Ofwaste Vox Pops

In the spirit of debate Iain Gulland called for in his Kit Strange Memorial Lecture, we asked five commentators for their thoughts on his Ofwaste idea. Here’s what they had to say 

Jakob Rindegren, Recycling Policy Advisor for the Environmental Services Association (ESA)

The idea of an ‘Ofwaste’ body, similar to Ofcom or Ofgem, and the associated ‘resources grid’, is interesting. In the long term, moving towards waste collection as a utility, similar to electricity or water is a route worth exploring. However, we are not there yet, and as you dig deeper into how it would work, the idea unfortunately seems to run aground. 

The markets Ofgem regulates, for example, all provide the same material: gas and electricity. The same goes for Ofwat and Ofcom – one standard material or service is being supplied. However, with an Ofwaste regulator, that wouldn’t be possible because the services that the companies provide are not all generic. What is collected by one council can be very different to another council, demographics or geography of the local authority can be different, as can the mode of collection. 

Having a grid with defined production and supply is foreseeable for gas and electricity, but for resources it is a different matter. The markets for recycled material need to mature first and it needs to be possible to know who produces how much waste, which today is difficult, not least for flats with shared bins. The sad news of Aylesford Newsprint going into administration highlights how volatile the recycling markets are. If we can get these stabilised, and fix the broken recycling chain, then defined production and supply will be a more viable option. 

Of course, we do already have ‘environmental’ regulators for the waste sector – the Environment Agency in England, SEPA in Scotland, NRW in Wales and NIEA in Ireland. In our view, it would perhaps be better to focus more attention on getting these regulators adequately resourced to crack down on waste crime rather than creating an entirely new body. 

Iain talked about a knee-jerk reaction, but surely creating something new that may not necessarily work, rather than fixing what we have, is a knee-jerk reaction to something that may not be an issue? 

Phil Conran, Director of 360 Environmental

Traditionally, regulators have been applied to monopoly or restricted markets where the lack of real consumer choice has demanded a referee, a body that can ensure that industry does not abuse its position. But to apply such a regulator to oversee a strategic shift in a free and highly-competitive market would seem to contradict the role of government. Surely, they should set the strategic direction and ensure it has the necessary regulation and enforcement in place to enable industry to develop and achieve the objectives? Iain talks about ‘a defined production, supply and ultimate consumption of resources within an established and consistent framework’, but is there a model of such state intervention anywhere in the world that supports that concept?

Clear targets based on sound scientific evidence, appropriate legislation, effective enforcement and a supportive judicial system must surely be the way to ensure that the resource economy moves forward on a sound competitive base that will deliver sustainable outcomes and create real underlying change. I would therefore suggest that the priority should be to create the right regulatory framework, and that can only happen in a resource-focused mindset. Scotland has that, but the UK government does not. 

Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC)

As always, Iain provided a thought-provoking presentation with an interesting concept: a regulator for waste and what would it look like. Well, if I may, I will take a slightly different slant and be the little boy in the crowd at the emperor’s procession. We have one; it is called the Environment Agency. The trouble, is a regulator can only regulate the laws and systems that have been put in place. 

So, maybe what we need to do is give the EA the ‘right’ things to regulate, and that will be the way to create the vision of a ‘resource grid’ that Iain had. The question then becomes who and what do they regulate to help us move to a resource- efficient and effective world? If we use the concept of waste as a utility, then perhaps they would regulate the collectors and producers of waste. If we took away the responsibility to collect household waste from local authorities and opened it up to the market for individual choice, the EA could regulate the collector and the householders. Too far-fetched? Maybe, but that is how the other utilities work: each household can choose from a market of providers. Barriers? Yes, lots. But as Iain challenged, just because it is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. 

Steve Lee, CEO of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM)

Iain speaks for many of us in highlighting the need for a more strategic approach to resource management... but the question is what action can and should be taken and at what level? One of the key issues is that the ‘resources’ market in the UK is highly dependent on global commodity markets and trends. The difficulties being experienced by UK plastics reprocessors as a result of the falling oil price is just one example, and the impact of slowing growth in some of the world’s largest economies is leading to increased price volatility across other materials too. It is difficult to see how an ‘Ofwaste’-type body could have any real influence over these global market forces. 

However, there is scope for a body that maps, measures, incentivises and plans for better use of our secondary raw materials (and heat from thermal treatment) here in the UK; although maybe not a regulatory body. To my mind, strategic planning for resources to ensure the UK’s future materials security and sustainable economic growth is a task for government or, more accurately, all four UK governments. Waste might be a devolved function, but we are a small island operating in big international markets. Given that access to critical raw materials may be just as squeezed as energy, water and food by the middle of this century, our governments need to act at all levels, taking an active stance in circular economy developments at an EU-level, collaborating at a pan-UK level, and ensuring that individual government departments work together to deliver coordinated policy. 

This article was taken from Issue 80

Charlotte Morton, Chief Executive of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA)

One of the major barriers preventing the industry from securing vital government policies, which are needed to support the sector to continue to expand, is the disconnect between the various responsible government departments. 

For this reason, we agree with Mr Gulland that the waste and resources sector needs a body that sits between the government bodies that are responsible for circular economy policy – specifically DECC, DCLG, Defra, DfT and BIS. To this end, alongside industry partners as the Trade Association Group (TAG), we have launched a manifesto document that, amongst other points, calls for an office for resource management. 

The resource management industry makes a substantial contribution to the British economy, employing over 150,000 people and producing £12 billion worth of goods and services each year. For the resource management industry to maximise the economic, social, and environmental benefits it can deliver for Great Britain, it needs to work in partnership with central and local government and with regulators. A dedicated representative body is, therefore, essential if the industry is to have the confidence and support to invest in the new facilities needed to improve the efficient use of resources in the UK economy.