Maintaining momentum: Interview with Hannah Blythyn
With Wales being recognised worldwide for its strong record on waste and recycling, Resource caught up with Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn to find out more about her goal to get Wales to the top.
A lot has happened in the world of waste during the seven or so months since Hannah Blythyn AM was appointed Minister for Environment in Wales, with a noticeable sea change in public and political attitudes. Wales, however, has been ahead of the curve when it comes to reducing waste for quite some time.
“It’s great to come into a position where we already have a proud track record,” Blythyn said, acknowledging the Welsh Government’s achievements to date. Back in 2011, Wales was the first UK nation to bring in the five pence charge for single-use plastic bags, bringing about a 71 per cent drop in the number of bags handed out over the next four years. The country also has the highest municipal recycling rate in the UK, independently recording a figure of 64 per cent for municipal solid waste in 2016/17 – that’s 12 per cent above the UK average, placing Wales second in Europe and third in the world, just behind Germany and Taiwan.
Never an outspoken environmentalist before taking on the role – she worked in the trade union movement prior to becoming Assembly Member for Delyn in Flintshire, where she grew up, in 2016 – Blythyn is approaching the issues from a similar position to many of her constituents: as someone growing increasingly aware, as are we all, “of how my own individual actions and the actions of others can impact on our resources and on our natural environment.”
There has been a “cultural shift”, Blythyn says, both in Flintshire – which registered a recycling rate of 68 per cent at the last count, according to Welsh Government figures – and across Wales. “For the vast majority of people, this is the norm now, to separate their waste for collection and to try and recycle as much as possible. The challenge for now is how we build on that and encourage it going forwards.” With levels of public awareness at an all-time high, the necessary momentum is in place to help push through further change – to help Wales achieve Blythyn’s goal of becoming first in the world for municipal recycling.
It has now been confirmed that the Welsh Government will be consulting on an 80 per cent municipal waste recycling target later this financial year, as part of a refresh of its overarching waste strategy, ‘Towards Zero Waste’. Compositional analysis of residual waste bins by WRAP Cymru has revealed that about half the material in black bags is recyclable. “If all that was diverted to recycling in Wales then we’d be reaching our 80 per cent target,” Blythyn says, going on to stress the importance of reduced residual collections and separate food waste services, both areas in which Wales is far ahead of England. A number of Welsh councils are among the early adopters of a three-weekly black bin collection, and all are mandated to offer a separate food waste service.
However, Blythyn is quick to add, mandatory measures and targets need to go hand-in-hand with behaviour change – especially for young people. “I think schools have a crucial role,” Blythyn says, bringing up the Welsh Eco-Schools programme, which is run by environmental charity Keep Wales Tidy and funded by the Welsh Government. “To hear young children speak so passionately about these issues and why it [recycling] is important is incredibly inspiring,” she says. “And then you see that message goes outside the community... Politicians can do so much, but I don’t think we can underestimate the power that children have in terms of their pester power with parents to get them to improve the way that they do it and think about it”.
Government funding for the Eco-Schools project is set to increase by five per cent over the next two years, demonstrating a desire from the government to instill a sense of responsibility regarding recycling and waste from a young age. In addition to this, since the start of 2018, the Welsh Government has approved more than £22 million in funding direct to councils, with a hands- on approach to stimulating local recycling rates. “There’s been £800 million invested since 2001/02,” Blythyn explains, “and we’ve worked with WRAP Cymru to help support local authorities in terms of how they actually improve their recycling and what steps they can take.”
That support for local authorities comes largely through the government’s Collaborative Change Programme, set up in 2011 and delivered by WRAP – and collaborative working is key to the Welsh approach to recycling and waste policies more widely, something Blythyn says is reflected in the work of small organisations across the country. A recent visit to the St David’s Hospice reuse centre in Mochdre, Conwy – and the opening of the new Green Shed zero waste hub in Pembrokeshire – showed Blythyn “the value in collaboration between numerous partners”, with local authorities, the Welsh government and the charitable sector working together.
“I think the message really is that if we’re going to reach that end goal then we need to do that together, working in partnership and collaboratively... The onus is on all of us, from grassroots to government and everything in-between, to take our share of the responsibility”.
Collaboration with business is also central to Blythyn’s approach. As well as working towards an ever-increasing recycling rate, Blythyn would like to see Wales become the most circular country in the world, something that will bring benefits to the Welsh economy as well as to the environment. “Getting infrastructure and investment in place in Wales to keep things in reuse for as long as possible is really key to generating that boost to the economy,” she says. To this end, Blythyn’s predecessor, Lesley Griffiths, launched a £6.5-million circular economy investment fund set to begin in 2019, which builds on the country’s £14-million Accelerating Reprocessing Infrastructure Development (ARID) project. Blythyn recently announced the new fund will focus specifically on businesses working towards a more circular economy for plastics, the material currently garnering the most public attention.
For Blythyn, the importance of working with stakeholders across the plastic packaging supply chain cannot be understated. “I found it really beneficial to actually get out and about, to meet with producers and other organisations, people taking action... You’ve got Iceland, which is really trying to take the lead in terms of tackling packaging, piloting deposit returns. That’s a Flintshire- based headquarters as well, so it’s good to see those Welsh businesses actually putting themselves at the forefront of this movement for change”.
The retailer Iceland Foods, as Blythyn mentions above, is blazing a trail among businesses for deposit return schemes (DRS) for plastic bottles and other on-the-go beverage containers, trialling reverse vending machines in a number of its stores across the UK. As a country, Wales has committed to consulting on a DRS for beverage containers, the exact nature of which is still to be decided, as part of its municipal recycling strategy. Recently, Blythyn met with her Scottish and English counterparts to discuss the possibility of a UK-wide DRS, and says: “For us in Wales, I’m keen to ensure that any system we would be part of delivers optimum benefits for us, and complements and sustains the success that we’ve already had in terms of our municipal recycling. “Anything we do has to be done holistically – we can’t take piecemeal solutions to some of the hottest topical issues we have to meet.”
This holistic approach to policy is something Blythyn has been keen to promote since coming into the post of Environment Minister, highlighting the ways that social, environmental and economic agendas “are all interconnected”. The wider benefits that tackling environmental issues can bring to the economy and wellbeing of Wales are exemplified by community reuse projects like St David’s: “There are multiple benefits, because it’s stopping things going into landfill, we’re keeping things within the economy, and there’s the broader social benefits of supporting the hospice and the charity”.
“At the heart of this,” she continues, “it has to be about leaving a legacy of healthy communities, a healthy environment and a healthy economy for future generations. That’s central to everything we do as a Welsh Government now, and I think that fits in with my ambition to create a more circular economy in Wales – to increase levels of reuse and recycling but also to create more added value in terms of the extra jobs it creates in all the communities across Wales.
“Yes, we want to be number one in the world, but we want to see it and do it in a way which is sustainable and has long-term benefits, not just for our country but for the globe as well.”