Recycling targets are 'not optional', warns Sargeant

In one of his first assembly sessions as the new Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant has voiced his support for separate-sort recycling, and warned councils that the 70 per cent recycling target for 2025 is ‘not optional’.

Recycling targets are not optional, warns SargeantAt the final evidence session for the inquiry into recycling in Wales (which aims to help the Welsh Government ‘explore reasons for and impacts of variations in local authority household waste recycling practice’ and ‘gain a greater understanding of the relationship between recycling collection practices and recycling rates’), Sargeant told the Environment and Sustainability Committee that the 70 per cent recycling target is achievable, though it will be “challenging” and an “uphill climb”.

He congratulated local authorities on their achievements thus far and stated that if Wales’s recycling rate was compared to other countries in Europe in its own right (as opposed to being collated with rates from the rest of the United Kingdom), it would be the fourth highest recycling country Europe.

He said: “I’m really pleased and encouraged by the way local authorities are performing… Local authorities are absolutely right at the front line of determining how the quality of their community exists, and I have every confidence in them and in their ability to continue the good work that they have strived to do.”

Co-mingling vs kerbside sort

Asked about whether he was ‘confident’ that kerbside-sort collection is the best way forward to achieve the 70 per cent target, Sargeant said: “I accept that new technologies are always coming through… but the [collection] blueprint that we commissioned does indicate cost savings and improvement. We believe that an adoption by all authorities will lead to target figures of 70 per cent and is quite achievable.”

Highlighting that councils may say they will ‘try’ to get to the 70 per cent recycling target, Sargeant said: “It’s not an option. We have to do this because of climate change. This isn’t just because we’ve got an aspiration of it just being nice to recycle, there is a real issue if we don’t recycle and the consequences of that. I’m happy for councils to understand how best to do that. But they have to be able to demonstrate to me that they’ll not just ‘try’ to get to the 70 per cent target, but that they will get there by whatever method they use. The blueprint, we believe, gives them the routemap to deliver that. But there are some councils who continue to use other methods. I accept that there are some challenging areas, but it doesn’t let them off the hook.”

Penalties for councils that miss targets

When asked why there was resistance from some authorities to move from co-mingled collections to kerbside sort, Sargeant said: “There are strong personalities and views about the best way to do things locally, which we must challenge sometimes. If [they] can demonstrate to us why [co-mingling] is the best way of doing that, then there might be some mileage in that, but we’ve done a long-term assessment of achieving 70 per cent targets (and moving to 100 per cent recycling) and we know the blueprint will deliver this. So we’re saying to local authorities that aren’t doing the [kerbside-sort] collection [that they] have to be able to demonstrate the reason why that isn’t the case, and where [they] see the pinch points coming in. Because [they] are going to have to change to a system that delivers on the targets. This isn’t optional. And of course, there are penalties (or there could be penalties imposed) on those authorities that don’t deliver on the targets.”

Sargeant said that although he doesn’t want to fine local authorities for not meeting the targets, he would be “less friendly” in his approach when considering whether or not to apply infraction charges (£200 for every tonne of waste over the target) if councils cannot “demonstrate that there is intent to reach the targets appropriately”.

Responding to a question on the practicalities of implementing separate-sort collections to high-density accommodation, such as flats, he said: “I don’t accept that the responsibility lies with only some part of the communities and not others…There are issues regarding some of the issues with high-rise blocks of flats, but there are solutions too.”

Highlighting Cardiff City Council as an example of a high-density population authority that has successfully implemented separate-sort collections, Sargeant added: “It’s not onerous – it’s just a task that we’ve all got to adopt. Talking to people early on about the reasons why we should be [recycling] long-term is an important factor.”

The panel told Sargeant that Caerphilly County Borough Council had demonstrated to the inquiry that it was achieving high recycling rates (59 per cent in the first quarter of 2013/14), but not through the government’s preferred method. Asked what he would say to them, Sargeant responded: “I’m really pleased Caerphilly is achieving its targets and it’s impressive. The question is, for Caerphilly and others: ‘Are you going to be able to achieve 70 per cent recycling with the current system that you use?’ That’s the key for them and for me to understand better.”

‘Collections blueprint is about more than targets’

Jasper Roberts, Deputy Director of the waste and resource efficiency division of the Welsh Government – also giving evidence today – commented: “The blueprint is a high-level guide to what we think is best practice. But we’ve not imposed it on local authorities. We’re trying to work with individual local authorities to test out the options at the local level and see how it works in practice. And that worked very well. We’re working with about half the local authorities in Wales on specific locally-focused service reviews. A couple have changed over and have adopted the kerbside [sort] method.

“But, of course, the blueprint represents wider issues than just meeting the 70 per cent recycling target, which is important. It reflects the objectives the Welsh Government has on sustainability outcomes, environmental outcomes, cost reduction, and a very important aspect of the work with authorities is about reducing the cost of services.

“If you look at the data, there is a huge cost variation across the country, almost double [the] difference between some authorities in terms of cost of collection, and doing a detailed local option appraisal is very important. It’s very context-specific. Separate collection won’t work necessarily for every household, but it will work for the majority of households – but it’s got to be identified locally where it does work, where it doesn’t, and where the other benefits are, like cost reduction.”

The inquiry also covered whether weight-based targets for recycling would continue to be suitable (in the face of some authorities potentially collecting heavier materials rather than ‘key’ materials). Sargeant said: “We think weight-based targets are appropriate… When you get to 70 per cent recycling plus, it’s not optional which materials you pick, because of the numbers, you have to think about the whole waste stream.”

He concluded: “The panacea is not to create waste in the first place. That’s absolutely the ideal.”

Find out more about the inquiry into recycling in Wales or the recycling collection blueprint.