Industry welcomes ‘bold and radical’ Resources and Waste Strategy
Key stakeholders have largely welcomed the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) this morning (18 December), calling it a “blueprint for the future” and “bold and radical”, though some reservations remain.
The document, entitled ‘Our waste, our resources: A strategy for England’, has been eagerly anticipated by resources and waste industry figures since it was first announced by Environment Secretary Michael Gove back in June last year. It outlines how the government aims to make the UK more resource-efficient, reduce waste and move towards a circular economy.
Key actions include a proposal to mandate separate collections of food waste by local authorities by 2023, a reformed extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging that would see producers pay the full net costs for the management of packaging waste at the end of a product’s life, as well as plans to roll out a deposit return scheme (DRS) for disposable beverage containers by 2023, setting a consistent set of dry recyclables to be collected by all councils and waste operators and introducing the electronic tracking of waste movements to combat waste crime.
‘Blueprint for the future’
Marcus Gover, CEO of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), calls the strategy “bold and radical”, containing solutions that together could “transform the landscape for the way we manage resources and waste in the future”. Gover described EPR proposals as a “potential game-changer”, while stating that plans for greater consistency in household waste collections and mandatory separate collections of food waste were “encouraging”, though local authorities would have to be funded to help implement the measures.
He added: “We believe this strategy contains clear, well-evidenced policies which should result in a step change in how we manage England’s resources. I am proud of the work WRAP colleagues have done to provide supporting evidence and insights from the frontline which have helped in the shaping of the strategy. We look forward to working with Defra and our partners to turn these policies into real-world action.”
CIWM Executive Director Chris Murphy called the strategy a “much needed framework to reboot recycling and support progress towards a more circular economy”, praising the inclusion of proposals to substantially reform the packaging producer responsibility regime and mandate the separate collection of food waste. Murphy also praised the range of measures put forward to tackle waste crime.
He continued: “There is still a lot of hard work to do, however, and we have an unrivalled opportunity as a sector to engage with government over the next few months as the raft of expected consultations are launched. CIWM and other key bodies including INCPEN, ESA and WRAP will be holding a major engagement event in London on 13 February to bring together stakeholders from across the sector to discuss the future of packaging producer responsibility, the role of a deposit return scheme and the consistency agenda.”
The Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents some of the largest waste management companies in the UK, added that it was ‘pleased that the new strategy will help householders across England do the right thing and boost UK recycling’ as long as the ambition in the document is translated into hard policy.
ESA’s Executive Director, Jacob Hayler, stated: “It’s important to understand that policy decisions in this important area can make a real difference to the economy. We now have the opportunity to boost recycling and cut waste – creating over 50,000 jobs with £8 billion of private sector investment in the process – but for this to happen the high-level ambition in the strategy will need to be turned into detailed actions that matter.”
The view from the individual waste management companies was equally positive, with Phil Piddington, Managing Director of Viridor and Chairman of the ESA, praised the “blueprint for the future” and the “greater certainty” it provides. He added: “We welcome the direction set out in the strategy and are pleased that the government has listened to much of our and the wider industry’s representations. We are pleased to see the adoption of the ‘producer pays’ principle to cover the costs of recycling, steps to get plastics producers to include more recycled content in their products and recognition of the role energy recovery plays in a balanced system. A more consistent approach to council collections and further measures to combat waste crime are also very welcome.
David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, said that the strategy “represents an ambitious step change in the nation’s journey towards a circular economy and provides positive signals for businesses, consumers and the environment”, and welcomed the inclusion of policies to move to a full net cost recovery model for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme for packaging and to introduce mandatory separate food waste collections, while Paul Taylor, Chief Executive at FCC Environment, welcomed the strategy as “an important step forward in how we view our waste”, drawing particular encouragement from the “commitment to energy-from-waste technology as a way to divert waste from landfill” and an “increased focus on reuse”.
Michael Topham, Chief Executive at Biffa, also welcomed the strategy, particularly the proposals on packaging EPR, which he said should “encourage and incentivise waste producers to rethink packaging design for recyclability” and “drive stronger end markets for more recycled materials here in the UK and reduce reliance on export markets”. He went on to call for the industry to “work together across supply chains and public and private sectors to move from short-term, interim initiatives to fundamental, long term actions”.
Kicking the can down the road
However, not all were impressed with the strategy, nor the timeline for the implementation of various policy commitments. Mary Creagh MP, who chairs Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the body which provides scrutiny of the environmental impact of government policies, decried the lack of urgency in the document, stated: “The government appears to be kicking the waste can down the road yet again. The plastic bottle deposit return scheme promised in 2018 won’t be ready until 2023. Textile waste piling up in landfill won’t be tackled until even later. With scientists warning we have just 12 years to tackle climate change, this strategy is too little, too slowly.”
Meanwhile, although A Plastic Planet Co-founder Sian Sutherland was pleased to see a commitment to consult on the introduction of separate food waste collections, she called for “urgent action” to overhaul a waste management system she described as “totally unfit for purpose”.
She added: "As Michael Gove points out the important thing to do is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. In that order. But far too often the emphasis is placed the other way around and 'recycling' is always the starting point instead of 'reducing'. Right now we only recycle nine per cent of our plastic in the UK so even a doubling to 18 per cent still leaves millions of tonnes to be incinerated, exported or going to landfill. We need to urgently start to rely on alternative materials that do not harm our planet.
"We desperately need proper investment in industrial composting and anaerobic digestion, ensuring we can put our food waste to good use and have the right end of life for those compostable biomaterials that provide such an easy immediate alternative to indestructible plastic packaging. This, coupled with a total ban on UK plastic rubbish exports to the developing world, would complete the UK's transformation from zero to hero on waste.”
Environmental consultants Eunomia Research and Consulting issued a largely positive response to the strategy, although held several reservations regarding the detail of proposals. While welcoming proposals on food waste collections, EPR, waste crime and a DRS, Dominic Hogg, Chairman of Eunomia, said it was “disappointing” that the government chose to focus on the recyclability of disposable cups rather than the problem of littering.
Hogg also expressed Eunomia’s concerns regarding indicators of progress towards the ambitions laid out in the strategy, stating: “The indicators for monitoring the progress of the goals set by the Resources and Waste Strategy don’t seem especially well thought through. Given the generally positive messages of the strategy, the indicator framework feels somewhat outdated and will not allow performance and improvement to be properly tracked. Of the 14 measures put forward, around half seem to be of limited value.
“The government has made announcements that give the appearance of being decisive, but negates this by subjecting a range of important measures to further consultation. In the eighteen months since the Resources and Waste Strategy was announced it is hard to imagine that there is a voice that the government hasn’t already heard on issues such as DRS and EPR.”
'Signalling of major change'
Trade associations representing the UK’s recyclers and reprocessors also greeted the strategy positively, particularly the measures designed to boost the UK’s recycled materials market. Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of the Resource Association, which represents some of the UK’s leading reprocessors, praised the strategy for its “signalling of major change” and focus on EPR and food waste collections. He added: “We also welcome the announcements of new funds for plastics recycling research and hope that this is just the start of a new coherent strategy and funding for recycling market development, sustaining manufacturing using recycled materials and creating a British circular economy”.
Simon Ellin, Chief Executive of the Recycling Association, meanwhile praised the “comprehensive document” and expressed particular pleasure at the focus on quality, which has become a standard for the Association in recent times. Ellin stated: "Over two years ago we launched our Quality First campaign to improve the quality of materials for recycling, and the Resources and Waste Strategy addresses many of our concerns that led to this.
"There is a commitment to improve the quality of materials that are sent for export, and this has to be welcomed as long as it isn't so stringent as to become a barrier. But the signs are that we will look to send high quality material to end destinations and we support that principle.”
However, while he welcomed the plastics tax to be placed on plastic packaging that does not use a minimum of 30 per cent recycled content, set to be introduced in 2022, he stated that “the Resources and Waste Strategy does not mention how investment will be generated for new UK recycling capacity to provide that recycled content”, calling for the omission to be addressed in the consultation.
The content of the strategy, especially proposals pertaining to the collection of recyclables and waste management, will have a significant effect on local authorities, and the response so far has been mixed.
The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) has stated that it is ‘concerned’ with certain aspects of the strategy regarding kerbside collections, food waste collections and the implementation of a DRS for single-use drinks containers, while it is also seeking clarification on the meaning of ‘full cost recovery’ in relation to the packaging EPR proposals, as this ‘is key to the level of funding available to local authorities’.
Commenting on the strategy, Lee Marshall, CEO of LARAC, said “Defra have hinted that they want to be quite prescriptive in how local authority waste operations are carried out in the future. If the funding is not forthcoming to support this then their ambitions will not get off the ground and local authorities will be left deciding which services, be that libraries, day or leisure centres they will have to reduce to pay to meet these targets. This could be by far the biggest shift in waste policy since the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and we need to get it right. After years of austerity cuts and under-investment it could be the step change that is needed to build on the tremendous efforts and advances that local authorities have made in increasing recycling rates over the past 15 years”
Meanwhile, the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO) welcomed the publication of the strategy, and were “particularly encouraged by the commitment to full cost recovery of collection, disposal and recycling of waste”, adding: “No doubt, some of the changes needed might be challenging since they are different from what is currently done however, we are grateful to Defra for the collaborative approach taken to date and welcome more joint working with Defra, central government and industry colleagues to enable us all to be even more efficient and sustainable over the next 25 years.”
Packaging and EPR
The strategy has significant repercussions for the packaging industry, highlighted by the proposals regarding EPR, which would see packaging producers pay for the costs of managing waste generated by their packaging at the end of its life, and by the proposed plastics tax on packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled content.
Paul Vanston, CEO of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), which represents some of the UK’s leading packaging producers, praised Michael Gove, Resources Minister Therese Coffey and Defra officials for the strategy for its focus on “whole-system changes” and welcomed proposals on packaging reforms, household waste collection consistency and ways to increase investment in recycling infrastructure.
He did urge caution, however, on how funding expected to be generated by packaging EPR was spent, stating: “With an anticipated injection of up to £1 billion from producers, it’s vital this money is seen as additional, and turbo boosts recycling rates. That means the resources industry can’t afford for either HM Treasury or councils’ finance departments to see producer funding as an opportunity to reduce existing council recycling and waste budgets. The net effect of such detrimental moves would be to stifle the very performance uplifts in recycling and resource efficiency Defra’s strategy seeks to achieve.”
Meanwhile, Robbie Staniforth, Policy Manager at Ecosurety, a compliance scheme that helps packaging producers fulfil their obligations under the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system, praised the “ambitious” strategy and the inclusion of an EPR consultation and the consideration of additional material streams to this regime. He said: “Of particular note to Ecosurety and its members is Defra’s prioritisation of a public consultation on existing EPR regulations. We are encouraged that Defra has listened to the industry’s call for more material streams to be included. New, improved EPR legislation and an expansion into sectors such as textiles, tyres and mattresses could have a significant impact on how the UK both consumes goods and how it recovers valuable, recyclable materials.
“It must be noted that new EPR channels will require adequate investment. In this way, the UK’s recycling infrastructure will be in a position to handle an expansion into new sectors. Without investment we will remain reliant on export channels for our recycling. This would reduce traceability and compromise UK recycling and environmental integrity.
One of the most significant policies included in the strategy was the commitment to consulting on the introduction of mandatory separate collections of food waste by all English local authorities. The move has been welcomed by representatives of the anaerobic digestion (AD) and composting industry, though urgency, for them, is the order of the day
Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) said: “It’s an absolute no-brainer that inedible food waste should be separately collected so it doesn’t end up wasted in incinerators or landfill and so that the energy and nutrition locked up in it can be reused, reducing the UK’s need for fossil-based energy and fertiliser. As the strategy says, it is a moral scandal that so much of this valuable resource is wasted.
“A commitment by ministers to universal food waste collections will finally allow England to catch up with the rest of the UK in recycling its inedible food waste whilst, most importantly, reducing the amount of food wasted in the first place.
“However, 2023 is a long way off. There are around 70 local authorities with their waste contracts up for renewal in the next three years – for this policy to have tangible effects we need actions from the government long before 2023 to provide funding, guidance and support to LAs to implement separate food waste collections as quickly as possible.”
Jeremy Jacobs, Technical Director of the Renewable Energy Association (REA), said that the REA was “delighted” with the contents of the strategy, adding: “We have been pressing Defra for a number of years to follow the example of the devolved nations to mandate food waste collections, in order that this valued resource is better utilised, rather than being landfilled. We need more work on waste prevention measures but, alongside these, it is vital that both household and commercial food waste is captured within this initiative, with local authorities being sufficiently incentivised or funded to make this happen at the earliest opportunity.
“We are also keen to see that existing infrastructure is used effectively to treat garden waste and food waste, where it is co-mingled, rather than send food waste excessive distances to AD facilities, many such in-vessel composting facilities already exist and have a valuable role to play in the treatment of food waste.”
You can read the Resources and Waste Strategy in full on the Defra website.