Waste policy: Changing views changing minds

30-odd years ago, councils collected rubbish and took it to the local landfill site, often an unlined, worked-out quarry operating on the ‘dilute and disperse’ principle. Then, in 1977 the first bottle banks were opened, partnerships between the glass industry, who wanted the cullet, and local authorities.

Supermarkets were sometimes happy to have these in a corner of their car parks. Soon paper merchants became aware that they could obtain an economic load by placing a skip on the same sites. Charities provided textile banks and the metal recycling industry organized ‘save-a-can’ banks.

The obvious party to co-ordinate these early recycling centres was the local authority. So it came to pass that local authorities came to be seen as responsible for recycling.

Up to the 1990s waste legislation (and public sector involvement) had been about safeguarding public health and protecting the local environment. However the 1990 Environmental Protection Act also incentivised local authorities to increase recycling. Together with targeted government grants and borrowing facilities this spawned the first trial local authority kerbside schemes. The 1995 Environment Act transferred responsibility for protecting the local environment and public health through regulating waste management sites from local authorities to the newly formed Environment Agency.

Stepping it up
The early to mid 2000s saw a huge increase in municipal recycling following a review of policy by the Cabinet Office which led to DEFRA’s Waste Implementation Programme (WIP) and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) being established. Local authorities were set targets for household recycling and government funding was directed towards supporting local authorities, much of it through regional programmes. The landfill tax escalator and landfill allowances (and, in England, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS) provided a strong incentive to local authorities to reduce landfill – providing a legislative ‘push’ working with the ‘pull’ of the WIP.

Towards the end of the 2000s recycling targets ceased to be imposed on local authorities, the start of a move, continued by the Coalition Government, to increase local accountability and shift responsibility for sustainable wastes management (re-named ‘resources management’) back towards the private sector.

In a similar vein, the EU’s revised Waste Framework Directive (rWFD), has moved the emphasis away from public protection towards broader environmental goals including reducing carbon emissions, reducing waste from production and cycling resources within the economy.

The 1990s also saw mass burn Energy from Waste (EfW) coming of age in England. Tighter emission limits were imposed in the 2005 Waste Incineration Directive, so the risk to public health of these facilities is now vanishingly small. However EfW plants are expensive to build, so they have only happened on the back of long-term municipal contracts for residual waste, awarded to a small number of large waste management companies – often with a government subsidy in the form of Public Finance Initiative (PFI) credits. Other technologies have more lately been deployed, including Anaerobic Digestion (AD). These are less capital intensive and inherently more flexible than EfW. However they are technologically less well developed, so seen as riskier – and they are still not always viewed as the first choice by the waste management company.

As a means of waste disposal, mass burn EfW is favoured over landfill because it gets some ‘value’ out of waste, addressing a legitimate ‘resource depletion’ issue. However high CO2e emissions per MwH (higher than coal) make EfW a poor option in relation to global warming. The detriment is ameliorated if the plant generates heat that is used as well as electricity. However there are few signs that heat sharing and district heating (DH) schemes will be constructed, despite a number of incentives introduced by government – because the huge capital costs of laying pipes for hot water over any significant distance are prohibitively high. Loans from the proposed Green Investment Bank may help, but, even with strong local leadership, very few projects will get underway without significant public (grant) funding.

The government’s review of waste policy – the local authority role
Given the shifts in policy away from the public sector and towards ‘the whole of society’ local authorities should not be required to do more than ensuring that arrangements are in place for household (and commercial) rubbish to be collected as often as needed and that local planning frameworks allow for appropriate facilities to be made available for handling and treating waste.

However, local authorities also have a great deal to offer – as facilitators and co-ordinators, depositories of local knowledge and communicators with the hard to reach – to other organisations working in partnership. Costs of subsidising collections for recycling or valorization as energy or compost should no longer be borne out of the public purse. Instead this burden should be borne by producer organisations and, indirectly, by the consumers of the goods that engender waste. As discarded materials become more widely recognised as economically valuable, their flows will be managed by (mainly) private sector organisations (with the community sector prospering in some niches). Government’s job is to address market failures and ensure that an appropriate regulatory regime is provided and enforced. The greatest challenge will be to ensure that organisations aren’t able just to ‘cherry pick’ the most easily accessible materials to the detriment of communities and individuals where more effort is needed.

To a small extent the government’s recent review of waste policy recognises this. There’s a much greater appreciation than before that it must be about the whole of waste, not just the bit that is managed by municipalities; that waste prevention and better resources management is more important than local authority recycling figures; that waste relates to consumption so it needs to be addressed in product design and manufacture; that thinking about waste & resources has to be extended to all sectors of the economy; and that explicit links have to be made with carbon and climate change policy.

A national waste prevention plan is required under the rWFD. Nonetheless, the emphasis on waste prevention shows understanding that waste policy is about more than managing discarded materials. There are good sentiments about partnerships, the importance of good information and the need for local authorities to develop new models for procurement, joint working and service delivery.

However the Achilles heel of the review is the government’s reluctance to impose targets or additional obligations on private sector organisations. We were disappointed that the government announced a moratorium on packaging recycling targets towards the end of last year, pending this review – and still will only commit itself to consult more on increasing recycling targets on packaging producers from 2013.

Challenging packaging recycling targets are an essential element of not only increasing recycling and reducing carbon, but also helping user organisations to develop new supply chains out of plastics, cardboard and composite packaging – from materials that are currently going to landfill. Until the government gives a firm signal on this, these new supply chains will be harder to develop, especially in plastics.

As well as packaging, electrical goods and cars, producer responsibility needs to be extended to other waste streams – nappies, tyres, textiles, and even food.

The first Courtauld Agreement was quite successful at getting most of the large brand owners and retailers round a table to reduce packaging and make it less unsustainable. However the idea of ‘responsibility deals’ as the means of implementation of policy is naïve. Organisations that are accountable to shareholders – and to their customers – will seek to do different things, and will have different priorities to organisations that are accountable to an electorate. For such deals to work to society’s benefit there has to be at least a credible threat of some compulsion.

Planning ahead
The government’s review of waste policy includes fine words about planning policy, but disappointingly little substance. Dismantling regional planning and replacing it with localism will lead to there being areas where local opposition will make it difficult to install the waste treatment facilities that are needed. Against the backdrop of reducing resources and therefore reducing capacity for strategic planning, the ‘duty to co-operate’ in the Localism Bill could easily just become a box to tick.

The government is right to articulate the importance of good and up to date information and data. Some excellent work has been done over the last two years. However, the sources of public funding that paid for surveys of commercial and industrial and other waste streams have gone. The private sector will not give priority to developing good publicly-available data, so public agencies will have to be resourced to continue this work – or else the good quality data and projections that we have at the moment – that can be used to inform supra-local waste planning – will soon become out of date.

Localism and collections
Like the populist jargon ‘bin taxes’ that also crops up in this review, the idea that we need weekly residual (or ‘smelly’) waste collections isn’t taken from evidence or a concern for local accountability, but comes straight from the leader writers of the Daily Mail. It is disappointing to find this in the middle of a serious review of waste policy by a government aspiring to be the ‘greenest ever’, and seeking to deal with resources management as a significant economic and social issue. Because of this, household recycling rates may now stall, or even fall, a casualty of public sector cuts.

For political reasons (not recognising that it might give for better environmental stewardship or would help to reduce public expenditure), the government has also set its face against the possibility of householders being charged separately for a waste management service in the way they are charged for every other utility. Why would it be unreasonable for a locally accountable and democratically elected body to decide to do this? The loss of enforcement power, very infrequently applied but still a potent last measure, the emasculation of civil sanctions by being made only to apply when there is ‘harm to local amenity’, and the loss of capacity to inform and engage the public are also setbacks in our quest to manage wastes more sustainably and return resources to our economy. I don’t think their effects have been taken into account in the government’s regulatory impact assessment that indicates that the EU targets for 2015 and 2020 will be achieved.

In conclusion, in its review of waste policy, the government does well to focus on all society’s waste and not just the part that is managed by local authorities. Most local authorities realise that effective partnerships will need to be developed for its implementation. However they are concerned about its deliverability as it contains too little to ensure that the diverse private sector will take up its responsibilities for its implementation, or that local planning authorities will, in every case, be able to provide for the waste sorting and treatment facilities needed.

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