Re-evaluating recycling rates and resource policy

Every industry seems to be facing unprecedented change. As the aftermath of the snap General Election begins to clear, LARAC’s Lee Marshall considers what the future waste and resource policy in the UK may look like

While it is far too early to say that the dust has settled and things are now clearer following the General Election, at least we know the ministerial team at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) we will be dealing with in the waste and resources sector. Given it has gained a reputation as a department someone travels through rather than stops at, there must be some comfort in having the junior ministers return to their posts. Obviously, the headlines will be about the new Secretary of State and there have already been assumptions made based on past voting records on climate change issues. As with all these things there is always another view point and, as Michael Gove has pointed out, he was a member of the government at the time and he voted with them, which in a way should be the greater worry.

As an industry, we will rightly focus on Defra and their emerging thoughts on how waste policy will develop and evolve as we detach ourselves from the EU and all the legislation that goes with it. That said local authority eyes will be focused as much, if not more, on the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to see how future funding levels are looking. It is an unfortunate reality that the drive to increase recycling (in England) has been impacted by the years of funding cuts that local authorities, along with the rest of the public sector, have endured. An ambitious and forward-thinking waste and resources strategy for the UK from Defra is of little value if the means to achieve it are not forthcoming as well. Whilst some in the industry state all it needs is targets to be imposed on local authorities, like in Wales, they ignore the vast amount of funding the Welsh government has pumped into councils to help boost the recycling rates north of 60 per cent.

In theory, the task of guessing the future waste policy in the UK is straightforward. The EU Circular Economy Package is likely to be finalised and agreed before the end of the EU exit negotiations and so will be adopted by the UK. So, 70 per cent recycling levels and an extension of producer responsibility are on the cards. However, we know that the UK has been at best lukewarm on these two aspects of the package during the negotiations which suggests they will be some of the first bits to be unpicked once we have left the EU. What we have yet to establish is what they might be replaced with and how important the resource agenda will be for Defra in the post-EU world. Again, it is fair too early to know and judge, but so far the comments from the new Secretary of State have focused on agriculture and the future for that sector post Common Agricultural Policy.

The current landscape
In order to consider the future, it may be worth a short review of where we are now in the UK, with a differing picture across the four nations. Broadly speaking, virtually all households in the UK have a kerbside collection of glass, cans, paper, card and plastic bottles. This is easily forgotten in the ongoing debate and work on ‘consistency’. So, for the main materials households have a regular service. In Wales, you can also add food waste to this list of materials that all households can recycle at the kerbside.

The differences start to emerge in the frequency of collections, types of container used and the colour of them. That said all households have information on their particular system and most of us only live in one main place so only have to use one main system. The other difference is then food waste in England and other types of plastics across the UK, with the plastics being the main culprit in giving rise to the myth that collections are confusing for people. There are not many industries out there that would go out of their way to paint a bad picture of themselves and yet we are doing just that every time we say that collections are confusing. If we don’t promote our services in a positive and correct manner, how can we expect the public to engage fully in what we do?

This leads on to the current and inconvenient truth for our industry – people just do not see recycling as important enough. This is why, despite the universal coverage of a wide range of materials, a large chunk of it does find its way into the right container. Recent surveys in Wales show that food waste is still being placed in the residual bins, in large quantities, instead of the food caddies being provided and emptied each week. We talk of ‘nudging’ and ‘prompting’ householders into doing their bit – with the move to three weekly residual collections being the most obvious example of this. And some of this is working, again the recycling rates in Wales appear to support the move to extending residual collections when you have a comprehensive recycling service, including food waste, in place. The move to three weekly collections is not a popular one though and starts to turn public tide further away from recycling. It is also a move designed to help balance the funding issues that local authorities are facing and balancing ever decreasing budgets.

Recycling resources
There is only so much that councils can do to promote recycling and why we need to do it. WRAP has provided, and continues to provide, great support and resources for councils to use and to do what they can at the national level as well. Organisations such as OPRL are also helping to make recycling information more readily available to the public and is working more closely with local authorities on producing communications resources. It was an obvious move for Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) to become one of the new owners of OPRL last year to further promote and improve the links between retailers, producers and councils. The issues need multi solutions and there is no one all-encompassing policy or system that will lead to high recycling rates.

The UK government will need to take much more of a lead in the resource debate and engaging with households at a high level to promote and support the concept of recycling and the concept of individual responsibility for it. They can be supported in that by the producers and retailers of goods and how any future policy and legislation on producer responsibility is formed could be key to this. Local authorities are doing a great job in trying circumstances but, without more support from national governments and the wider industry, the plateau in recycling rates we are seeing in England is likely to continue.

At the moment, most of the knowns in the waste and resource sector are unknown and it is likely to be years before we are in a position where we have a clear and definite policy direction. In the meantime, we need to ensure we do what we can to keep services going and keep the public as engaged as possible in recycling so that when we do get that clear direction, we are in a good place to make the most of it and make the next step change in recycling.

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