Leading by example

Wales recycles more than any other part of the UK and is leading the way on resource efficiency. Environment Minister Jane Davidson, integral in Wales’s rise to green stardom, spoke with Charles Newman about the country’s progress

As soon as we meet, Jane Davidson is talking performance data for one of Wales’s 22 councils. Off the cuff, she’s happy to go into details. It’s the kind of thing ministers don’t normally do.

She’s thrilled that the recent service change in Bridgend has seen such a dramatic improvement. The area is now recycling more than it incinerates, so it’s no surprise she sounds pleased. And not just because this new service epitomises the Welsh Assembly Government’s (WAG) approach – it’s where the new Welsh waste strategy was launched earlier this year – but because it’s also making a difference.

“For us, it’s about how we create the opportunities and how we get the evidence base to underpin that”, Davidson says, adding that most people respond positively when given a more comprehensive recycling system.
“Sometimes these things are counterintuitive. It can seem really sensible if you offer just a single commingled way of recycling – that is by far the easiest for the public, they only have to put things in one bag – if you make sure you have a very large range of things that go in there. But, if you are trying to minimise waste going to landfill, which we are, big time, then you can end up with a lot of your product being contaminated because of commingling.”

Straightaway we’ve hit on a major policy position, one that differentiates Wales from the rest of the UK: WAG has endorsed source separation. It’s a move that has been largely supported by most Welsh local authorities, although not all.

The minister explains that one reason she has taken this view is to support public confidence in recycling, as independent reviews show that commingled collections are associated with contamination, which results in significant amounts of these materials being rejected as waste.

“You end up in a situation where you think you’re doing the right thing at kerbside – as the householder you want to do the right thing – and then you find your product has not gone to market, but has been dumped. Then you feel really dissatisfied that you’ve been let down by the service.”

A study just conducted by market researcher NOP on behalf of Waste Awareness Wales and WAG backs up how important this is. The public need to know that their actions make a difference. “The most damaging press to recycling has never been around this issue of [whether to provide] fortnightly collections of residual waste, no matter how many campaigns any newspaper runs,” she wryly observes, “but it is if there’s a shed full of a product that can’t be shifted or, for example, people find out that paper they think they’re recycling for wall insulation in Wales has actually gone to China… People have an expectation about what happens with recycling and when that expectation isn’t met, that damages the recycling agenda.”

In a bold step, this October, WAG began urging all Welsh local authorities to use the WasteDataFlow system to record multiple destinations for their recyclate; before councils were only able to record one destination. The aim is to provide greater transparency and help the public connect with the result of their actions.

However, Davidson is mindful not to sound like she’s against exporting recyclables. “One of the big things we have to continue doing as politicians is to make it clear that recycling is much better than using virgin resources, even if it goes to China or elsewhere in the world. Obviously, if you can get a local market then that’s even better and that’s why we’re putting a lot of investment and interest into developing the local market.”

This is a focal point for some of the sector plans that will follow on from the recent Welsh waste strategy, ‘Towards Zero Waste’. The first of these, the Municipal Sector Plan is due to be published, along with consultations for another two.

A key issue for this, currently under discussion, is how councils can achieve greater consistency in recycling service provision. Another finding from the NOP research is that the public is confused by differences between counties. The minister is focused on finding the communality: “I’m not requiring that local authority A next door to local authority B collect in the same way, because they have historic reasons for the way they collect, and historic routes, bins, lorries and all of that, but I think the public would expect if you have a full range of collection in authority A, then in authority B you will also get all those things collected. That’s what we’re engaging with local authorities about – it’s like this is the national curriculum for waste, this is the expectation, but it will still be delivered differently.”

One aspect of this has been WAG’s commitment to the separate collection of food waste, encouraging all councils to offer this, and backing it up with funds to implement the service development. Welsh local authorities can give their households corn-starch bags to put their kitchen food waste in, something English authorities have shied away from on the grounds of cost. Already the results suggest this can have an impact on raising participation levels for the service. The minister points to the need to reduce barriers to recycling: “If you make it easy, which of course is what the schemes do, you have the bags supplied by the council for it, you just put your food into those bags, you don’t touch the food waste any more than you’d touch it going into a black bin bag.”

This initiative has helped Wales forge ahead, currently diverting 44 per cent of all municipal waste. “We’re the highest part of the UK now”, reflects Davidson. “We were the lowest when I became minister. We’ve had the best improvement of any part of the UK.”

She sounds pleased with the accomplishment. “I’m delighted with all the investment that we’ve put in – and it’s investment of time, it’s investment of dialogue, it’s investment of ministers’ time, local politicians’ time, it’s investment of officials at local level and at the Assembly Government level, it’s the partnership of the third sector in terms of that social enterprise delivery and it’s an investment of a joint commitment, that’s what’s delivering it, it’s all of us working together, all of us pulling in the same direction.