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Gove's waste strategy has huge implications

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A guest commentary on the government waste strategy from Peter Maddox, director of WRAP UK

The government’s newly announced Resources and Waste Strategy for England sets out proposed policies that are likely to have a profound impact on how local authorities collect waste and recyclable materials from their citizens. It also comes with a promise of substantial funding to make possible the required changes.

The headlines are striking: businesses and manufacturers will pay the full net cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste; shoppers will be charged deposits when buying drinks in single-use containers; consistent collection schemes will be expected and every home will have weekly food waste collections – all subject to consultation.

There is a particular focus on packaging. Local authorities have long called for businesses and manufacturers to pay more of the costs of recycling or disposing of their packaging. The government has recognised this financial pressure and has committed to ensure that councils are sufficiently resourced to meet both the upfront net costs of transition and the ongoing operational costs.

Environment secretary Michael Gove told a select committee just before Christmas that “a significant sum” would be available to local authorities in order to achieve greater consistency, adding “it will be hundreds of millions of pounds whenever they need it”. So in town halls up and down the country, officers and their political leaders will soon be considering the financial implications, particularly if their collection regimes are to be altered.

The strategy comes as recycling rates have generally flat-lined: half of England’s collection authorities recycled a lower proportion of household waste in 2016-17 than they did in 2011-12. But all is not lost. We know that consistent, comprehensive waste collection services can turn things around. Take Stroud DC, for example, now badged “most improved recycler”. Recycling rates have shot up since the authority changed the way it collected waste, while the tonnage of material sent to landfill has halved.

The government also plans to define a minimum set of recyclable materials to be collected everywhere, subject to consultation. This will be supported by the funds raised from industry through extended producer responsibility (EPR), by which businesses pay higher fees if their products are harder to reuse, repair or recycle. Businesses may also have to contribute towards telling householders how these changes will affect them. EPR for packaging alone is expected to generate between £500m and £1bn a year, hence Mr Gove’s funding pledge.

Because councils are typically locked into lengthy recycling and waste contracts, upfront funding may be required to help them switch within the required time frame. Similarly, with mandatory separate weekly food waste collections: only around half of councils currently collect food waste, so a more comprehensive effort poses its own financing challenges.

Last year’s Circular Economy package of amendments to various EU waste directives, which the government has committed itself to retaining, introduces targets for ‘municipal’ waste – that is, household waste coupled with business waste that is like household waste. Recycling will therefore be significantly more extensive than at present, raising both equipment and infrastructure issues. Partnerships between authorities and commercial waste managers will undoubtedly evolve into new regimes.

Another change for reporting local authorities’ progress will be local and specific performance indicators on the quantity of materials produced. At present, the only target of any real import is the UK national rate for household recycling. Smarter performance indicators will recognise that circumstances vary between councils: urban or suburban, size, type of housing stock and so on. Much of this is what local authorities have been asking for. We await a lot more detail in the extensive consultations that follow but, as a package, the strategy offers significant challenges and real opportunities for local authorities.

Peter Maddox, director, WRAP UK

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