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The politics of waste forces industry to act


The quarry industry's drive to meet government targets for aggregates recycling has led to some far-reaching developments. Neil Doyle reports

THE QUARRYING industry has an image problem. The public's general perception is that of an ill-tempered beast rampaging across the countryside and raping areas of natural beauty.

One industry figure politely attributed past failings to 'high-testosterone management. Big kids with big Tonka toys'.

But since Labour's sweeping victory in the General Election two years ago, there has a been a rapid, if not miraculous, conversion within the industry to the concept of sustainable development.

Any suggestion that this could be linked to the government pondering the introduction of a new tax on primary aggregates is dismissed as a red herring by the industry, which has offered up an alternative package of environmental management measures. A decision is some months off but ministers could still decide to take the money and run.

'The only target the government has quoted for the use of recycled materials is 55 million tonnes a year in England and that would be equivalent to 60 or 64 million tonnes for the whole country pro rata,' says Quarry Products Association (QPA) economist Jerry McLaughlin.

'That target is within existing planning guidelines and there is an interim target is around 40 million tonnes for 2001. We think that we've surpassed that figure earlier than planned.'

Some 15 per cent of aggregates are currently derived from secondary and recycled resources and noises emanating from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions suggests that the next target will be 25 per cent. This is seen by the industry as achievable and likely to be the practical upper ceiling on recycling.

The greatest volumes of re-usable materials are sourced from demolition sites in urban areas or from specific geographical areas, but the cost of transportation over long distances often means that primary materials are cheaper.

Current construction specifications are another barrier to greater uptake of recycled materials.

Specifiers have yet to catch up with the changes in the market, although the Highways Agency has recently linked up with the Building Research Establishment and the QPA to form a working group to look at revising specifications.

It is in an indication of the scale of the political will behind the drive for sustainability. Revised documentation is due to emerge in 12 to 18 months' time.

There has been a reluctance to specify recycled aggregates because of concern over quality. European standards have not yet been agreed but the QPA is working on proposals to overhaul quality control systems to give greater assurance about the quality of products. Tarmac Quarry Products recycling director John Barritt says: 'Local authorities are being driven by sustainable development and there's a willingness to find ways of using recycled materials, whereas before there tended to be a reluctance and existing specifications have been used as a reason not to use them.

'They now have a target within their construction procurement that's got to be recycled and that's making it a much more positive market.

'There's also a move among major commercial clients who are looking for environmental policies with their supply chain management. You're looking at sustainable resources being specified from the client end rather than being pushed from the supplier end.

'That's only recently appearing as a trend and I am certain that it will continue as major clients are looking at whole life costing for buildings. It is a definite move within the market.'

All big players in the market are rising to the challenge. RMC Aggregates, for example, is working in Yorkshire in partnership with waste management company Yorwaste, which has just opened a new £600,000 facility in Yorkshire for recycling to take a huge tonnage of material that would be otherwise consigned to landfill.

In Dagenham, Essex, RMC has the ability to recycle over 40 per cent of asphalt, part of a programme to convert 50 asphalt plants for recycling. A couple of sites in East Anglia have also been busy recycling concrete and other materials from old airfield runways.

RMC marketing manager Ian Southcott says: 'We have got a variety of different initiatives going on throughout our company network. As a company we recognise the need to be as sustainable as possible. We agree completely with those policies.'

Contractors working on Design Build Finance and Operate road contracts are more open-minded about the materials that are used, as they take on responsibility for the performance of the surface. Road planings, for example, are now often processed, mixed with new material and re-used.

'All the primary aggregate producers are looking to recycling to supplement their product range,' says Mr Barritt.

'I think the proposed aggregates tax has made the quarrying industry focus on the management of its existing resources more than it has concerned itself with recycling resources from existing materials.

'But I think it's not unreasonable for the marketplace to be meeting the government's target of 55 million tonnes much sooner than 2006.'