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Peter Maddox: Councils must seize waste strategy's opportunity

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In a recent YouGov poll, climate change was seen as a more critical issue for the UK than immigration. 

When asked to identify the most important issues facing the country, one in four chose the environment – the same proportion that picked the economy. And when asked what they do personally to protect the environment, the most frequent response was “recycling”. Despite that, the household recycling rate in England has stubbornly flatlined for the past five years.

Our research shows that one of the key reasons householders don’t recycle as much as they could, as often as they could, is uncertainty over what can and can’t be recycled in their local area. And since this varies across the country, it is not currently possible to have a simple and clear labelling system on packaging to indicate what can be recycled and what cannot. Enter the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England, published by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs last December.

The Defra approach requires action at the local level and at a national level. It requires local and national government, as well as businesses and citizens, each to play a critical part in changing how we create, use and dispose of our resources. It does not just tinker with the current system – it seeks to transform it. Fundamentally, it relies on localism and national policy working together to solve our recycling challenge.

For example, at the national level, the proposals to reform the producer responsibility regime for packaging and to implement a ‘plastics tax’ have the potential to radically transform the way we make, use and dispose of plastic packaging in the future. They are a powerful incentive for businesses to design better, more environmentally friendly, packaging in the future.

Done right, this will drive non-recyclable plastic packaging from the marketplace. And with stronger education campaigns and more uniform recycling labelling on packaging, householders, wherever they live, will clearly know where to put their recycling. My view is that national and local education campaigns should align around a set of core national messages to citizens, with local authorities providing the local context and flavour. It’s a powerful combination, and just how Recycle Now operates.

What about policy at the local level? The Resources and Waste Strategy leaves open a number of ways councils can operate it. When it comes to consistent household recycling collections, it proposes a core set of materials which should be collected by all councils, but does not dictate precisely how this should be done, offering three broad approaches. Councils are best placed to consider which of these will be the most efficient and effective way to collect their residents’ recycling, with an eye on cost and quality.

As part of the strategy, councils will be expected to establish separate weekly food waste collections. Around half of councils in England already offer a food waste collection and in 2017 this led to about 400,000 tonnes of food waste being collected. However, as LGC has recently pointed out, extending food waste collections to all houses (excluding flats) would increase the amount of food waste collected to 1.4m tonnes. That’s another one million tonnes of food waste not going to landfill or incineration and not contributing to climate change.

Defra have made it clear local authorities will be resourced to meet new costs arising from these policies including upfront transition costs and continuing operational costs. Future consultations will develop this in more detail.

Crucially, the strategy is a package and Defra is currently undertaking an impact assessment on how the four sets of proposals recently consulted on will coalesce. Local authorities are a key component in the nation’s future recycling machine. Their role and requirements cannot be ignored.

Citizens want to do the right thing for the environment and recycling is one of the easiest and most effective things we as individuals can do. Local authorities are already leading the way in helping their residents to play their part. They must seize this unique opportunity to implement local systems to knit seamlessly with the national agenda. Together they can genuinely transform the way we manage our resources in the future.

Peter Maddox, director, WRAP UK.

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