Emma Tilbrook, principal consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd, discusses what the future could look like for the waste and recycling industry after the pandemic.
OPINION: There are few elements of our lives that have not been touched by COVID-19 and we face a long road to returning to business as usual. Waste and recycling services are no exception; but for councils, returning to normal may not be enough.
In the short term, there is the challenge of meeting any funding gap arising from the service changes required by COVID-19; and in the longer term, major changes due to new government policies such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), will transform how services are funded.
Research undertaken by ADEPT confirms that the impact of COVID-19 on the provision of household waste services has varied across the UK. Most HWRCs have closed, although some are now starting to open. Household collections have been maintained to an extraordinary degree, with garden waste collections being the most subject to suspension.
However, keeping services running has come at a cost. The additional budgetary pressures the pandemic has placed on authorities are significant, especially when considering indirect costs such as loss of income from chargeable garden waste, loss of trade waste income or the additional operational costs involved in providing a safe working environment for crews.
There have been – at best – mixed messages on how far central government will step in to help with these additional costs; but in any case, many authorities will already have factored 2020/21 savings from waste and recycling services into wider authority budget planning. For many authorities, the current crisis, combined with the re-focussing of internal resources on the delivery of key services, means that many will lack the management capacity to make the changes necessary to deliver significant savings this financial year.
How can we re-focus already stretched resources on forward planning and what should be considered to meet these funding gaps?
For any authority that is still trying to restore services, developing a detailed operational and communications plan is a priority, even if this can’t be implemented immediately. However, this will only solve immediate service issues and not address budget constraints programmed in for 2020/21 and beyond. Understanding where savings can be made in the short term will rely on a balanced assessment of the impact of change, the difficulty of implementation (especially under current circumstances) and what resources are needed to make it happen.
Local authority officers do not need to undertake these assessments alone – help can be found from WRAP, LARAC and CIWM alongside bespoke support from private sector to help put the right resources in place to make change happen. Especially where changes have been delayed, efficient and effective decision making is extremely important, and drawing on a wider pool of resources can help to make that possible.
It is also important to recognise that decision making is political, and establishing governance arrangements that facilitate effective engagement with members at the right time, is a key part of being able to move quickly to ‘bank’ savings.
What could changes look like?
With the increasing budgetary constraints local authorities will inevitably face as a direct and indirect result of COVID-19, simply re-routing vehicles to achieve incremental efficiency savings will rarely be enough. Set against the backdrop of the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, many local authorities will also need to plan for the expansion of the service they provide (such as introducing food waste collections) whilst reducing service costs in the short term.
Returning to normal will not be sufficient, and local authorities need to be bold and think holistically
Despite the impact of COVID-19, the need to change remains. Returning to normal will not be sufficient, and local authorities need to be bold and think holistically about how the changes they need to make now can help them to prepare for the future. In recent times, a major focus has been on reducing collection frequency to reduce costs, and no doubt the control and reduction of residual waste is still central many business cases.
However, the future will look very different, with local authorities benefiting from new funding via EPR. Under this system, the organisations that place packaging on the market will meet the costs of managing the resulting waste. A recent study from Eunomia sets out the shape EU guidance on EPR is likely to take, and offers an indication of how far-reaching the impacts will be.
There is an enormous opportunity on its way to defray the costs of waste management, but this is likely to come with new expectations about recycling performance. It would be deeply unfortunate if steps taken now were to increase the challenges of delivering high-quality, high-performing, and environmentally beneficial services in the future, by locking in approaches that are going to appear outmoded in two or three years’ time. Returning to normal may be high on everyone’s wish list right now, but in many cases, the old normal will not be the best option.