Waste Policy Review

Last year, the Government embarked upon a full review of its waste policies in England in order to progress Coalition Agreement commitments to:

  • “work towards a zero waste economy and encourage councils to pay people to recycle and work to reduce littering”
  • introduce “measures to promote a huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion”.

The Review report has now been published and its measured approach brings relief and continues the challenge for local government.

The relief is in the absence of any radical imperatives to restructure, reallocate or devolve traditional responsibilities. Councils are confirmed in having the lead waste management role at local level, and the crucial importance of waste services to communities and businesses – “for many people, it is their primary interaction with the local council”.

There is a helpfully ‘hands off’ approach in terms of the design, development and delivery of local waste services. These are explicitly allocated to council discretion, to be decided according to local circumstances. (This assumes that nothing more restrictive will emerge via the revised Recycling and Waste Services Commitment.) Nor will the UK’s recycling obligations apply as an ‘across the board’ benchmark to individual councils.  Bureaucratic burdens will be reduced. Information and advice on good practice, service innovation and new technologies will be available. Every little helps as councils narrow their sights on the 2013 recycling deadline and the prospect of paying £ millions in EU fines if it is missed.

The challenges are considerable, not least in terms of:

  • innovation – and affordability: new schemes and services are required to increase the recovery of domestic and business recyclable and biodegradable waste. Services and facilities require modification and extension to deliver more effectively to businesses. Substantial new infrastructural developments will be required to provide an alternative to channel biodegradable waste to landfill. These all come at a price, in the bleakest of financial times.
  • engagement – and enforcement: the emphasis is on making it easy for individuals, households and businesses to ‘do the right thing’. Consultation,communication and liaison will be central to the way in which local environmental services teams design, plan, commission and deliver. They are key processes to ensuring public support, participation and, therefore, compliance. The Review curtails councils’ enforcement powers and seeks to end ‘penalties and surveillance’ in favour of ‘recognition and rewards’. in itself, this may temper any residual ambitions to see recycling targets raised  (in the forthcoming consultations). It remains to be seen whether an ever expanding choice of carrots, in the absence of sticks, is sufficiently palatable to everyone’s taste – and indeed affordable to all council budgets!

Ultimately, the Review is strong on pragmatism but short on vision. It touches on the key components of a zero waste economy and hints towards a route. Without any real clarity as to what exactly a zero waste economy is or how we might know it when we get there, it is difficult to be sure! (Zero waste enthusiasts may find solace in the accompanying economics paper which presumes the destination to be a green economy.)

Environment campaigners have bemoaned the lack of exacting new recycling targets in the Review. But, to focus on council and household recycling is to misunderstand the real nature of the challenge – the materials at our disposal. The methods of domestic waste disposal have dominated the sustainable waste management agenda for years. The Review’s greatest offerings lie in its explicit commitment to prioritise waste prevention, and in the methodical and strategic approach it proposes to engaging with the industries responsible for designing and deploying the fabrics and materials that will, sooner or later, enter our waste stream.