OPINION: The long-awaited “Simpler Recycling” has been published to a mixed industry reaction and with plenty of questions. The proposals for the forthcoming statutory guidance have some clear positives, including:
- weekly food waste collections for the vast majority of businesses (by 2025) and households (by 2026);
- an clear minimum set of dry recyclables collected (assumed to be at the kerbside) for businesses (by 2025) and households (by 2026), with plastic film to be added by 2027;
- no requirement to make household garden waste collections free of charge; and
- permitting the continuation of mixed food waste and garden waste collections (albeit weekly).
However, there are still a number of challenges. The proposals have created inconsistencies between different policies and their desired outcomes, and there appears to be a risk that the simpler recycling steps will not deliver the required recycling performance, whether for packaging waste or for municipal waste in general. The key issues can be summarised into the following three areas: timing, tools and quality.
Interestingly, Defra has opted for an earlier introduction of Simpler Recycling for businesses than for households, which may pose a challenge for authorities that operate commercial waste services – especially those that co-collect these waste streams.
The potential impact is that such authorities may have to bring forward the whole implementation to 2025. The 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2035 may be a driver for going early on business waste given the potential scale; however, despite the requirements under Simpler Recycling and the Environment Act placing the obligation on businesses to separately present recycling for collection, without incentives for businesses to comply and waste collectors having the means to offer such collections, it is not apparent whether this will be enough to deliver the step change required.
The changes required will likely also necessitate the enactment of change in law provisions where local authorities have contracted out services for collection or treatment, a process which may involve a drawn-out negotiation particularly where the additional costs involved in making such changes are outside the scope of new burdens funding.
A further timing issue is the processing capacity gap, particularly for food waste, requiring infrastructure investment. While there is some capacity in England’s AD sector, and new facilities are in development, it will be remarkable if three years provides enough time to plan, build and commission the right amount of additional capacity in the right places.
There also appears to be some potential for a conflict between Simpler Recycling and the goals of EPR. Councils will need to achieve higher levels of packaging recycling to enable producers to meet the packaging targets; however, the proposed targets haven’t so far been revised downwards to account for the delay in publishing Simpler Recycling. The new requirements mean that local authorities aren’t required to implement collections of the full range of recyclables to households until 2026 (except film which is 2027) but the targets announced in the EPR response to consultation apply from 2024.
Defra has stated that no funding will be provided to local authorities to implement the collection of additional dry recyclable streams to be compliant with Simpler Recycling – so those currently relying on brink banks for glass, for example, will not receive any funding to implement kerbside collections. There will also be no funding for those required to revert from 3-weekly collections of residual waste collections back to fortnightly.
This creates an affordability challenge for many authorities who either do not collect the full suite of materials or who have implemented reduced frequency collections to meet budgetary pressures. Furthermore, many of those who have introduced 3-weekly collections have done so in part to encourage greater participation in recycling services. The removal of this key tool creates a potential tension between compliance with Simpler Recycling and achieving the recycling goals of EPR – a key part of showing a collection system is “effective”. Alternative ways of achieving the same goal (e.g. smaller bins or extensive communications) may be considerably more expensive – for both councils and producers.
Under EPR, councils will only be paid their efficient costs for operating an effective service. Where authorities fail to deliver “effective” services, an Improvement Plan will be developed with the scheme administrator, and ultimately deductions can be made from EPR payments; it will be interesting to see whether any authorities decide that the cost of implementing an “effective” or “efficient” service is greater than the value of EPR funding they might forego.
In what could be seen as a departure from EU legislation, the Government has announced that it will exempt English local authorities from the need to undertake a “TEEP assessment” to decide whether they can mix different streams of dry recycling. This decision is welcomed by local authorities (who retain freedom of choice about collection system) and MRF operators (who retain business). However, it may be less popular with reprocessors, who were hoping for greater source separation to improve quality; and thus with packaging producers.
Material collected from businesses and households needs to be of sufficient quality to go back into products. Whether this could potentially lead to packaging producers having a collection system preference is yet to be seen. Is it possible that producers will push for EPR to favour collection models that yield better quality? And if the local authorities cannot do this, might producers resort to implementing their own collection services?
Defra is currently commissioning a piece of independent research to understand the level of rejects from the final reprocessing stage of recycling, and it will be interesting to see whether this sheds any light on differences in rejects and other losses between source-separated materials and those collected via some form of co-mingling.
In summary, Simpler Recycling and EPR, whilst both designed to deliver greater recycling, seem to have inconsistencies which may mean achieving recycling targets could be challenging. The packaging targets come into force before “Simpler Recycling” and meeting these isn’t optional, although what happens in the event that they aren’t met is somewhat unclear.
Overall, Simpler Recycling has left a lot of unanswered questions and challenges for local authorities, waste collectors, producers, treatment facilities and reprocessors, and the outcome of the consultation of the draft statutory guidance for Simpler Recycling might be quite telling in terms of the overall impression from the market. What is becoming certain though is that this isn’t the full picture, nor the end of the debate on the future of waste services in England.