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'Councils have shown government to discuss waste honestly'

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This year, the government should publish its resources and waste strategy. Waste collection and management accounts for billions of pounds, so the strategy will have wide implications.

Courtesy of David Attenborough’s coverage of the impact of plastic waste in oceans, waste is enjoying a bigger public profile. The strategy must synthesise an apparent government desire to be seen doing something environmentally friendly and the wishes of the UK waste management industry for a coherent, strategic policy.

The recent examples of Swindon and Basingstoke & Deane BCs considering whether to stop collecting some plastic recyclables shows the quandary. Insufficient manufacturing capacity in the UK means it has been common to export material for recycling.

But exporting recyclables gets a bad press – and isn’t always viable. The post-Brexit potential for tariffs and the Chinese ban on imports of recycling are two reasons why.

While pausing plastic recycling is questionable on environmental grounds, the decisions are praiseworthy for their honesty with residents.

Staying silent would have attracted less criticism but would risk the credibility of recycling as an important council service and an act of collective citizenship. The two councils are acting strategically and in the service of longer-term outcomes. We need to see the same honesty and future focus in the government’s strategy.

Two mooted inclusions are an incineration tax and a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles. The former would be costly for local government and deter investment. The latter would focus on collection rather than how we sustainably use secondary materials and could further undermine council finances.

In parallel, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is consulting on banning some single-use plastics. At first sight it appears to address public concerns, but the consultation duplicates a policy subset already agreed at EU level which could easily be retained by the UK after it is ratified.

In contrast the 2018 Budget offers a glimpse of genuinely purposeful, strategic government thinking on waste. It incorporates plans for taxing plastics packaging with less than 30% recycled content. That is a more strategic fiscal measure which would begin to incentivise UK self-sufficiency.

Hopefully the forthcoming strategy will establish further bold, long-term policy frameworks so the waste industry can drive the UK forward. If it doesn’t, we might expect to follow Swindon and Basingstoke & Deane’s path.

Oliver Burt, strategic waste manager and project director, re3

re3 is a waste management partnership between Bracknell Forest Council and Reading and Wokingham BCs

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