HomeBehaviour changeDoes Defra know how the waste hierarchy works? Evidence suggests not

Does Defra know how the waste hierarchy works? Evidence suggests not

Earlier this week, some of Defra’s most senior civil servants appeared before parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to discuss the government’s resources and waste plans. The grilling followed a damning report from the National Audit Office, which found: “Defra does not have effective long term plans for how it will achieve its ambitions for reducing waste.”

Watching the session, I was struck by Defra’s permanent secretary’s explanation of the waste hierarchy: “We very much operate by the waste hierarchy: how we get things out of landfill and use it in terms of energy and getting energy from it; but with a preference to recycle, then preference to reuse and then preference to prevent… That is exactly what we’re trying to do: push things up that waste hierarchy.”

This statement suggests the government is approaching the waste hierarchy the wrong way round, as a ladder that starts at the bottom (waste) and gradually works up to the top (prevention). This is at odds with how the hierarchy  should operate, as laid out in UK legislation, 2011 Defra guidance, the 2018 resources and waste strategy and also the recent waste prevention plan, which explains (correctly): “The waste hierarchy ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment. It gives top priority to preventing waste in the first place. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then recycling, then recovery … and last of all disposal.” The right way round is to go for the biggest, most important wins first and reduce to an absolute minimum the resources used and those that finally end up as waste.

The focus now is all on recyclingTo be fair to the permanent secretary, this could have been a slip of the tongue, because appearing before a committee scrutinising government value for money is no doubt stressful. But her description is in keeping with what we’ve seen from government over decades. Starting in the 1990s, the government has effectively targeted the bottom of the hierarchy. The landfill tax provided an incentive to divert material from landfill – the very bottom of the hierarchy – and straight to incinerators, with no mechanism or incentives to recycle or pursue other activities higher up the waste hierarchy. As recycling rates in England have stalled for over ten years at around 44 per cent (missing the legal target to recycle half of all household waste by 2020), attention has now firmly turned to recycling.

Since publishing the 2018 resources and waste strategy, which boldly promised the UK will “become a world leader in using resources efficiently and reducing the amount of waste we create as a society”, the focus has been on fixing the longstanding problems of England’s household recycling system. While this is important, it is the middle of the waste hierarchy and the government’s approach only concerns a small proportion of waste (as nearly two thirds comes from construction and demolition). The main policies taken forward (painfully slowly and years behind schedule) are extended producer responsibility for packaging, a deposit return scheme for drinks containers and consistent recycling collections across local authority areas.

Defra might point out that it’s also brought in a waste minimisation target. But this is just an extended recycling target as it doesn’t change overall levels of resource use or waste, but just aims to halve residual municipal waste, i.e. the bit collected by local authorities that’s not recycled. As the Office for Environmental Protection scathingly notes: “The target does not directly incentivise reducing resource use (e.g. extraction, design, processing) or consumption (e.g. through reuse, repair), or the overall volume of waste generated, or help improve resource security.”

Does the long awaited waste prevention plan change anything?It was positive to see the government reframe England’s recent waste prevention plan as “maximising resources, minimising waste”. Unfortunately, it seriously lacks detail, despite being four years late. Surely that was plenty of time to develop great policy ideas? An assessment of its predecessor in 2020, showed that, between 2013 and 2019, the government programme prevented less than 0.01 per cent of England’s waste. In other words, its actions had virtually no impact.

Did this failure spur greater decisiveness in the new plan, as you might expect? No, it didn’t. Instead, it is full of vague promises that the government will: “work with industry to explore…”; “encourage sharing of best practice”; “consider policy options”; ‘develop the evidence base further”; “promote collaboration and cooperation across the supply chain”; and “consider options to improve voluntary food waste reporting”.

The last statement about food waste reporting is particularly galling as, nearly two decades on from the start of voluntary reporting, with little to show for it, the government consulted in 2022 on making reporting mandatory for large companies. This was a genuine waste prevention measure and was overwhelmingly supported by consultation respondents, including businesses. But, just as it was releasing the waste prevention plan, the government quietly dropped it, claiming it was “seeking to avoid measures that would drive inflation while cost of living challenges remain an issue for many consumers”. The government’s own impact analysis shows that, far from driving inflation, it would save businesses – and therefore customers – money. A £1 business investment to reduce food waste yields £14 in return and large businesses would only have to prevent a quarter of a per cent of the food waste they create in one year to offset the costs of the regulation over ten years.

Returning to this week’s parliamentary evidence session, even when the attention briefly moved onto waste prevention, it was still about recycling. The permanent secretary, for instance, highlighted one of the potential future policies that could eventually come out the waste prevention plan: banning some textiles from landfill. The UK consumes more textiles than anywhere in Europe, and keeping that out of landfill is not tackling the enormous quantity of waste we’re producing.

Is the waste hierarchy the problem?By focusing on end of life solutions and limiting the ambition to recycling only, we’re missing out on the huge benefits of improving resource use. The UN estimates that extracting and processing resources drives half of the world’s carbon emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress around the globe. By looking at waste first and working up the hierarchy, the government is making it harder to correct the course and bring resource use down.

During the parliamentary session, civil servants revealed the government would soon release a waste infrastructure development plan. Apart from the concern that this will follow previous form and just focus on waste, it is odd to commit to infrastructure delivery before having a proper plan of action for waste prevention. Our previous research has shown that the sort of infrastructure needed to reduce resource use and waste in the first place is very different to what’s needed for a system dominated by recycling and waste treatment.

Perhaps the problem is inherent in the waste hierarchy itself. It’s got ‘waste’ in the title, after all. Green Alliance has suggested an optimal resource use hierarchy for plastics, prioritising demand reduction. Zero Waste Europe has proposed a zero waste hierarchy that adds a new layer to the top, encouraging a rethink around consumption patterns: with ‘Refuse/Rethink/Redesign’ as the line. And there are calls, particularly from academia, to move from the three traditional ‘Rs’ of waste management (reduce, reuse, recycle) to five or more, notably adding in ‘refuse’, i.e. choosing not to use something you don’t need or want, at the beginning.

It’s not just Defra which gets stuck on recycling and waste. Nearly all the questions civil servants were pressed on by members of committee related to recycling. This suggests there’s a substantial job to do educating MPs and the wider public on the greater benefits of cutting our overall resource use. At Green Alliance, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing ahead of the next election. We can’t afford for the next government to keep getting this wrong.

Written by

Libby is head of resource policy at Green Alliance.

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