Seizing the opportunity of the Resources and Waste Strategy
03 July 2019
Jacob Hayler takes a look at proposals for the government's Resources and Waste Strategy, now that the consultation period has closed, and asks whether they can really help the UK to maximise its resources
Over the past 20 years, the UK has undergone a culture shift from disposal to recycling and recovery, from waste to resource. We are now reaching 45% recycling levels as well as high landfill diversion. However, the next step towards a circular economy will require more sophisticated solutions targeted at the right points in the value chain to drive the right behaviours. And of course these must all work together.
The consultation period for Defra and the Treasury’s four Resources and Waste Strategy consultations has now come to an end, and ESA was looking closely at how the proposals fit together as a package. They certainly have the potential to bring about the step change that’s needed. However, there is a danger that they will pull against each other and we will have missed the opportunity to make the most of our resources.
Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging
Reform to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is at the heart of the proposals. This will see producers taking greater responsibility for their packaging and products at the end of life. This is essential for the transition to a more circular economy. The other consultations should therefore be viewed in light of EPR reform to ensure the approaches do not conflict.
Defra has presented four options for EPR, and the final version may be a hybrid of different aspects. Whatever it looks like, there are some key principles it must adhere to: the right behaviours from producers must be incentivised, including better design; both household and commercial collections should be included and treated equally to avoid market distortion; and fair competition through competing compliance schemes will be essential for driving cost efficiency.
Consistency of collections
In order to ensure householders in England are presented with consistent waste and recycling services, Defra has proposed a core set of materials that should be collected by all local authorities including separate food waste collections. Many consumers experience confusion when sorting their waste and so this should go some way to providing greater simplification and clarity.
The core materials agreed must only include those with robust end markets, otherwise we are collecting material that cannot be recycled. There must also be flexibility for local authorities in how the materials are collected according to local circumstances. For example, local treatment infrastructure may mean that it is better to co-collect food and garden waste rather than collect food waste separately.
Deposit Return Scheme
The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for beverage containers should capture those items that are currently leaking out of the system. It should therefore target commonly littered items, namely on-the-go plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
Given that other materials are effectively recycled through kerbside collections, this ‘on-the-go’ model, as opposed to the ‘all-in’ model which would incorporate a number of other items, will avoid significant cost and complexity and still ensure valuable materials are captured and recycled. A DRS could also be used to capture disposable coffee cups which we know are still commonly littered.
Plastic packaging tax
A tax on virgin plastic packaging is absolutely necessary to create demand for recycled plastics. This will not happen through EPR alone. A plastics tax will directly influence producers and brands at the design stage and is the only way to ensure robust end markets. Otherwise, we are collecting more and more material without anywhere for it to go.
Seizing the opportunity
The four consultations must work together, with EPR at the centre. If we miss this opportunity, poor design and consumer confusion will proliferate, and recycling rates will continue to plateau or even decline. However, if we make it work, these reforms will help us reach 65% recycling and beyond whilst delivering jobs and growth for UK plc. The first round of consultation responses are now in, and ESA and other stakeholders will continue to work with Defra and the Treasury to ensure we make the most of this opportunity.
Jacob Hayler is the executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), the trade association for the UK Resources and Waste Management Industry.