Defra and government policy on waste and recycling was explained to delegates at this week’s LARAC conference in Nottingham by the department’s Chris Preston.
And, in the opening session, chaired by LARAC chair Carole Taylor, delegates also heard from Mary Creagh MP and Brendan Fatchett of 365 Response.
As deputy director for waste and recycling, Mr Preston is playing a key role in drawing up the strategy but as he told delegates he could not yet describe the content as it is due “to be published by the end of the year.”
However, he explained some of the rationale for the strategy and indicated what it might contain and also what it won’t (pay as you throw). And, he suggested that the UK strategy might go further than EU plans because of the freedom Brexit would bring.
He told the local authority recycling officers that for the UK it is “critically important we manage our resources effectively for by 2050 the global demand for resources is predicted to treble, virgin materials will become scarcer and price volatility will become larger.
“So it is timely to have a strategy this year which looks to move from the classic economies of the west where we take, make and dispose to one where we have resources in place for much longer and make better better use of the resources we extract from the earth, and how we can make best use of natural capital.”
The Defra official also effectively ruled out the notion that waste was necessarily unavoidable or bad in terms of economic growth with it currently contributing about £7.2 billion to the UK economy each year. “This is no small contribution to the UK’s health and wellbeing and same time if those resources are managed properly also protects the environment and creates new resources and reduces pressure on resources elsewhere,” he remarked.
The strategy, said Mr Preston, will be a “huge opportunity to drive up resource productivity with our impending departure from the EU, we can think again, forge a new path”.
And, repeating some of what minister Therese Coffey has recently said, he told listeners that up to now UK waste and recycling policy has been driven by EU waste targets, which have meant a focus on heavy materials. This could change in the waste strategy as the UK will look at the environmental impact that these materials have and may look for “better ways” to achieve the outcomes sought.
Mr Preston did not go into detail on this point but previously Dr Coffey has expressed consternation over how green waste contributes to recycling figures and can distort them.
He also took time to tell delegates how the UK policy will be one that is part of an agenda for the whole of government. This reflects the fact that the Treasury is very involved with the policy in the sense of a possible tax on incineration and energy from waste and on packaging (such as of different materials which is hard to recycle) although the Defra official did not detail this himself.
A massive area of debate concerning local authorities is how the current PRN – packaging waste – system could be reformulated to help meet more of the cost of packaging recycling. Mr Preston explained that the “current PRN system is ripe for reform and we will work closely with Treasury on what reformed PRNs will look like,” and there will be a DRS consultation.
The strategy, he said, is going to be structured around the entire life cycle, looking at how thing are produced, consumed and disposed of. The official noted that the “choices people make” will be reflected which is seen as implying that a tax or fiscal measure could be applied to packaging on some products which is difficult to recycle so a higher cost could steer people away from buying them.
Pay as You Throw
Asked about Pay as You Throw, Mr Preston said he would reflect minister Therese Coffey’s view that it is difficult as there are issues on implementation and risks around the likely further contamination of recycling. He said: “At the end of the day, what we really want to encourage is people to recycle more and we get good quality of recycling at the other end of that.”
He agreed there is evidence from some countries that it does work but from others that it doesn’t and “in the Resources and Waste Strategy you land down on those things that you think makes the most difference.”
The LARAC conference was told Mary Creagh MP, who is chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, that government needed to speed up its plans on waste and recycling. She also criticised the export of materials for recycling, saying: “it is no longer acceptable that we send our stuff to far away countries. There may only be 2-3% contamination but it is no longer acceptable.”
And, the MP revealed that she had written to the Chancellor saying not to put a tax on incineration. “It would drive up the cost to local authorities and would increase landfill volumes.”
The event also heard from private sector and health specialist Brendan Fatchett, chief executive of 365 Response. He told the audience that business needed more levers from government to help make change happen. And, he said that while he was not a fan of Brexit, it might give the opportunity to relax detailed procurement rules to help encourage an ovation, especially by SMEs.