As someone who’s spent more than a decade commenting on the UK’s approach to resources and waste, I’ve often felt at least a bit of frustration and occasionally even substantial dismay with it. England’s last domestic strategy was published around the same time as I was cutting my teeth as an environmental journalist, in 2007, and the government’s main approach since then has been to rely on the EU to set the overall direction of travel and level of ambition. Far too often, this meant EU directives were transposed in an ambivalent way, never going above and beyond what was required, while just about adhering to letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit.
The result is that we have not been able to enjoy the benefits that would come from better use of resources. And it’s worth remembering that those are considerable, as Green Alliance’s analysis has shown. They include 102,000 net jobs from the transformation to more a circular economy. And significant savings for the public purse from preventing waste crime and overhauling funding for recycling collections. And, don’t forget, the carbon benefits of better resource efficiency, which could get the country firmly on track towards net zero emissions.
Following years of straining at the seams and, more recently, the Brexit upheaval, Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised a renewed strategy on resources and waste. With this strategy, his reinvigorated – if at times overstretched – department has had the chance to bring in fundamental, much needed (and publicly demanded) reforms.
The wait is (kind of) over
So, now for the detail. Does it live up to the task of changing our relationship with resources and will it bring about all those potential benefits? While it’s not entirely clear how the warm words on waste minimisation and resource efficiency will translate into action on the ground, there are certainly many positive steps that match our recommendations over recent years, including in the following areas:
- Extended producer responsibility: The strategy promises to embed a ‘polluter pays’ approach. In line with our recommendations, this will ensure producers are responsible for the full costs of handling the materials they put on the market at their end of life. This will start with overhauling the much derided Packaging Recovery Note system that sees producers contribute a derisory ten per cent of recycling costs. But the government will not stop with packaging: it has promised the approach will also extend to electronics, vehicles, batteries and, potentially, other ‘problem’ waste streams, like textiles, furniture and tyres.
- Deposit return scheme: Early next year, the government will be consulting on a DRS for single use drinks containers, something those concerned about plastic pollution are particularly keen to see. Our research has shown that this would be a great way to prevent plastics from entering the sea, and, if done well, could enhance recycling rates for many other materials without harming the financing of local authority collections.
- Consistent recycling collection: Consumers are often confused and frustrated by discrepancies in recycling collections, to the severe detriment of the quality of material collected in the UK. The promise to ensure both a consistent set of recyclable materials collected from households and businesses, and consistent labelling on recyclability is sure to help.
- Separate food waste collection: It is great that the government has recognised that comprehensive collection services must include food waste. This still makes up a third of what people throw in their residual bins. It is also associated with considerable greenhouse gas emissions in addition to wasted money. And, as we have shown, collecting it separately will increase awareness of waste, improve the value of recycling by lowering contamination and provide feedstock for anaerobic digestion, which, in turn, can provide renewable energy and a fertiliser substitute.
- Waste crime: The strategy has promised to overhaul the country’s approach to waste crime, which is no small task. We’re pleased to see, though, that this will involve more tracking of commercial and industrial waste, which makes up a much greater share of the UK’s waste than the 13.7 per cent coming from households. As we’ve noted, this lack of reliable information hampers action, and so electronic tracking – as with councils – is definitely needed.
Now to the question of delivery
In the end, though, this is predominantly a high level strategy, setting out a vision for the future. It is not a concrete plan. Most of the policy proposals above won’t be fully described until next year’s consultations. And at that point, their ambitions and effectiveness could very well have been compromised by outside forces, including departments within the government like Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. This is very much Michael Gove’s strategy, and it is worth noting that – unlike with the Clean Growth Strategy, the Industrial Strategy and even the 25 year environment plan – the foreword was from the departmental secretary of state, and not from the Prime Minister (though perhaps she had other things on her mind). It is vital that the whole government gets behind this to make it a success.
Issues of funding, in particular, might scupper some of these plans, not least around food waste collections and preventing waste crime. The strategy states that the policies, especially where they affect local authorities, will be “funded appropriately”. This will be vital as the trend since austerity began has seen some councils cut services like food waste collections. Reinstating them or adding them to some collection systems will incur costs that many beleaguered local authorities will not be able to meet on their own.
The government’s related, though much less welcome, announcement that it will look into free green waste collections to all households with gardens will require even more money. For this waste stream, home composting is by far the best environmental option, but it didn’t even get a mention.
Properly monitoring and enforcing waste regulations will require substantial investment. Getting it right will result in considerable sums (as much as a billion pounds a year) going into the Treasury’s coffers and to legitimate businesses, in addition to the savings made from avoided cleanup costs. But that won’t come without upfront investment in systems and staff. The Environment Agency, which is at the frontline of preventing and detecting waste crime, has seen considerable cuts since 2010. More recently, hundreds of its staff were redeployed to Defra to work on Brexit issues.
Which brings me, of course, to the question of capacity at Defra. In just this strategy, the department has promised work and policy development in far too many long neglected areas to mention in this short blog. That’s in addition to the substantial Brexit related work already on its plate, including ongoing translation of more than 1,100 pieces of legislation and the preparations needed to assume full responsibility for primary environmental legislation for the first time in more than 40 years.
So, while for the first time in more than a decade, we have some real ambition to improve resource use, there is still the small matter of delivery. Along with many others, we’ll be here offering our wholehearted support for government action that brings us the resource efficient economy that people want and the planet needs.