Resources minister Rory Stewart has opened the door for help in drawing up policies around waste and recycling, saying he would ‘absolutely’ welcome contributions from industry.
Speaking exclusively to letsrecycle.com, Mr Stewart suggested he wanted to work closely with the sector on forming waste and recycling policy, as well as learning from work being done in other countries around Europe.
The minister said he is “deeply interested in policy” and “determined we [Defra] are going to come up with good waste strategies”.
And, in keeping with his reticence over top-down, mandatory government policies, Mr Stewart said he is keen for more input from the waste industry “which cares about these issues, understands them, knows about the practicalities – they are really well-placed to say ‘this is what we think we need and this is how it should be delivered’”.
He added: “Our job as a government is to look at it sympathetically and seriously – but also objectively because there may be things we disagree with – but definitely we really want to welcome that [industry input].”
The wide-ranging interview also saw Defra’s resources minister discuss his plans for local authority collection harmonisation as well as offering views on recycling targets, austerity, food waste and the difficulties associated with introducing a ‘pay-as-you-throw’ type waste system in the UK.
During the eight months since his appointment to Defra, Mr Stewart has set in motion work to develop greater consistency in waste and recycling collection systems across England, with latest reports suggesting that three recommended systems likely to be favoured.
According to the MP for Penrith and The Border, this initiative could provide “huge economies of scale”, with a unified system within London alone potentially saving borough councils £12-15 million a year while also boosting recycling.
With greater consistency across England, he said: “You should be able to get contracts from recycling companies at a much cheaper rate because there are standardised systems, standardised trucks and standardised processes. If the bins were the same colour, the public would know where to put them as they move between local authority areas.”
Of the models being looked at, Mr Stewart said he could see “huge benefit, personally, in separating food waste and I am looking very carefully at the Welsh and Scottish examples here”, although he stopped short of support for mandatory food waste collection saying “we have to bring people with us and avoid false starts”.
Amid funding cuts from central government, a number of local authorities are choosing to cut, modify or charge for recycling services in order to save money.
However, Mr Stewart said he believes “there is best practice out there which will show them they don’t have to do that” and that he is “confident that there are councils out there and models out there which are good for the environment and which are more affordable”.
On the subject of ‘pay-as-you-throw’ schemes, which would see residents charged for the disposal of waste based on the volume they produced, a proposal that has reappeared in the headlines in recent weeks, Mr Stewart raised doubts over whether such a system could operate in Britain.
He said: “Whatever we do we have to bring people with us. For anything to be sustainable and for any environmental policy to work, you have to explain it relentlessly in a way that the public can understand and relate to. Otherwise, I could cobble something together and there would be a huge protest, people would throw their hands up and the policy would be thrown out the window. But at the same time, we have to achieve cultural change, we can’t be pessimistic about people starting to change their attitudes and change the way they operate.”
Mr Stewart has said he supports the voluntary Courtauld commitment in driving down food waste, but believes mandatory “tokenistic” targets – such as those being introduced in France and advocated in the Labour-backed Food Waste (Reduction) Bill – can bring “perverse incentives”.
He said: “The main reason why voluntary processes are the right way for dealing with food waste is because of the hierarchy of waste. The problem with the French system, which is what this law [the Labour-backed Bill] seems to be trying to propose, is that it is rewarding people for redistributing their food waste and that is potentially a perverse incentive – what you are doing is creating an income stream for someone who is generating unnecessary waste. What you actually want to do is make the companies bear the cost of that waste.”
However, Mr Stewart would not outline his stance on the 65% recycling target set out in the EU’s circular economy package before Christmas.
He said: “One of the things that makes Britain a useful member of the European Union is that we are serious about doing cost benefits analysis soundly and vigorously and not signing up to things we can’t deliver. But definitely, we care about recycling so we will look at that very seriously. I’d expect to go into Europe with a clear position of what kind of level we’d like to aim for.”
And, while he did not want to be drawn into the Brexit debate, the minister said that “clearly we have companies that are benefitting from single standards across Europe” as “these guys are able to trade with European countries easily partly because of the structures that are in place in the EU”.