Moving Wales up the waste hierarchy: An interview with Jasper Roberts

Wales has long drawn an envious gaze towards its excellent recycling and waste management performance, but what did it take to get there and what more is to be done? Resource talks to Jasper Roberts, Deputy Director of the Welsh Government’s Waste and Resource Efficiency Division, about Wales’ ambitions

Moving Wales up the waste hierarchy
Jasper Roberts, Deputy Director of the Welsh Government's Waste and Resource Efficiency Division.

Over the past decade, Wales’ recycling achievements have gone from strength to strength, now far out ahead of other UK nations at 63 per cent – thanks in part to a series of committed Environment Ministers. But while there have been eight Ministers in that position since 2006, behind the scenes a team of civil servants has been there to help manoeuvre Wales into the top spot. Central to that team is Jasper Roberts, Deputy Director of the Welsh Government’s Waste and Resource Efficiency Division.

Roberts is, in his own words, a “career civil servant”, having worked for the Welsh Government since its conception in 1999 – and before as part of the Welsh Office of the UK Government.

After a career break in Papua New Guinea – Roberts is well-travelled, having also lived in Spain for several years – he took up a role in agriculture in 1997, eventually becoming Head of Rural Policy before moving into waste in 2006.

He acknowledges that he didn’t know much about waste and recycling when he moved into the field, stressing the importance of having a strong team around him. For Roberts, his team reflects the “integrated approach” central to his role, applying a “whole supply chain perspective” – looking simultaneously at collections infrastructure, recycling technologies and market development to create a landscape where materials are used and reused in the best way possible: “My job as a civil servant is to pull all that together.”

A key part of Roberts’ role is to oversee the procurement of key waste infrastructure – such as AD plants and energy-from- waste (EfW) facilities – across the country, helping Wales to move towards the goals set out in the government’s 2010 strategy, ‘Towards Zero Waste’ – namely to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2050 and 70 per cent recycling by 2025, as well as to reduce the amount of organic waste going to landfill.

To this end, Roberts was central to promoting the separate collection of food waste, which was introduced in 2009 after his team conducted an analysis of residual waste, a study that revealed how food waste would be a significant contributor to help Wales meet its recycling targets.

In parallel to its food waste programme, the team planned to build three EfW plants – two of which have so far come to fruition. “We haven’t got a recovery facility in South West Wales, we are scoping one at the moment, but we’ve pretty much built everything else and most importantly we’ve met the throughput targets we aimed at.”

The results speak for themselves: in 2017/18, Welsh local authorities sent 105,728 tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste to landfill, 71 per cent less than the 2017/18 Wales allowance of 370,000 tonnes. But despite these remarkable results, delivering residual waste infrastructure for Wales along with a more ambitious recycling infrastructure has certainly not been easy. Roberts acknowledges that there was “a huge amount of opposition to the EfW plants. Although sincere and real, a lot of the opposition was based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of science.”

So Roberts and his team made sure that community engagement was central to their initiatives – something that still requires continued effort and investment: “I was on a charity walk recently listening to some of the people there talking about changes being brought in [in the Vale of Glamorgan, where Roberts is based] and I have to say they weren’t entirely persuaded on the merits of them. I tried to argue my case – I didn’t tell them what I do for a living but it did bring home to me that we still have a big communications challenge with the community to get across what we’re doing, why, and why how we do it matters”.

Meeting recycling and landfill targets is one thing – but the approach to waste management needs to be ever-changing and evolving. Roberts mentions a recently published Welsh Audit Office report into the government’s procurement programme for residual and food waste treatment contracts, which recognised that the government needs to balance its ambition of zero waste by 2050 with its projections for residual waste treatments.

“I think there’s still a capacity gap, we need some capacity for recovery in South West Wales”, Roberts says. But balancing the current need for capacity with the understanding that needs may change in the future can be a headache. “The contracts for EfW plants have 25 years, the contracts for AD are 15 years, the life potentially of some of these plants is a great deal more than that and yet we have an ambition for zero waste by 2050, which is actually not as far away as it used to be.”

Moving closer towards the Welsh Government’s waste and recycling goals will require even more targeted policies to capture material that is still finding its way into residual waste. Recent compositional analyses of black bags revealed that 50 per cent of that waste is potentially recyclable – half of which is dry recyclate and half food waste. “If we can capture that,” Roberts says, “we believe that we can hit 70 per cent pretty quickly – if we get people using the kerbside collections that are available to them.”

Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn has confirmed that the Welsh Government will be consulting on an 80 per cent municipal waste recycling target later this financial year – something that will go hand in hand with a reduction in residual treatment. “It was always the intention that EfW would be a reducing element of treatment,” Roberts says. “Effectively we have a statutory limit on recovery, down to 30 per cent by 2025. If we go beyond that, which is something we’ll look at in the next strategy review, then that will have long term implications for the amount of municipal waste going through recovery.”

Recycling rates in Wales have been up and down recently, though still a success story – Anglesey reached a 72 per cent recycling rate for 2017/18. One challenge will be continuing to reduce contamination; Roberts believes the Collections Blueprint (which sets out a preferred system for recycling collections) could be key to addressing this.

Welsh councils subscribing to the Collections Blueprint model have embraced an approach to recycling that reduces the risk of contamination in recyclate – kerbside sort. With many export destinations for recyclate introducing much stricter regulations on the material they receive, this could be crucial. Roberts notes that few councils are having problems with export markets: “We believe our local authorities’ position is more resilient. The Welsh Government view is that the best solution to that problem is the right sort of collection, the right material, the right condition and the right technologies at home.

“I worked with the Welsh Local Government Association to set up what we call the Collaborative Change Programme in 2010/11, which is a support for local authorities to review services. We do it on an impartial basis, we haven’t mandated the Collections Blueprint, but every authority that in our view does the modelling analysis correctly comes to one inescapable conclusion – that the Blueprint brings service benefits, sustainability benefits [and] financial benefits”.

Reducing residual frequency could also play a part in boosting recycling rates. Following Conwy, Denbighshire is set to becomes the second Welsh authority to move to a four-weekly collection, and Roberts sees a correlation between this and higher recycling rates, “provided you manage things like side waste and so forth properly. My own personal experience in my own home is that I can easily go for a month without putting out a black bag and even when I do it’s pretty small, and therefore I think that’s a discussion we could usefully have with local authorities.”

Looking forward, Roberts has commissioned a business plan in collaboration with local authorities intended for Spring 2019, “to start to plug some of the capacity gaps, looking at centralised procurements, aggregating feedstocks so that they work commercially.” He is also considering measures to enable businesses to make the same advances that local authorities have done in terms of recycling.

This article was taken from Issue 94

“We’re working on the regulations now, we should be going to consultation soon with a view to getting the regulations on the statute book by Christmas 2019 or Spring 2020, with a requirement on businesses to present their waste separately for collection. We’ve modelled the impact and we believe that the impact on business is modest and affordable in relation to the overall benefits.”

Alongside councils and businesses, Roberts recognises the contribution of work by third sector organisations in the sector – especially with regards to reuse, which the Welsh Government has recently been focusing on, with the publication of its report, ‘Preparing for reuse: A roadmap for a paradigm shift’, in July. Further new funding announced in November will also go to help reuse projects across the country.

Many reuse projects in Wales bring added benefits in the form of employment opportunities, another example of the integrated approach Roberts is promoting. While Wales’ recycling rate sets it apart from its UK neighbours – and much of Europe – it’s not all about the numbers. More than that, it is often the wider benefit produced from waste and recycling measures that make achieving high results important. “A target is not important in itself,” Roberts explains, “it drives something which achieves an outcome. If you look at the key strategy documents the Welsh Government has published, the emphasis there is on sustainability, resource efficiency, circular economy, jobs, green jobs. So that is what we’re focused on delivering rather than just waste management per se.

“We’re not fixated on the recycling figure – the recycling figure is a gateway to the circular economy, to resource efficiency in business and the home and to carbon reductions.”