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Defra could sacrifice localism in its drive for consistent collections

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Does paper go in the pink bin or glass in the green one, can this yogurt pot be recycled, and what do those arrows mean?

in numbers

in numbers

Public confusion is hardly surprising when different councils accept different materials for recycling, the bin colours vary according to local whim and the packaging industry has adopted a range of inconsistent and often incomprehensible symbols to show what can be recycled.

A big part of the government’s Our Waste, Our Resources: A strategy for England, published late last year, is devoted to making sense of this on the basis that any efforts to increase recycling will be hindered if the system is too confusing for the public to easily use.

Alongside the strategy, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs published four consultations, three of which – on the deposit return scheme, consistent collections and producer responsibility – have direct implications for councils. The fourth proposes the introduction of a plastic packaging tax from April 2022 which will target the production and import of plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content.

Though each consultation is separate they interlink and the extent they have been thought through together is open to question.

The focus should be on outcomes, leaving local councils free to decide when to collect materials on the basis of what works for them

North Yorkshire Report

Between them they propose to legislate for a minimum or core set of ‘dry’ recyclable materials that must be collected from kerbside households and flats, mandate separate weekly food waste collections from 2023 and make councils collect garden waste for free.

Meanwhile, the proposal to tie a council’s receipt of extra cash from extended producer responsibility for packaging to a minimum set of standards, including fortnightly residual waste collection, would further reduce local flexibility to operate.

Councils would still be allowed to choose their own bin types and colours. But as waste contracts tend to last five years or more to give contractors time to invest in vehicles and equipment and make a return, they cannot suddenly be changed without a cost. This core set of materials proposed by Defra are glass bottles and containers; paper and card; plastic bottles; detergent, shampoo and cleaning products containers; plastic pots, tubs and trays; and steel and aluminium cans. Data from Wrap, the Waste & Resources Action Programme charity, suggests most councils collect most of these already, while Defra says those tied into long-term contracts to collect a different pattern of materials “would transition to consistency at the point of next contract renewal or whenever is the cheapest to do so”.

The collection of food waste is likely to prove much more problematic – and costly.

Currently around half of councils (49%) do not offer any form of food waste collection and only 386,000 tonnes of food waste were collected in 2017. By comparison 3.2 million tonnes was sent to landfill.

Defra says even just providing food waste collections to kerbside properties, as opposed to flats, would “increase the amount of food waste collected by 1.35 million tonnes by 2029 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.25 million tonnes a year”.

In an analysis of the impact of Defra’s proposed changes, the Somerset Waste Partnership did not even try to quantify the cost of mandatory separate weekly food waste collections since the cost would be of delivering this in blocks of flats was unclear.

Despite apparently acknowledging this difficulty, Defra is proposing that all households should be offered a separate weekly food waste collection from 2023. It estimates its proposals would cost between £180m and £260m over a seven-year transition period.

North Yorkshire CC has said mandatory food waste collections would also significantly alter the “compositional makeup and amount of waste” and “damage the impact of the county council’s waste prevention campaigns based on successfully reducing food waste and increasing home composting”.

The government also wants consistency in food waste collections to end the practice of mixing food and garden waste – as some councils do – which Defra thinks may lead to unpleasant odours that deter public participation.

Also, food waste mixed with garden waste cannot be sent for anaerobic digestion – which produces a biofuel – and is useful only for composting.

Defra has committed to ensuring that “local authorities are resourced to meet new costs arising from this policy including upfront transition costs and ongoing operational costs”.

Nevertheless scepticism remains. What is not clear is whether there will be extra money for all councils or just the ones that don’t yet offer free garden waste collections.

On garden waste collections, Defra said 58% of councils currently charge for this and introducing a free garden waste collection service would cost £229m over seven years, on top of which local authorities would lose income of roughly £1.4bn over 2023-35.

It has calculated a net loss to councils from free garden waste collection of £550m between 2023 and 2035 as they would make savings on residual waste but face increased operating costs and lost income.

On the face of it fortnightly collection of residual waste may no longer be the controversial issue it once was with 77% of councils operating such a system for at least some of their households according to figures from Wrap. However, 43% still offer weekly collections to some residents while others are moving to three-weekly collections and say this has led to an increase in recycling. One Welsh authority, Conwy CBC, has even gone to four-weekly collections.

The Somerset Waste Partnership said it had “serious concerns” about a statutory minimum fortnightly collections frequency, pointing out that “all the evidence demonstrates that moving to three-weekly refuse will support … collecting even more high-quality recyclates and reducing avoidable waste”.

It was also concerned that even if the new extended producer responsibility funds found their way to councils without onerous conditions, these might still not cover costs since Defra proposes that councils would be placed in bands and compensated according to a formula, not their actual cost.

The North Yorkshire report argued: “The focus should be on outcomes, leaving local councils free to decide when to collect materials on the basis of what works for them… These decisions should be made  locally taking into account the local area, housing type and demographics.

“It is proposed that we agree with the principle of a standard set of materials, but how this is collected and the frequency of collection should be down to individual councils.”

As the public reaction to Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet programme showed, concern over pollutants in the environment is moving up the political agenda. Action is clearly needed to boost both the quality and quantity of recycling collected, particularly with China and other countries closing their doors to the import of low grade materials.

Support from the government is welcome – as long as it does not tip over into unnecessary interference.

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Reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility system

Producer responsibility for packaging has existed since 1997 and is already used for waste electrical and electronic equipment and for life-expired vehicles.

It essentially means producers must meet the cost of disposal of their products at the end of their useful life – in this case packaging of all kinds.

Defra wants less unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle packaging made in the first place and more designed to be recyclable and made from recycled materials.

Defra has said management of packaging waste costs local authorities around £820m a year and its proposals meant “funding to meet these costs will transfer from central government and local taxpayers to businesses”.

Since local authorities collect this packaging from households they would receive money through the organisations with which producers sign up to meet this responsibility. However, they will have to meet “any minimum collection standards required” in each UK nation in order to receive the funding.


Deposit return scheme could hit value of recycling

This would see a deposit – probably of 5-20p – added to the price of drinks in glass, plastic and metal containers repaid when consumers return empty containers to designated points.

Proponents claim this will reduce litter and increase recycling.

Containers could be returned either in reverse vending machines, which pay money when a container is inserted, or manually at shops.

Defra admitted a deposit return scheme “may move higher-value recyclable materials away from local authority collections” which it said would reduce income from the sale of these materials but also the costs of managing them. The department said it would ensure the “net costs” were covered, “including upfront transition costs and ongoing operational costs”.

Options being considered are an ‘all-in’ model, under which bottles and cans of any size could be returned, and an ‘on-the-go’ model, restricted to containers of less than 750 ml. This would target beverages.




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