The pandemic has highlighted the importance of waste management services in keeping communities running and as we emerge from it, it is important to consider how reforms will work and what needs to happen for these to be effective.
I am referring to the government’s Resources and Waste strategy, introduced in 2018, which seeks to preserve natural resources by minimising waste, increasing recycling and moving towards a circular economy.
The strategy is ambitious with initiatives targeting many different areas of waste management, from mandatory business waste collections to plastic packaging taxes to mandatory labelling. The government has consulted the industry and we have done our best to advise on what will and won’t work in practise, not just theory. With such a complex brief, focusing on the simple things will be the most effective way the government can drive change.
As someone with almost a lifetime’s experience in the waste sector, these are what I believe the key five priorities for the strategy should be:
1. Make business waste collections mandatory
A common misconception is that all businesses recycle their waste in the same way that households do, putting their plastic boxes and glass bottles in the recycling bin to be collected by local authorities and waste management companies. However, businesses are not householders. They are individual customers, with varying waste management requirements. Whilst larger businesses increasingly recycle waste and encourage their employees to support this, for numerous small businesses this is not the case. Mandatory business waste recycling collection of the four main items (plastics, paper/card, glass and metals), as well as food waste, would significantly increase recycling rates across the country with almost immediate effect. However, if the government asks this of small businesses who currently don’t recycle, they must keep the systems in place which allow bigger businesses to recycle according to their specific needs. Imposing an over-prescriptive system which removes choice would make results worse, not better.
2. Stimulate UK recycling infrastructure investment
The UK does not currently have enough capacity to process all the recycling we produce on our shores. Getting the right policy and regulatory regime in place will help create confidence to invest more in UK infrastructure. Getting this wrong will have the opposite effect. The ultimate aim has to be creating as near a circular economy as is possible within the UK.
3. Design for recycling and clear recycling
The more that packaging is designed for recycling, the more recycling is possible. This means simpler materials and standardised design where possible, as has been achieved for plastic milk bottles, resulting in high recycling levels and more recycled content included in the packaging. Ultimately, we are recyclers, not alchemists. We can only work with what we are presented with, so if something is inherently unrecyclable in practice– then we can’t magically recycle it.
Alongside this, confusing labelling leaves consumers in doubt about what is recyclable or not, leading to contamination in recycling collections. A mandatory labelling system will help consumers recycle more, reduce contamination and improve the UK’s recycling rate. A clear labelling system, which the waste industry can advise on, will help the government achieve its ambitious 65% recycling rate for municipal waste.
4. Press on with the Plastics Packaging Tax
Introducing the Plastics Packaging Tax in April 2022 will further stimulate demand for recycled plastic from current producers, and drive eco-design in packaging. This could also help avoid single use ‘biodegradable’ alternatives, which can get good coverage in the press, but in reality can cause more problems than they solve. However, the tax will need regular updating, much like landfill tax did, depending on results and material availability.
5. Proceed with caution on Deposit Return Schemes (DRS)
Whilst DRS in other countries has helped combat litter, the evidence on recycling improvements is more debatable, especially where established kerbside recycling collection systems are in place, as in the UK. The parallel roll out of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for packaging waste in the UK also complicates matters, as drinks containers are also packaging. With the significant complexities and costs involved, focussing DRS on materials which aren’t already collected kerbside could achieve the most benefit, namely drinks bottles and cans which are consumed on-the-go and at most risk of being littered.
Focusing on preserving our resources is a timely intervention by UK governments and one which fits with the global focus on sustainability. However, in a post-pandemic world where the economy is still recovering, and communities have realised that services such as waste management are fundamental to day to day living, focusing on the relatively simple initiatives first has the potential to drive real change fastest.