2019: new year, new ambitions and a new Resources and Waste Strategy

Peter Maddox, Director, WRAP UK

The government’s Resources and Waste strategy has been welcomed by the recycling sector. Ambitious and radical, there are some eye-catching policies: businesses and manufacturers will pay the full net cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste; shoppers will be charged an up-front deposit when buying drinks in single-use containers; it will be easier for people to know what they can recycle wherever they live in the country, with more consistent schemes from council to council and every home will have weekly food waste collections. There’s a lot to take in, and we await a lot more detail in the numerous consultation papers to follow but, as a package, the strategy offers significant challenges and opportunities for local authorities. 

As the various consultations emerge in the coming months, we can expect local authority executives and their political leaders to be focussed on the financial implications. It’s been a tough few years for local government: nearly all councils have expressed concern at the sustainability of local government finance and some are considering scaling back services to the legal minimum, given that local authorities have a legal duty to balance the books while providing residents with the services they need.

In recent years, recycling rates have flatlined overall with a drop in some areas. The recycling rates for a subset of councils, serving 14 million households in England in total, have fallen over the past five years; half of local authorities recycled a lower proportion of household waste in 2016-17 than in 2011-12. All is not lost: we know that introducing consistent, comprehensive waste collection services can turn things around. Take Stroud District Council, for example, now badged ‘most improved recycler’. Recycling rates have shot up since the authority changed the way it collected waste, while waste to landfill has halved. 

So can the Resources and Waste Strategy be seen as an early Christmas present for the sector? I believe so. Local authorities have long called for businesses and manufacturers to pay more of the costs of recycling or disposing of their packaging. The government has recognised the financial pressures on local authorities and has committed to ensure that councils are resourced to meet new net costs arising from the Strategy. This includes both the upfront costs of transition and the ongoing operational costs. 

To help drive up recycling levels, the government plans to define a minimum set of recyclable materials to be collected, subject to consultation. This will be supported by the funds raised from industry through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which will see them pay higher fees if their products are harder to reuse, repair or recycle and should encourage more sustainable design. Businesses may also contribute towards telling householders how these changes will affect them, a vital element when local authority communications budgets have had to be pared back in recent years. 

EPR for packaging is expected to generate between £0.5 billion and £1 billion a year for recycling and disposal. Because councils are typically locked into lengthy recycling and waste contracts and some may not be able to switch easily to a new system, upfront funding may be required to switch within the required time frame. Similarly, the Government wants to introduce mandatory separate weekly food waste collections: only around half of councils currently collect food waste, which poses its own financing challenges.  

The Circular Economy package calls for targets which cover 'municipal' waste - that is, household waste, and business waste that is like household waste. The waste covered by these targets will therefore be significantly more extensive than at present, raising both equipment and infrastructure issues. Partnerships between authorities and commercial managers will undoubtedly evolve into new regimes. A further challenge here is data. For 14 years, the WasteDataFlow system has provided a valuable tool to record household recycling. In other sectors such as business, this is much less transparent. Commercial waste managers hold huge amounts of data and we will need to develop strong working relationships so this information can be shared while protecting commercial confidentiality. 

Defra has also committed to developing more sophisticated monitoring and reporting techniques, enabling a longer-term move from weight-based performance targets towards ‘impact-based’ targets. We made great progress on recycling when weight was the key criterion but it has had the unintended consequence of, for example, overvaluing the collection of garden waste, which is heavy, while undervaluing the collection of plastic packaging, which is getting lighter and lighter through smarter design. A metric that recognises the carbon footprint of a product as well as its weight should enable us to reflect far better the overall environmental benefits of recycling different waste streams.

Another change for reporting local authorities’ progress will be local and specific performance indicators on the quantity of materials produced. At present, the only target of any importance is the UK national rate for household recycling. Smarter performance indicators will recognise that circumstances vary between councils: urban or suburban, size, type of housing stock and so on. 

There is a long way to go before this ambitious strategy is fully realised. There has been some grumbling in the sector about the length of time it will take to implement the Strategy, including the use of extensive consultations, but it’s important to get the detail right rather than legislate in haste and repent at leisure. The consultations will be asking businesses, local authorities and residents how they should deliver the policy, not if.  Taking account of the timeframe, it may be necessary for the government to develop a Roadmap or English Blueprint to reinvigorate stakeholders and continue to communicate the journey. Again WRAP has considerable experience in these approaches.

The Government’s strategy is all about people, business, the resource and third sectors and both central and local government coming together to build a circular economy – developing strong markets for secondary materials, creating jobs and helping the environment. It’s something I look forward to contributing to over the coming months.