by Peter Jones8 minute read
Defra’s long-awaited response to the 2021 consistency consultation should answer many of the questions councils have about the changes they will have to make to recycling collection services. One of the biggest is whether government is serious about the rules on source separation contained in s.57 of the Environment Act 2021.
I suspect that the response won’t give us all the answers – some issues will be deferred to the promised statutory guidance. However, a good indicator of whether the source separation requirements may have teeth will be what (if anything) Defra says about interpreting the so-called ‘TEEP test’.
The test, in the language of the amended Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, assesses whether separate collections are “Technically”, “Economically” and “Environmentally Practicable”. If they aren’t, some measure of co-mingling is permitted. The new version of the test in the 2021 Act is similar: instead of checking “environmental practicability”, collectors must now ask whether source separation would have a “significant environmental benefit”; and there is no longer a test of whether separate collections are necessary to “facilitate or improve” recycling. However, the key concepts of technical and economic practicability remain, so I’ll stick to the familiar phrase “TEEP test”.
Quite a few council officers I’ve spoken to are sceptical about whether the rules are intended to have an effect. That’s understandable: many recall that when the 2011 regulations were launched, Defra had to be sued into replacing a clause that stated that co-mingled collection was a form of separate collection – and still emphasised that it didn’t want to see multiple bins “imposed” on householders. It was little surprise that no council changed their collection system because of a TEEP test, and no meaningful enforcement action was taken.
The mood music from Defra is different this time, but it’s also a lot quieter. With the language of the new legislation being very similar to the old, it’s little surprise that some expect it to have no greater impact.
They may be right. However, the best indication of whether TEEP should now be taken more seriously will be if the consultation response shows that Defra is thinking about the hard problems that TEEP tests throw up – even if this is just a promise to address them in subsequent statutory guidance. Let’s consider some household waste examples (noting that the TEEP issues for commercial waste are different, but no less difficult).
The first question is – how do you carry out a TEEP test? The Environment Act says that waste collectors will have to produce a written TEEP assessment, and that guidance may address what the consultation calls the “type of written assessment required” (p51). The consultation goes on to say that a minimum standard of supporting evidence may be required – for example, using WRAP’s indicative cost and performance (ICAP) tool (p57). However, councils should also be able to rely on evidence from WRAP-approved collection models (e.g. if they’ve commissioned a recent collection options study). That will be important, not least because ICAP doesn’t model flatted properties or hard to access households – the types of property most likely to pose practicability problems. To ensure consistency and quality, a written assessment should be supported by a recognised model that covers the great majority of households.
Using a good model is important, but it will only yield useful results if sensible assumptions are used and options are designed fairly; options can easily be rigged to ensure that the council’s preferred one prevails. Guidance should specify that, for example, a multi-stream and two stream option must be considered alongside co-mingled; that residual waste frequency is the same in each option; and that reasonable efforts must be made to optimise each option’s performance.
The consultation paper mentions two factors under both “technical” and “economic” practicability:
- “type of housing stock and accessibility – e.g. flats, houses of multiple occupation, student accommodation, historic buildings, dwellings with communal recycling points” and
- “rurality and geography of property location”.
However, it says nothing about the circumstances where flats or rurality might give rise to a technical practicability issue. In my view, most technical issues about housing types collapse into economic ones: there’s usually a way to do source separation, but it might be expensive. Service costs would emerge through collection modelling – so are there any genuine technical practicability questions?
The consultation says that something is technically practicable if it has been “developed and proven to function in practice”. There are separate collection systems in rural areas (e.g. Somerset, Powys) and in ones with many communal bin properties (Hounslow, Newport). Since these “function in practice”, when might the presence of these property types give rise to a technical practicability issue? Similar questions arise when it comes to storage space at properties for containers. The guidance could address this by including case studies and requiring a council to justify why it can’t implement a system that works elsewhere.
Now, suppose a council concludes that separate collections would lead to practicability issues for – say – 10% of properties. Are they obligated to offer separate collections to the 90%, or do the 10% of difficult ones mean that there is no obligation? The consultation proposes that councils should “complete a single written assessment for their service area, which will take account of the different exceptions, rather than multiple assessments for the same service area” (p58). There is ambiguity about whether that means you reach a single conclusion (“practicable”/ “not practicable”) for the whole area, or that you produce one document, which can reach different practicability conclusions about different properties. Authorities will need guidance on what to do in this situation.
What happens if a council concludes that a multi-stream service isn’t viable? Can it then jump straight to a co-mingled service? It would be helpful if guidance could make clear if there’s a hierarchy of source separation, so that two stream must be considered as a second preference if multistream isn’t practicable.
Direction of travel
The consultation mentions both “storage in existing waste transfer infrastructure” and “availability of treatment infrastructure” as potential considerations. One of the challenges guidance must address is whether, in two tier areas, a Waste Disposal Authority (WDA) has any obligation to facilitate its Waste Collection Authorities (WCAs) to source separate. A WDA can make it difficult by failing to provide tipping facilities for multiple streams – or even by directing WCAs to deliver material to a MRF, thereby making source separation futile. What is a WCA to do in this situation?
Equally interesting is whether a unitary authority could avoid its source separation obligations by ensuring that key dates on its collection and disposal sides don’t match up. While it might be the case that, from a clean slate, multistream would be economically practicable, what if:
- When vehicles need replacing or a collection contract is up for renewal, the authority has a MRF contract in place that would be expensive to break; and
- When the MRF contract requires renewal, vehicle or collection contract issues mean there would be significant costs in changing collection system?
The guidance could explain whether councils should think on a “clean slate” basis, and then work out a sensible way to move towards the preferred option.
Economically Practicable Really?
The last question I want to raise is how TEEP interfaces with extended producer responsibility (EPR). Assessing economic practicability was tricky when you only needed to consider the council’s finances; but how does it work when producers are picking up the tab for packaging waste collections? Three EPR considerations are:
- Should councils still think about economic practicability in terms of the lowest overall cost, or should they think about their own net position after EPR payments are taken into account? If EPR tailors local authority payments to the collection system, the cheapest system “net” of EPR payments may be different from the cheapest “gross” cost.
- Will producers be able to indicate a preference for certain forms of collection? If they want to pay for more source separation, does that affect what’s economically practicable?
- How should material values be accounted for when authorities are supposed to receive their costs net of material income? Some authorities dislike the material price risk of multistream collections; but if producers are bearing that risk for packaging, how should material values be factored into a TEEP assessment? Assuming some consideration of material values is needed, what values should be used?
All these issues – and many others – need to be addressed in guidance. I haven’t even touched on environmental benefits.
While they may not be addressed in full in the government’s response to the consistency consultation, there may be indications that Defra understands the complexity of TEEP tests, especially now they interact with EPR. If so, it will provide reassurance that the guidance will provide the necessary degree of certainty to enable TEEP to be applied effectively by local authorities and the Environment Agency alike.
Featured image: summonedbyfells via Flicker (CC BY 2.0)