mid 2013 things started to pick up. Economic conditions continued to improve until the middle of 2015.
The recovery slowed in the second half of 2015 and the slowdown continued into 2016. The Brexit vote in June of that year, followed by the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, led to economic growth weakening further towards the end of the year and throughout 2017. As forecast, the economic slowdown continued in 2018 and no change is expected in 2019 or 2020. The construction industry saw little growth from 2016 onwards. New private industrial orders fell and any growth was dependent on an increase in infrastructure activity and private housebuilding offsetting a sharp fall in the commercial and industrial sectors. This pattern is expected to continue into 2019.
The 2000s saw commodities prices - particularly metals - rise steadily, with some big increases during the second half of the decade. Prices did drop back sharply as the economy slid into recession in 2008, but generally recovered fairly well during the closing years of the decade and the first half of the 2010s before falling back again. Meanwhile, markets have begun to open up for other properly sorted waste recyclables like wood. It's becoming more and more worthwhile for waste disposal businesses to manage and sort recyclable wastes properly (waste sorting before disposal is also increasingly covered by legislation, and helps to keep recovery costs down). EU targets aim for 70% of waste to be reused or recycled, and some waste disposal operators are introducing sophisticated robotic sorters to carry out the task of waste sorting.
2012 and 2013 saw the phasing in of a ban on cash payments for scrap metal in England and Wales, along with a new licensing regime for scrap metal dealers. In 2015 legislation was passed which makes provision for a cash ban in Scotland.
Keeping up with developments
Because waste management is such an important issue, rules and regulations are regularly updated and new developments in the industry are commonplace. Joining a trade association is a very good way of keeping up to date with developments. The Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Body (WAMITAB) and the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) are the two main industry associations for the waste disposal sector. You can find out more about these organisations, and the services and support they offer to their members, on their websites.
The Environmental Services Association (ESA) also represents the waste management industry in the UK.
News and information about important industry issues is also available on the letsrecycle.com and Recycle More websites.
The regional environmental regulators' websites are a valuable source of up to date information on regulatory issues and best practice:
- the Environment Agency in England
- Natural Resources Wales
- the Northern Ireland Environment Agency
- the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland
Information is also available on the Gov.uk website and the Netregs website (Scotland and Northern Ireland).