This post first appeared on BusinessGreen.
The inconsistency of recycling systems is back on top of the resource policy agenda. Two years after the Circular Economy Task Force highlighted the extent of the opportunity for increased efficiencies and revenues in improving England’s disjointed approach to household recycling, WRAP has launched its Framework for greater consistency.
This great piece of analysis demonstrates that, if all local authorities collected a consistent set of materials, the recycling rate would increase by seven per cent. This would return an extra £478 million worth of resources to the economy, and could be achieved at lower cost than business as usual. This is without factoring in any of the consequential benefits of a simpler system making it easier to engage people in recycling even more and more packaging being designed to be recycled in the certainty that it will be collected.
Local authorities worry about cost and politics
However, none of these benefits will be realised unless local authorities adopt the vision. And there are three factors that might cause them concern. The first is cost. Whilst many will save money under WRAP’s proposed system, some will see their costs go up. How much they can save depends on how much they shift away from the status quo, with the most ambitious changes providing the greatest savings.
But the further they get from the status quo, the more local politics become a concern. For district councils in particular, rubbish and recycling collections are the most visible public service they provide and local councillors can be wary of introducing changes that they fear might be resented by their constituents.
Finally, there are the macro politics of recycling. Consistent collections are a necessary condition for successful recycling, but there are others. Without changes to the recyclability of materials, demand for recycled content and the effective participation of households, local authorities could reasonably argue that their efforts are wasted unless matched elsewhere.
Increasing recycling returns by rewarding businesses
WRAP’s proposals recognise the importance of these wider system changes which is why they are leading two voluntary initiatives on design for recyclability and householder engagement.
But we would argue that to scale up these changes to the same level as those proposed for collection systems, a producer responsibility framework is needed that rewards businesses for acting in ways that help increase the returns from recycling. For instance, designing for recyclability, increasing their use of recycled content and engaging with householders better to maximise the collection of recyclable materials. Conversely, the producer responsibility costs of companies that undermine recycling, for example using unrecyclable packaging formats or causing confusion by not including any recycling guidance on labels, should increase. Revenues from this scheme should help pay for the costs of local authorities delivering a consistent collection.
Not only would such a framework align the interests of producers with those of local authorities, it would also help to engage the public. Showing householders that the changes to their bin collections are part of a wider strategy to increase resource recovery and lower costs will be key to addressing local political concerns. The success of the five pence plastic bag charge shows people are happy to comply when they understand the point.
People want more consistent systems
Recent research by Viridor shows that most people also want to recycle more, are frustrated by the inconsistency in current recycling systems and want more transparency about what happens to their recycling. This suggests there is at least tacit support for increased consistency.
The way to capitalise on this tacit support is to demonstrate the point of the proposed changes. In the context of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, we need to convince people that increasing UK resource recovery and the use of recycled materials could contribute to UK success outside the EU. More UK reprocessing means more jobs and more British material suppliers, which reduces manufacturers’ exposure to the higher costs from paying for imported materials with a weaker pound.
Businesses have a crucial role to play in talking up these opportunities and explaining to their customers the benefits of making their packaging more recyclable and increasing recycled content.
Business commitment also makes it more reasonable to ask the public to match their efforts. As the Royal Society of Arts’ director Matthew Taylor has eloquently proposed, ensuring alignment with existing or emerging social values is a significant determinant of a policy’s success.
We know that recycling is popular and that people see it as ‘doing their bit’ for the environment. By providing a consistent recycling system across England and getting manufacturers to work with the inputs and outputs of those collections, we can show people that they are doing their bit for the economy too.