When asked what is the one thing people should do to save the planet, natural historian and national treasure Sir David Attenborough has a simple answer that he often repeats: end waste. Speaking to BBC Breakfast last year, for instance, he elaborated: “Don’t waste. Don’t waste anything. Don’t waste electricity. Don’t waste food… treat the natural world as though it is precious, which it is, and don’t squander those bits of it that we have control of.”
It’s a simple enough instruction that benefits from very strong supporting logic and, yet, putting an end to waste has proved anything but simple. Looking only at the waste of physical resources, over the course of its six year run, England’s last waste prevention plan managed to prevent less than 0.01 per cent of the country’s waste. And on a more micro level, the average household’s black bin, is still full of material that can be recycled (and plenty that should never have been produced in the first place). In England, as of 2017, the average black bin’s contents were nearly one third food (which can be separately collected and recycled where services are offered), plus plenty of other recyclable material: six per cent recyclable paper; six per cent card; around five per cent commonly recycled plastics; and more than two per cent glass packaging. And plenty of other recyclables that shouldn’t, like metals, wood, batteries and waste electricals, also find their way into the bin.
At the moment, bad recycling is not the public’s fault
All of this is not to point the finger at householders for doing the wrong thing. Under the current system, the well documented ‘postcode lottery’ of recycling services and mind blowing plethora of recycling labels can make just the simple act of recycling very confusing, even for the most committed. The government has promised to sort this out through reforms to extended producer responsibility for packaging and the introduction of consistent collections, which it is currently consulting on along with a deposit return scheme. All households should have access to services for the same set of ‘core’ recyclables and to separate food waste collections, and all packaging should be labelled either ‘Recycle’ or ‘Do not recycle’.
But, once that’s all sorted out, what if people still put recyclable material in the wrong bin and, against David Attenborough’s wishes, keep on squandering materials that they have control of? As it stands, there’s nothing in in existing proposals on extended producer responsibility and consistent collections to provide incentives for or ensure that people do their bit, beyond better education and the goodness of their hearts. (The deposit return scheme, which seems to be receding into the distance and is now not due until the end of 2024, is another story.)
When householders put recyclable packaging in their black bin, the reforms will see producers of that packaging pick up the tab. And it will be no small sum, as the government estimates it currently represents two thirds of the waste management costs of residual household packaging currently incurred by local authorities. When householders send other recyclable material, like food waste or newspapers, to landfill or incineration, it will continue to be the wider public purse that foots the waste management bill.
The ‘polluter pays’ should apply to everyone
This certainly seems to be a misapplication of the idea of the ‘polluter pays’, which the government says is one of the main objectives of its producer responsibility reforms. It fails to recognise that pollution can happen at any stage of a product’s lifecycle, and that people can pollute as well as businesses. It also doesn’t chime with the intentions of ‘extended producer responsibility’, which is meant to place responsibility on those who have the most influence over environmentally impactful decisions. When it comes to whether or not to recycle at the point of disposal, once the instructions are clear and the services are comprehensive, the ability to do the right thing rests solely the consumer.
The obvious solution is to plan to institute some form of variable charging for waste services, which sees householders pay based on how much they use the services, as they would for any utility. This is commonly known as ‘pay as you throw’, though it would perhaps be more accurate or enticing to call it ‘save as you recycle’, as those who generate the least amount of waste are rewarded by paying the least, and one of the main aims is to drive up recycling rates. And it has, indeed, been very successful elsewhere: according to 2017 research by Eunomia, eight out of the world’s top ten recycling nations use variable charging to some extent.
Fears about variable charging have not come true
But, in the UK, this idea has been politically challenging, with fears of continued opposition from the tabloid press and claims that it will result in an increase in flytipping. It’s worth noting, though, that when the British Crown dependency of Guernsey boldly decided to introduce variable charging in 2019, such doom-mongering proved baseless. Not only did the predicted spate of flytipping never materialise, but residents in flats were fully on board, and the island saw an immediate boost to its household waste recycling rate of 23 per cent, going from 50 per cent recycling in 2018 to 73 per cent the following year. That puts England’s aim to recycle 65 per cent of waste by 2035, which the government estimates it will just about hit with current reforms, to shame.
It is also worth bearing in mind, for those populist press stories at least, that a system of variable charging is very much fairer for people who do minimise their waste and recycle where they can. At the moment, no matter how much effort they make, they are charged exactly the same as their neighbours who don’t, so those who do the right thing financially subsidise those who don’t. That’s not right, as I’m sure David Attenborough would agree.