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The unexploded financial mines in Gove's waste strategy

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A commentary on Defra’s plans to make recycling collections more consistent.

The idea that garden waste and discarded food might blow holes in council budgets will be a new one for most.

While not up there with social care as a financial threat, the government’s Our Waste, Our Resources: a strategy for England paper, analysed by LGC today, carries several unexploded financial mines among the measures intended to increase recycling rates and reduce waste.

The Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ own analysis forecasts a net loss to councils of more than £0.5bn from the introduction of free garden waste collection and estimates mandatory weekly food waste collections could cost more than £250m to implement.

Despite assurances they will be reimbursed for these costs, LGC’s analysis finds experience with previous new burdens has left many in local government nervous.

North Yorkshire CC has warned the suggested additional funding to cover proposed changes do not appear to cover “consequential costs” such as those associated with not meeting guaranteed minimum tonnages within existing waste contracts.

The idea behind all of the government’s proposals is ‘a more circular economy’ in which resources are kept in use as long as possible, being recycled or re-used to reduce demand for virgin materials.

The problem for councils lies in how these materials are collected for recycling and re-use, and at whose expense.

To take one example, the government intends to launch a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles and cans.

How this will be done is up for discussion - one possibility is a network of ‘reverse’ vending machines from which consumers get money on returning a container – but however it happens it removes these relatively valuable items from councils’ recycling collections.

For a council with a long-term contract with a waste firm that is bad news as it means a lower volume of material can be collected and plant and vehicles being under-used. Councils’ income from recyclable materials would also be reduced.

Another example is free garden waste collections. Figures from Wrap show that just over two-fifths of councils (42%) already operate these, having decided this is cost-effective because of the amount of material gathered (and perhaps the amount of potential fly-tipping avoided).

Most though do not and the prospect of having to provide a new free service with different bins and vehicles will be unwelcome – Somerset Waste Partnership alone has estimated the cost at £6m a year.

There is also the issue of this cutting across devolution – if the government is prepared to tell councils to collect dead plants and grass what else might it mandate?

Well, fortnightly residual waste collections, for one. This is waste that cannot be recycled or re-used – although of course households often erroneously add recyclables.

The government’s stance may bring back memories of former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles’ preoccupation with the frequency of refuse collections.

Whatever the motive, the strategy says alternate week collections of residual waste and a weekly separate food waste collection “could be a minimum expectation for householders”.

The consultations do show some awareness of the need to fund new burdens and to allow time for contracts to run out before these can change.

However, experience suggests that Whitehall is rarely willing to pay for new responsibilities if it can see a way of making councils do so.

Mark Smulian, contributor




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Readers' comments (1)

  • Mo Baines

    An excellent piece by Mark Smulian. The real issue is a genuine cost analysis will be critical to local authorities, and WDA, which would include changes in contracts due to tonnages and loss of income to those already charging for garden waste. The deposit return scheme in Scotland is of course raising similar questions on the costs of change. Climate emergency rightly demands action but the unanswered question is who will pay?

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