Defra outlines plans to improve UK resource use

16th March 2012


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  • Resource extraction ,
  • Food and drink ,
  • Engineering and metals ,
  • Electronics ,
  • Manufacturing

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IEMA

The government has pledged to help organisations better understand their use of materials and to finance research projects driving resource efficiency, in its first resource security action plan (RSAP)

Jointly developed by Defra and the business department, the RSAP describes the financial and environmental benefits of improving the use of “insecure” materials – including timber, palm oil, precious metals and minerals – and highlights the risks posed to individual businesses, industrial sectors and the economy as a whole of not adapting more sustainable production processes.

Greater recycling of products and components, particularly waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), more efficient use of materials during production and design, the development of sustainable alternatives and the adoption of new business models incorporating greater stewardship of products are key to improving resource efficiency and offer significant business opportunities, states the plan.

However, a failure by markets to reflect the true environmental costs of producing materials and a lack of readily available information on the risks of supply, are hindering firms’ understanding of the need to use resources in a more sustainable way. This lack of knowledge is particularly acute among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

To tackle these barriers, Defra has pledged to launch an online information hub that will allow businesses to better understand the risks associated with the materials they use. Also, WRAP will map the flow of materials through WEEE life cycles and conduct trials demonstrating how firms can improve the recovery of resources through the treatment of WEEE.

Other actions outlined it the report include the financing of an innovation challenge – offering £200,000 to SMEs that find new ways to extract precious materials from commercial waste streams – and creating a new industry-led consortium to share best practice and inform future policy.

The plan also raises the possibility of extending the application of producer responsibility regulations to include WEEE, and greater promotion of voluntary standards, such as PAS 141, and WEEELABEX52.

In launching the RSAP, environment secretary Caroline Spelman said: “Businesses are already feeling the heat from uncertainty in the supply of the speciality metals used in mobile phones, medical equipment and aeroplanes.

“We’re working with business to help prepare for these risks – but there is also a multi-billion pound opportunity in the massive amount of valuable metals lost because of how we deal now with products people no longer want. I want to see British businesses taking advantage of this golden opportunity to boost growth and jobs through how we design products, while re-using, recycling or substituting valuable metals.”

IEMA, which contributed to the development of the RSAP, welcomed in particular the development of an online “dashboard” on critical resources and the document’s formal recognition of the important role that environment professionals can play in helping UK businesses meet the challenges posed by resource security.

“Companies need to manage the risks to their business from resource scarcity. Key to this is ensuring that companies have access to necessary, available information; this dashboard will allow them to identify resources ‘at risk’ and take appropriate action.” said Martin Baxter, executive director, policy.

“The plan provides the basis for action to allow UK business to turn risks posed by resource security into opportunities for innovation and competitive advantage; it recognises that such gains will only be achieved through a partnership approach which should include government, business and the skills of environment professionals working together to maximise resource efficiency,” he added.

However, EEF, the manufacturing body, argued that while the RSAP represents a step in the right direction, the government must maintain momentum and take a broader view of resource security.

“Disruption to supply of key materials is a growing risk to manufacturers and their supply chains with scare materials concentrated in just a few countries and global demand growing rapidly,” warned Gareth Stace, EEF’s head of climate and environment.

“These materials are not widely recycled and not easily substituted with alternatives. We cannot afford to sit back while our competitors in Germany, the US, Japan and China are ahead of us in responding to this issue. We need a resource strategy which helps to ensure resource security, quality and creates incentives for resource efficiency.”

The RSAP does not tackle access to energy or food and focuses only on policy in England, with Defra leaving the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to develop their own resource action plans.

The publication of the plan coincided with the EU, the US and Japan launching a new legal challenge to China’s policy on exporting rare earths. The governments have complained to the World Trade Organisation, arguing that China, which produces more than 95% of the world’s rare earth elements, is unfairly restricting international access to the metals.

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