Government must act now if England is to meet recycling targets

England will not ‘play its role in meeting the European requirement for the United Kingdom to recycle at least 50 per cent of its household waste by 2020 without significant government intervention’, the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has warned.

The warning comes in EFRA’s ‘Waste management in England’ report, which compiles findings from the waste inquiry held over the summer.

Inquiry background

First launched by the EFRA Committee in March 2014, the inquiry was called into being after Resource Minister Dan Rogerson wrote to members of the waste and resources industry in December 2013 warning them that, from April 2014, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) would be ‘stepping back’ from waste, especially where businesses are ‘better placed to act and there is no clear market failure’.

As such, the inquiry sought to identify the impacts this may have on municipal waste management in England, as well as evaluating a range of measures, including:

  • whether existing recycling policy measures would ensure England reaches the EU target of recycling 50 per cent of household waste by 2020;
  • whether England’s national recycling targets should be higher than those stipulated by the EU;
  • the pros and cons of compulsory household waste recycling;
  • whether England has the right balance of waste treatment technologies between anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery and gasification to produce fuel/heat/power;
  • the extent to which increasing the capacity of thermal treatment plants could impact England’s municipal waste recycling rates;
  • whether anaerobic digestion is the best option available to deal with food and other biowaste; and
  • the feasibility of the introduction of a ban on landfill and/or incineration in England.

Report recommendations

Today (22 October), the EFRA Committee released the report of its findings, warning that government must act now to increase recycling rates across England by 2020.

The report reads: ‘We are concerned that England will not play its role in meeting the European requirement for the United Kingdom to recycle at least 50% of its household waste by 2020 without significant Government intervention. This is particularly worrying in light of recent proposals from the European Commission to increase household recycling targets to 70% by 2030. Given current performance, meeting higher household recycling targets in England would be challenging, but we suggest that Defra aspires to achieve recycling rates at the maximum feasible level (with or without European targets). While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to address this challenge, there is more scope for Defra to facilitate and encourage learning from best practice to help local authorities to gravitate towards the best possible recycling service in their area.’

Further to this, the committee recommended that rather than stepping back from waste, Defra should ‘actively reassure interested parties that waste policy remains a priority’ and to clarify its definition and interpretation of ‘clear market failure’ and identify which areas businesses are ‘better placed to act’.

This would include appointing a minister with ‘clear responsibility for co-ordinating across all governmental departments and ensuring consistency of approach in terms of legislation, policy, incentives and communications’.

It added that although the ‘investment and innovative solutions that businesses bring to the waste management sector are invaluable’, they do not remove the need for a ‘clear framework of government policy, legislation and guidance within which such businesses can thrive’.

Other recommendations listed for central government include:

  • developing a ‘comprehensive plan to be implemented in the event that England's recycling rate continues to slow’;
  • considering introducing refreshed policies and reintroducing requirements such as statutory recycling targets for local authorities alongside the requisite funding support;
  • considering developing guidance and best practice of recycling to be shared at a national level in order to ‘move towards a more standardised approach and to assist local authorities to improve their individual performance’;
  • promoting communication campaigns to keep householders engaged with recycling, and as such, increasing funding to WRAP and Keep Britain Tidy in future;
  • considering making it compulsory for all local authorities and waste companies to publish an annual Register of End Destination of Recyclates (such as that launched by the Resource Association);
  • moving towards banning the landfilling of all recyclable waste by 2025 to boost recycling rates;
  • encouraging separately collected food waste to anaerobic digestion ‘to address the problem of sourcing waste feedstock’;
  • ensuring that only ‘genuinely residual waste’ is sent to energy-from-waste plants and to do more to encourage the use of heat outputs from such facilities to improve the overall energy efficiency of this waste management method; and
  • issuing ‘clear guidance’ on how much waste treatment capacity is needed in England to gain an optimal balance between the export of refuse-derived fuel and local treatment.

MPs also called on the government to take action to curb the frequent occurrence of fires at waste management sites.

Show that waste policy remains an important priority’

Launching the ‘Waste management in England’ report, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Anne McIntosh, said: "Defra ‘stepped back’ from waste management at a time when we need both a more ambitious approach to waste management and stronger government leadership to drive up static recycling rates in England and make better use of energy recovery options such as local heating for homes. Ministers must now show that waste policy remains an important priority."

She added: "On a household level, there is too much confusion about what can or can’t be recycled – and very little confidence in the process. Communication must improve and be tailored to local circumstances, but Defra should provide support at a national level – particularly in relation to common issues and problems."

McIntosh also urged government to address the amount of food waste being sent to landfill, saying: "separate food waste collections can be disproportionately expensive and difficult to implement in practice… government must find practical ways to divert more food waste out of the residual stream but in ways that suit local circumstances." 

Read EFRA’s ‘Waste management in England’ report

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