November 14th, 2012
by Phillip Ward
Local authority recycling figures for England for the year 2011/12 have just come out from Defra. The good news is that for the first time more material is being recycled or composted than is sent to landfill. The bad news is the confirmation of what we have suspected for a while; the rate of growth in recycling is stalling.
These two bits of news are “explained” by the continuing fall in waste arisings and the growth in EfW, which is starting to accelerate. This can be seen in Defra’s graph.
The wasting of waste
There are some things worth pondering about these numbers. First, what is happening to all the waste we used to create? If the figures are right one tonne in 8 of local authority collected waste has disappeared since 2007/08. According to Defra that’s a 2.6% reduction in each year. Is that just the effect of the recession? But GDP hasn’t fallen that far. In fact since 2008 it’s actually up a little. It seems that the ambition to decouple waste from growth may have been achieved, but how; and is it permanent?
Some of the answers may be buried in other ONS data. The annual Family Spending Report for example shows that while family spending is not falling significantly, it is changing. Proportionately more is going on travel, power and heating: activities that don’t generate physical wastes. However, these changes are not on the face of it enough to explain the big reductions in local authority collected waste. Other behavioural changes are at work. One of those may well be the effect of the Courtauld Commitment where major retailers are reducing packaging and supporting efforts to reduce food waste. WRAP is fairly confident that food waste totals are falling significantly and are starting a project to measure the change. Packaging and food waste are big components of household waste. If we are seeing systemic changes here, that is positive and WRAP deserves a pat on the back.
On the other hand, if the change is just macro-economics at work it may be reversible. Despite waste reduction having been an objective of policy since 2007 there seems a lack of curiosity about what is going on and why. Some significant investments are being planned, often on the assumption that previous links between economic and waste growth will resume at some point. It would be really handy to know more about what is going on so that assumption can be tested.
Recycling peaking too soon?
That recycling rates are stalling is far less surprising. There is more than enough research, from WRAP and others, to show what is needed to increase recycling rates – service improvements and behaviour change. Both cost money and, more importantly, need people to design and implement change. But local authorities are in deep trouble. Government grants have been slashed; local taxes are effectively capped at a maximum of 2% growth but with strong pressure for no growth at all. The money for extending recycling is running out and there are fewer boots on the ground to make sure that people understand and use their recycling schemes.
Of course it remains true that recycling is cheaper than landfill and in a rational world local authorities would make the trade off. Worryingly, that doesn’t seem to be happening in many areas and we need to understand why. Is it because we are still hampered by the split between collection and disposal authorities in some parts of the country? Michael Heseltine’s recent report on stimulating growth made another attempt to reignite the change he first proposed in 1990 to move England universally to unitary local authorities, as in Scotland and Wales. Maybe, now that money is so tight and district councils are increasingly finding themselves stretched too thinly, it is time to grasp this nettle.
Is it because some local authorities have bought into large-scale MBT or EfW solutions planned when annual growth in waste arisings was still expected? Or do we need new solutions that work well in dense urban areas and to encourage those that live there to use them? Again Defra seem curiously incurious. Their suggestion is that the figures reflect local authorities having gathered the low hanging fruit. So what are they going to do about their 50% obligation in the Waste Framework Directive?
That burning question again
The growth in EfW shown in the latest figures is also not a surprise – except to the Daily Mail. The incinerators are late arriving but we have known for a long time that EfW would be a big part of the story as landfill is withdrawn. Indeed logically, with a target of just 50% recycling/composting in England, EfW should eventually expand to take up close to half of the waste stream. The interesting new information in the figures this time is Defra’s first published attempt to look at the carbon impacts of the different waste treatment options. These were annexed to the statistical report as an experimental series on which Defra are looking for comments. They make interesting reading. The 11.5Mt of waste that was recycled are estimated to have reduced CO2 emissions by nearly 7Mt. while the 5Mt of residual waste that was sent for EfW led to additional emissions of 2.5Mt.
If these numbers are right and we do eventually get to a 50:50 post landfill split then EfW emissions of 7Mt will almost balance the recycling savings of 8Mt: yet another reason for us to set more ambitious recycling targets.
The Daily Mail take on the numbers was typically idiosyncratic. They saw them as a failure of the recycling conspiracy which has rained such hardship on citizens, who now have to face up to toxic emissions as local authorities resort to burning the waste instead. But just for once they may have hit on a germ of truth – the public have signed up for recycling and generally hate EfW. They may well get restive as the figures roll out.