Local authorities must think ahead on Resources and Waste Strategy changes, writes Kate Thompson, principal consultant at environmental consultancy, Eunomia.
OPINION: Much like its development, the Resources and Waste Strategy’s implementation has been wracked by delay, with the result being an extended waiting period for local authorities set to be affected by the measures outlined in the strategy.
Though authorities can reasonably assume that the requirements regarding service design will be broadly in line with what was proposed in the 2019 consultations, there is a lack of clarity over the final design of measures such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), a deposit return scheme (DRS), and collections consistency and when local authorities will be expected to introduce them.
Given this wait, authorities may think this is something they can worry about another day, but decisions that are taken today may affect your readiness to respond in future, when action may be required quickly.
For those authorities with waste and recycling contracts up for renewal in the coming months, this poses a dilemma, the thought of making changes midway through a contract can elicit feelings of trepidation over the cost of contract alterations. Authorities that carry out provide their services in-house have a degree of latitude when it comes to service changes, but they cannot rest on their laurels – this is an issue for all local authorities to grapple with.
If we can give one piece of advice for authorities ahead of the changes brought in by the Resources and Waste Strategy, it would be to prepare for the inevitable and futureproof your services as far as possible. For outsourcing authorities, contracts negotiated now must be flexible to accommodate changes that are expected in the coming years.
Under Regulation 72 of the Public Contracts Regulations, provided that a schedule of anticipated change is set out in a proposed contract, such changes wouldn’t incur additional costs as they wouldn’t be considered a material change. Authorities should ask contract bidders to outline how they will manage and implement these changes during the term of the contract, including the costs of doing so, to allow the authority to plan accordingly.
Meanwhile in-house authorities need to plan ahead to ensure that purchasing decisions of infrastructure such as collection vehicles take into account potential needs to collect new material streams in the future, which may influence the type of vehicle purchased or when the vehicle is purchased. Anticipating change prevents councils from purchasing equipment that quickly becomes redundant and an expensive albatross around their neck as legislative changes to collections are brought in.
The introduction of food waste collections provides a good example of where future proofing services will be vital for local authorities. As part of plans to harmonize local authority waste collections, all councils in England are expected to provide a separate food waste collection from 2023-24.
Currently, around 51% of English councils run a food waste collection, either separately or collected with garden waste (combined food and garden waste collections are only likely to be allowed where separate food waste collections are not practicable).
Implementing such collections is not cheap, which is why many councils have held back from doing so. Defra has committed to covering upfront transition and ongoing operational costs for councils that implement new separate food waste collections as a result of new legislation.
Outsourced authorities may be wondering whether to ask contractors to bring in food waste collections immediately and potentially miss out on that funding, or hold off for a few years and risk incurring additional costs with their contractor. Councils should be asking bidders to supply an option for implementing food waste collections and other changes at a later date and the cost of that when setting the terms of their contract, to avoid uncomfortable and expensive conversations further down the line.
Meanwhile in-house authorities in the process of new vehicles should consider whether to make a short-term arrangement before bringing in vehicles more appropriate for food waste collection, or whether to purchase vehicles that can easily be adapted at a later date to carry food waste, carefully weighing up the costs of either option.
The vehicle question is not restricted to food waste – a DRS will also give plenty to ponder. If successful, local authorities can expect to see yields of items such as PET plastic bottles and aluminium cans decline steeply. Authorities will need to factor this into calculations over vehicle requirements and cost considerations – authorities operating a kerbside sort system will be particularly affected by this, and will look upon half-empty compartments for plastic, cans and glass with some anxiety, given the potential loss in material revenues gained from the sale of these recyclables. They should bear in mind, however, that costs for collecting packaging that remains in the kerbside collection system will be covered by packaging producers thanks to EPR, so the loss of material value should not be costly.
For those authorities that don’t currently collect glass, there is a further complication. They will need to factor in how to meet the requirement to collect the non-beverage portion of this material that remains after the DRS is introduced, as it will be part of the core set of materials authorities will be expected to collect. This could have an impact on vehicles, particularly if it is collected separately; and sorting arrangements, if it is collected as part of a co-mingled stream.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of local authorities are looking to switch to electric refuse collection vehicles (eRCVs) to reduce the carbon impact of their waste and recycling systems. In the context of EPR, given producers will expect to the see the most efficient and environmental bang for their buck, will EPR schemes expect local authorities to adopt eRCVs? And how would their widespread adoption impact on the ability to collect materials not currently widely collected, such as batteries, textiles and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) often collected under the chassis where rechargeable packs fitted on eRCVs would take up space?
Change is coming
Change is coming and preparation will be key. Authorities know more or less what they will be expected to do over the next few years once the Environment Bill is finally passed, and those changes should be planned for ahead of time. Whether it’s to avoid a costly surprise sitting down to discuss service changes with their contractor in a couple of years’ time, or a vehicle purchase quickly becoming redundant because it can’t collect food waste, thinking ahead will help local authorities stay ahead in a time of significant change for waste and recycling in the coming years.