Are we suffering from separation anxiety?
The waste and recycling industry is one that has a vast number of rules and regs. Although the (outgoing) government has made a point of attempting to cut the red tape, it does no harm to note that these keep much of the industry in business.
That’s not to say government should legislate to promote the industry. Let’s not lose sight of why there is such a myriad of permits, exemptions, obligations and targets, which is obviously to protect the environment and its inhabitants. Regulation, when done right, should achieve this in a way that most people can understand – at least when translated from legalese into common sense.
Normally, these rules and regulations tend to be quite specific. Their application has an appearance of objectivity – e.g. biodegradable waste should be 75 per cent of 1995 levels; end-of-life vehicles must be correctly stored, depolluted and dismantled; et cetera. Simple observation of the facts ought to tell you and the Environment Agency whether rules apply and if they are being adhered to.
Alas, this does not seem to be the case with one of the latest additions to the UK’s statute book: the Waste Regulations. For those of you who aren’t aware, this requires collectors of waste to ensure that recyclables – particularly metal, plastic, glass and paper – are collected separately, where ‘necessary to facilitate recovery’ (i.e. it improves the quality or quantity of recyclable materials) and ‘technically, environmentally and economically practicable’ (TEEP) to do so. For many, curiously mostly local authorities, these rules for separate collection have been a cause of much anxiety, especially for those that presently collect these four named materials in a single stream.
The way that many of them have been handling this is by treating the regulations with considerable subjectivity. When it comes to determining whether separate collection will be TEEP, it depends on whether a council deems it to be economic.
A typical view is that ‘economic practicability’ should include the cost of changing a collection service, i.e. procuring the necessary vehicles and containers, configuring a depot, retraining staff and communicating to customers. And so we progress to the view: ‘If you haven’t got the budget for a service change, then separate collection is not TEEP.’ Given that each council as a whole sets a budget for waste and recycling, the amount of money available for such a change is something of a moveable feast. It means that if you don’t want to introduce separate collection, choosing a budget level to match this view can provide the result you want.
I dare say no one would like to admit that they have moved the goalposts to get such a result, but let’s be honest enough about what’s going on. There’s a fundamental weakness with these latest regulations and – certainly for local authorities – whether they apply to you comes down to how you view them.
Of course, they also apply to businesses, but that’s another matter – one that most have not yet begun to appreciate, and one that represents an opportunity to an industry that provides these services. But that’s not my concern here.
The issue is that this piece of legislation is effectively open to interpretation, which seems fundamentally unsound. As regulator, the Environment Agency ought to introduce some objectivity and spell out a framework for ‘economic practicability’, determining what the real costs are over the lifetime of a contract. If, as is currently the case, the regulations can be interpreted to suit the present circumstances of those being regulated, they represent the ultimate in a red-tape, box-ticking exercise that wastes everyone’s time and does nothing to improve the environment.
Find out more about the implementation of separate collections in the UK.