Under the political spotlight

Waste is increasingly under the spotlight on the political stage, and with collection and disposal comprising the third largest local government service in terms of spend, this should not come as a surprise. The LGA projects that the overall cost of landfill tax alone to local authorities will be around £720 million in 2014/15, and collection costs are rising to reflect a range of factors, including the pressure for more food waste schemes.

Against the backdrop of the current economic climate and ongoing public spending cuts, we are starting to see some real tensions emerge, with councils caught between meeting legislative requirements designed to drive higher quality recycling and collect additional materials such as food waste, the pressure to maintain a frontline service at an appropriate frequency, and ever tighter spending constraints.

New legislation
One of the most pressing issues that local authorities will face relates to the requirements in the EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD) that have been put in place to ensure higher quality recycling. From 1 January 2015, the directive states that waste collection authorities must collect waste paper, metal, plastic and glass separately, unless they can demonstrate it is not technically, environmentally and economically practicable (TEEP) to do so.
Already the subject of a Judicial Review in England and Wales earlier this year, the interpretation of the WFD requirements by governments in the UK and Ireland remains a topic of hot debate. The latest instalment has seen a strong reaction to an open letter sent to English local authorities by the outgoing waste and resources minister Lord de Mauley, reminding them that co-mingled collections – often introduced in an effort to keep costs down – will not remain permissible in all circumstances.
Because co-mingled collections end up in Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs), this debate is also linked with a push to improve the quality of material coming out of these facilities, with new regulations imminent for England, Wales and Scotland. These regulations will be critical because the performance of the receiving MRF will impact on whether a co-mingled collection scheme using that MRF is deemed to be delivering ‘high quality’ recyclables in line with the directive.
It is a complex area of legislation and CIWM and many other industry bodies have been calling for proper and timely support for local authorities from government in the form of guidance on TEEP and what constitutes ‘high quality recycling’, as well as pushing Defra to publish the final MRF Regulations for England and Wales. Given the lead times involved, local authorities urgently need the right information to help ensure that their collection systems will be legally compliant come January 2015.

Financial implications
It is difficult to fully assess the longer term impact on council waste services but there are some obvious financial implications. At best, there are likely to be additional costs as many authorities take the advice offered both by Defra and the LGA to seek “their own legal advice and make decisions in accordance with that advice locally.” At worst, councils who have opted for co-mingled collection could be subject to legal challenges and, if they cannot justify their decision in the light of the WFD requirements, will have to bear the potentially significant costs of changing their schemes. And while it might look like a fairly discreet operational issue, it could have much wider implications across many different council functions in the future. Better separation of recyclables, for example, means that the planning process for new housing schemes and commercial developments must take into account the need for appropriate space and storage facilities from the outset. Many waste planners struggle to engage their non-waste planning colleagues on the issue of appropriate provision for waste collection and a more informed and collaborative approach will be essential in the future.
The potential need for additional investment to improve recycling quality at a time when efficiency savings are the top priority will also impact on the procurement of collection and treatment services. We are likely to see more authorities following the proactive approach being taken in places such as Kent and Somerset, where the twin objectives of efficiency savings and service improvement are being delivered through joint working and procurement partnerships. And the local political landscape will need to change too. Waste services and infrastructure cannot continue to be used as a political football as it has so often been in the past. Waste collection and treatment is both a frontline service and a statutory duty and requires much more cross-party collaboration and vision. Waste might be perceived as a vote winner or loser, but in the long term it is far more important that the focus is on delivering efficient waste services and treatment facilities that keep costs as low as possible and quality as high as possible.

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