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Kicking it to the kerb: An interview with Lesley Griffiths

Charles Newman spoke to Wales's outgoing Environment Minister Lesley Griffiths about the country's continuing success in kerbside recycling

If I were a betting man, I’m not sure I’d have had much money on Wales sitting pretty as the third best recycling nation in the world a decade ago. However, since 2010, Wales’ well-publicised recycling progress has been extraordinary. But can it go further? If the ambition is there, certainly, something Lesley Griffiths, until recently Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs at the Welsh Government, now Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, knows all about.

While our conversation didn’t get off to the best start, visibly irritated at our curtailed interview, Griffiths clearly has the air of someone eager to build on Wales’ significant progress in recycling, and prove it. Despite not having a background in agriculture or fisheries, Griffiths appears to be relishing the broad scope of her portfolio at the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs, while conscious of the fact that she has been on a steep learning curve.

Kicking it to the kerb: An interview with Lesley Griffiths

Proud of her roots in Wrexham (Griffiths quickly corrects me after I mistakenly state Wrexham FC, where she is a season ticket holder, are sixth in the National League, rather than the heady heights of third), Griffiths looks back on her first encounters with recycling as coming through her daughters’ school: “I remember my daughters, when they were in primary school, coming home and talking about recycling and then a campaign in Wrexham called ‘Recycle with Michael’ [a small, recycling enthusiast mascot dressed in green] and that was my first kind of recognition of anything.”

Praising Wrexham’s now “excellent recycling and kerbside sorting” (compliments that could easily apply to most Welsh local authorities these days), Griffiths is clearly cognisant of how, reflecting on her experience with her daughters, education can get both children and parents to engage with topics that “we don’t initially think are about politics”, like recycling, and how communications have played such a major role in Wales’ recycling success story.

And what a story. Since the release of its 2010 ‘Towards Zero Waste’ strategy, which maps the first steps on Wales’ journey towards zero waste to landfill by 2050, the Welsh Government has overseen remarkable progress in recycling rates, with Wales achieving its 64 per cent recycling target for 2019/20 this summer, with the 2024/25 target of 70 per cent now firmly in its sights.

What is this extraordinary success down to? “I think there are several factors,” opines Griffiths. “I think it’s about supporting policy with the right legislation. That includes statutory targets and we’ve provided significant funding. So we’ve got the right conditions. But it’s about partnership working, so it is down to local authorities and, of course, it’s down to the residents of Wales: if they didn’t want to do it, it wouldn’t be successful.”

Griffiths’ recognition of the residents of Wales suggests she has brought a more considered, even wary approach to the office since taking up the role last year. When asked about her appraisal of the North Wales county of Conwy and its trial of a four-weekly residual waste collection, Griffiths responded, in a very deliberate manner, that it’s “for local authorities to decide whether they have weekly, fortnightly, three-weekly or four-weekly collections” while stating, despite initial evidence suggesting that reduced collection frequencies increase recycling rates, that “there’s very mixed views from residents” and many have said that they were “unhappy” at four-weekly collections.

This less centralised and combative approach doesn’t mean Griffiths is any less ambitious, however. With consultations on the renewal of Wales’ ‘Towards Zero Waste’ strategy set to open in 2018, and in light of Wales regularly outperforming its recycling expectations, the opportunity is there for Wales to aim a little higher.

But how high? Wales is currently third in the world for municipal waste recycling behind Singapore and Germany (with Taiwan replacing Singapore in the adjusted figures), and Griffiths, ambition tempered with caution, certainly feels it wouldn’t take a giant leap of the imagination to see Wales leading the way in the near future.

“Well, it’s certainly an ambition and we’re not many points behind Singapore and Germany, so I think it’s a realistic ambition. Gains can be made in what’s left in the black bag. We know that probably 50 per cent of what people put into their black bin could be recycled. If we could get 50 per cent of that, I think we could probably look towards 80 per cent. If we can just get that out of there I think we’d be way, way in front.”

Recycling: Who really leads the world?

Ambitious talk indeed, but is that matched by action from the Welsh Government? Griffiths assures me that investment and funding for recycling will be maintained in the Welsh Government’s draft budget, with £35 million having been transferred to local authorities to support their pursuit of statutory recycling targets through the Revenue Support Grant system, which provides grant funding to authorities to support work in specific policy areas.

In addition to this, the government has set up a Task and Finish Group to look at capturing 50 per cent of the recyclable materials found in residual waste bins, and Griffiths herself chairs a Ministerial Programme Board dedicated to the matter.

Education and communications will be key to achieving this behaviour change, says Griffiths, with “some sort of campaign” a possibility at the start of 2018 to look at how to “educate the people who aren’t recycling, understand why they aren’t recycling and identify the barriers to recycling.” Will this steer come from central government? Griffiths seems to indicate that it won’t, stating that “it’s up to local authorities how they engage with their local population”.

Now, while chasing the highest recycling rate possible is obviously going to have positive environmental effects, Griffiths and the Welsh Government recognise that recycling must be part of a wider, integrated shift towards a sustainable economy, providing jobs, growth and community renewal and protection.

Griffiths tells me that this can be achieved through better communications surrounding the circular economy, in terms of ensuring that everybody understands what it means both in theory and practice, keeping more reprocessing and remanufacturing in Wales, maintaining and improving high-quality separate waste collections in order to meet the contamination challenges thrown up by the ongoing Chinese crackdown on imports of foreign waste, as well as preparing a Resource Efficiency Route Map as part of First Minister Carwyn Jones’ ‘Prosperity for All’ national strategy, in consultation with stakeholders.

In a break from previous form, Griffiths reveals that, going forward, there are “no plans to fund” a third sector organization co-ordinating the latest recycling drive. While the option for such an organisation would be explored and couldn’t be ruled out in the future, Griffiths tells me, any funding would have to be found in existing funding streams, which looks a tall order in this current age of austerity.

Despite no extra funding being available for a third sector co-ordinating organisation, a sum of £500,000 has been found to support a study to test the feasibility of introducing a plastic bottle deposit return scheme (DRS), a mooted solution to plastic packaging waste gathering momentum in Scotland and England, which will proceed alongside an extended producer responsibility study on food and drink packaging.

This article was taken from Issue 90

Griffiths, however, is aware of the potential drawbacks of a DRS, and will not rush Wales into anything inappropriate, citing concerns around “the appropriateness of introducing a DRS on top of a kerbside scheme that already captures some 75 per cent of plastic bottles” and “issues with people that shop online and whether they could be incentivised to take their bottles back to a deposit return point.”

There does seem to be an awareness of the nostalgia that seems to be driving some calls for a DRS, recalling her childhood where she remembers “getting my sixpence for my drinks bottles” while growing up in Wrexham.

You get the feeling that recycling is an issue close to home for Griffiths; even on the terraces at Wrexham’s Racehorse Ground, she recounts how she always asks questions about how the polystyrene cups used by the catering are recycled, as well as pushing for recycled content in the stadium’s seats.

And, while the prospect of overtaking Singapore and Germany in the recycling league table may be a slightly bigger ask than Griffiths’ beloved Wrexham dislodging the likes of Dover Athletic and Macclesfield Town at the top of the National League, the ambition is there, and if Wales’ performance in the last decade is anything to go by, who would bet against it?

As we went to press, First Minister Carwyn Jones unexpectedly reshuffled his Cabinet, with Griffiths now responsible for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, relinquishing the environment portfolio.

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