January 14th, 2019
by Peter Jones
There are many good things in the waste strategy published by Defra last month. It’s packed full of ideas, and signals a potentially transformative change in the way that England manages resources – although with many of the important details left to be resolved through consultation.
Unfortunately for a strategy, one thing it doesn’t always do a brilliant job of is weaving together the many threads it spins into whole cloth. Some big questions are left open: for example, how will deposit refunds interact with local authority service provision; how much influence will producers have on the shape of waste collections once they have financial responsibility for paying for the system; and how will the commercial waste market function once extended producer responsibility is in place?
Here, though, I want to focus on one of the smaller, but I think fascinating, tensions in a strategy that otherwise contains much that is encouraging.
Don’t weight up!
Over recent years, ministers have regularly been critical of weight-based recycling targets. The main rationale for moving away from weight-based targets is that they risk creating a perverse incentive – they could encourage councils to bulk out their recycling rates by collecting material whose collection yields little environmental benefit. As the strategy puts it:
“Some lightweight materials have large environmental footprints, like plastics, while some heavy materials have small footprints, like aggregates. This can encourage behaviours that do nothing to help meet our goals.” (p136)
While the government accepts that England will, for the time being, need to “continue to work towards weight-based targets where it makes sense to do so” its longer-term ambition is to transition to carbon-based and natural capital-based targets as a better measure of impact. While I have some reservations about moving away from weight-based targets – I evaluated the arguments for carbon emissions-based targets in an article last year – it’s a respectable viewpoint, shared by many in the industry.
While aggregates are mentioned in the quote above as the main example of an environmentally questionable material to collect for recycling, ministers have more often been critical of councils for bulking up their recycling figures by picking up lots of garden waste. There may be a reason why it wasn’t mentioned this time.
Up the garden path?
Given the rationale for moving away from weight-based targets, two other policies put forward in the strategy seem rather odd:
- On p72, the strategy promises a consultation on requiring local authorities to provide garden waste collections free of charge, reversing the trend towards charging that has reduced arisings.
- On p75, it announces a review of the Controlled Waste Regulations 2012 to make it clear that local authorities should not charge for the deposit of ‘DIY waste’ (much of which will be aggregate) at Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs).
Both of these policies have financial implications for local authorities, and the injunction not to charge for the deposit of DIY waste will lead to additional challenges when it comes to trying to avoid businesses abusing HWRCs. I would anticipate that councils will have quite a few concerns to raise as the government looks to move these ideas forward.
However, the key strategic point here is that banning local authorities from charging for garden and DIY waste will (one would think) tend to increase yields of these materials, which elsewhere the government is concerned that councils might use to inflate their apparent recycling performance.
It’s not completely contradictory: I understand that you can object in principle to councils using charges as a means of restricting take-up of waste services, or believe that priority should be given to making services convenient for people, while still thinking that recycling garden waste and rubble shouldn’t be considered on a par with recycling aluminium. In practical terms, though, it’s an important tension.
Councils don’t have spare cash to splash around on collecting lower priority waste streams; nor do they have a wide range of levers they can pull to control the amount of waste that people produce. In practice, then, we seem to have one policy that encourages councils to focus their efforts on high-impact recycling, and one that limits their ability to do so. That doesn’t fundamentally undermine the strategy, of course; but it does suggest that, for all its aspirational language, there’s still a risk that resource efficiency considerations will end up playing second fiddle to other political concerns.