Resource minister Thérèse Coffey has signalled that flexibility is needed in how waste and recycling is collected and suggested that the bins side of WRAP’s consistency programme is not applicable to all councils.
And, she has revealed that support measures to help all local authorities deliver weekly food waste collections could well feature in next year’s waste and resources strategy being drawn up by Defra.
Dr Coffey was speaking at the annual LARAC, local authority recycling officers conference in Nottingham yesterday (October 11).
On consistency, Dr Coffey confirmed, as reported last year, that she had refused to sign the introduction to WRAP’s consistency programme booklet after being appointed as minister with responsibility for recycling in August last year. This was just weeks ahead of WRAP’s launch of its document in September 2016.
She said: “I wasn’t prepared to decree that every household should have six or seven bins inside and outside their homes as I just didn’t think it was feasible. Councils should know their communities and what they can strive for. I really want to ensure sure that we should strive for not just the bare minimum but I don’t see Whitehall imposing six or seven bins on households making your job any easier or increase the rate of recycling.”
Dr Coffey criticised the progress of the consistency framework so far. She said: “The framework offers a way to improve the quality and consistency of materials collected and how they are collected but so far I have to admit out of the councils WRAP has worked with since publishing that framework, not one of them has made a significant difference, which is one of the ongoing challenges.”
And she referred to Suffolk where she lives saying, “Instinctively, I’m sure it would help if we only had the one system but the evidence doesn’t always support that.”
With reference to the performance of local authorities and whether consistency should be applied, the minister stressed that: “We shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Delegates also heard how Defra and the minister are keen to explore what needs to be done to make it easier for people to recycle more along with achieving higher quality in the face of plateauing recycling levels. Recognising that Wales has moved ahead and Scotland is pressing on with recycling, she commented that the two countries together don’t have the population of London.
Dr Coffey also referred to the “more challenging targets still being negotiated in the EU. The [European] Parliament itself is still keen to get up to 70% but not a single authority is at this level in the UK, and this shows how ambitious they are.
“We want to be ambitious but the targets have to be achievable too.”
The minister revealed that earlier in the summer she had written to 34 authorities that had recycling rates 30% or lower in 2015/16. “This was not to beat people up but to understand the challenges these local authorities face, contracts in particular. Many welcomed the opportunity to respond, but 12 are still to respond.
“Many acknowledged their recycling rates are too low and showed a real desire to improve. And, I recognise that many urban authorities face challenges, including high density and communication problems. Plus there are difficulties with changing contracts to maximise recycling. I want to challenge the view that recycling in urban areas is too difficult and that local authorities and their contractors cannot do more to improve the recycling rate.
“We know that the cities around the world have made it work. Over 80% of the population in England live in urban areas.”
On food waste Dr Coffey declared that to achieve both future carbon targets and recycling rates “we want to get much more of the 4.6 million tonnes of food waste collected by councils each year diverted and recycled. We are actively working within government to help that in the future but expecting more in our strategy next year.”
And, in the question and answer session she hinted that measures to help local authorities with weekly food waste collections are probably within the next waste and resources strategy.
At this point she quipped a reference to former DCLG Secretary of State “Uncle Eric Pickles” who was famous for saying that it was an Englishman’s right to have his food waste collected each week and allocated funds to weekly collections. (Sir Eric was a controversial figure among LARAC members.)
Responding to a question about whether councils could give penalty notices to people who didn’t recycle properly (something Sir Eric was less than enthusiastic about), Dr Coffey said: “I know councillors get very sensitive about this and I understand why. Uncle Eric Pickles, the only thing he ever really wanted was that somebody could get rid of their food every week and that’s what he really wanted. I am working on something but we are wanting to work to try and help every council to collect food waste.”
The minister also confirmed that Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan is still underway and is likely to be more ‘radical’ in content under Secretary of State Michael Gove.