The government’s aim to eliminate waste is spot on, now we need to see action

“There’s never actually been a more exciting time to be working in resources and waste”,  according to Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, who was speaking at an event we hosted last week. She added: “That’s a strange thing to be saying about waste, but I genuinely think that there are huge opportunities, both for the economy and the environment, that can be harnessed – can be, and need to be – and government is putting in place the policies that we so much need.”

As someone who has been working on waste (specifically, how to put an end to it) for more than 12 years now, I can say that the minister was right on nearly all accounts, apart from her final claim that the government is putting in place the policies we need. The resources and waste strategy published in 2018 undoubtedly injected a lot of energy into the agenda. It recognised – on a theoretical level – many of the changes needed to make the economy more circular and less wasteful. But so far it has given rise to very few actual policies. And the ones we have seen have been tinkering at the edges. Yesterday’s ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds is a good idea but will have a miniscule impact on plastic pollution and wider material use unless it is part of a much wider set of policies aimed at fixing the system as a whole.

Delay to vital action is bad for the economy
Covid-19 has, of course, thrown a considerable spanner into the works, and civil servants have undoubtedly had their hands full dealing with the fallout of the pandemic for the waste sector. But delivery against the strategy was already way behind schedule before coronavirus hit. After the strategy came out, there was an initial round of consultations gathering preliminary thoughts on how to sort out some longstanding problems with recycling by bringing in consistent collections, extended producer responsibility for packaging and a deposit return scheme for drinks containers.

Responding to the consultations, the government promised “detailed proposals” in “early” 2020. These are now not expected until 2021, a full year’s delay (and even detailed proposals don’t yet mean policies, of course). The Environment Bill, which will give the government the powers to implement these and other measures, has been paused since March (though, when she spoke last week, Rebecca Pow assured us it would be back in parliament very soon). And the waste prevention plan, due for revision in 2019, is still nowhere to be seen, despite its vital role in ensuring the economy properly values the resources it uses and designs out waste in the first place.

‘We need to do more to protect our precious natural resources’
That’s why it was so heartening to hear the minister speak passionately about the importance of waste prevention at the event: “Recycling is obviously really important,” she noted, “but we also need to do more to protect our precious natural resources, such as lithium, and we can do this by obviously creating less waste in line with the waste hierarchy. And, if we’re to meet the government’s ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050, we should all be following the mantra to reduce, reuse and recycle… and we’re absolutely committed in the resources and waste strategy to support… waste prevention activities including greater reuse, repair, remanufacture and refill.”

She went on to note the importance of ecodesign, of having the right facilities and services in place to help people to do the right thing, of improving data “to unlock the value of materials to industry”, and of better information “to enable informed consumer choice”. This was music to my ears, echoing as it did the calls we’ve repeatedly made in recent years, on our own and through our business and academic partnerships.

These calls include Building a circular economy, with the Resource Recovery from Waste project, which outlined the approach to infrastructure and logistics needed for a genuinely circular economy (spoiler alert: it’s very different to what we have now), and our work with other academic initiatives, the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products and the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, on how industry can be helped to value materials better, and what the public wants. Our next report for the Circular Economy Task Force, out later this autumn, will look at the role of ecodesign in driving resource efficiency.

There’s still a huge gap between words and actions
While the minister said some welcome things, make no mistake that considerable changes are needed to achieve those aims. For evidence of how far we have to go to crack the problem of waste, you need look no further than the evaluation of the previous waste prevention plan for England. Released by WRAP this summer, this review found that, between 2013 and 2019, government actions definitely prevented just 103,199 tonnes of waste. (Organisations working with government have prevented another 284,000 tonnes, and possibly another 623,642, if the additional food and packaging waste saved through the Courtauld 2025 voluntary commitment is included.) This means the average annual saving attributable to government action was just 17,200 tonnes.

To put that in context, England generated an estimated 188 million tonnes of waste in 2016 alone, the latest year for which comprehensive figures are available. So that means that government activity likely saved just 0.009 per cent of the England’s waste generation. Rounding the figures, that means, without government intervention, England’s waste generation in 2016 would still have been 188 million tonnes. In other words, the actions taken had virtually no material impact. We have a very long way to go indeed.

Rebecca Pow rightly pointed out that the rewards for getting this right – in terms of jobs, business resilience, resource security, public satisfaction, carbon emission reductions and so on – are considerable and indisputable. Now, we really do need to get on with it, so that next time progress is reviewed we see some major impact on waste reduction.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow was speaking at our event to explore public attitudes to recycling, which was supported by Viridor. It is available to view on our YouTube channel.

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