I was fortunate enough to be part of the judging panel for the environment category of the LGC Awards recently and it is always pleasing to see innovative and forward thinking projects from councils.
I was particularly pleased as a waste professional to see some waste and recycling related entries, especially considering the current stalling recycling rates. It showed councils are still working hard in this area of sustainability and are doing what they can to increase recycling rates.
The flipside of that is the reality of how hard it has become to maintain momentum in the face of continued funding cuts. We hear of councils changing or reducing waste services on a weekly basis and yet austerity has almost been forgotten, perhaps because it has become the norm. It is just part of an ongoing process of transforming the way we provide services.
Against this stalling of rates, a 70% recycling rate target has been included in the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package. It is likely the package will be agreed before we have left the EU and so initially at least it will probably be accepted in the UK. Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom has also recently said the UK wants to be one of the most resource efficient countries in the world, which will require a high household recycling rate, even if that isn’t the only measure of success.
How do we marry the two together, high ambition and low funding? On a basic level you don’t as there is only so far innovation can get you. With residents not pushing their local councillors to aim as high as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is, funds will continue to be channelled to other services such as education, social care and adult services, with waste and recycling expected to shoulder the burden.
To hit the high levels of 70% recycling requires not only a change in policies at a national level but a complete rethink about how we fund household collection services. This means facing some very thorny issues, primarily direct charging and producer responsibility. These two areas can channel much-needed funds through to local collection services.
The mere mention of these ideas will send parts of the media into a frenzy and most people will focus on why they cannot work. However, if we don’t have a measured debate about them soon, household waste and recycling services are likely to suffer further and recycling rates in the UK could potentially fall off and decline and that will certainly not help us become a world leader in resource efficiency.
Lee Marshall, chief executive, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee