Kerry's heroes

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

In an exclusive interview with RWW, Labour’s shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy tells Geraldine Faulkner where she thinks the government is getting it wrong on waste, and discusses the inspiration behind her Food Waste (Reduction) Bill

As one of the 16 women who was appointed to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in September last year, Kerry McCarthy, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs and MP for Bristol East, is playing it safe.

“Although we have already had five years in opposition, it’s early days in terms of this Defra team,” says McCarthy straight away, before noting that “the recent flooding knocked our plans a bit”.

By “plans”, the shadow environment secretary is referring to the original intention for her and Alex Cunningham, MP for Stockton North and member of the shadow Defra team, to carry out a Stern-style internal review of Labour’s waste policies.

For those who are too young to remember, economist Sir Nicholas Stern produced a seminal report in 2006 on global warming’s effect on the world economy. The shadow Defra review is expected to take 18 months.

Getting the timing right

“This fits in quite nicely with the EU report,” comments McCarthy. “There is not a lot of point in setting policy when we are so far off from the election. It’s one thing to see if it’s achievable, but if the earliest we can get into government is 2020, we need to get it right. You can be idealistic, but you have to be able to deliver at the same time.”

Talk of the next general election triggers a sudden burst of government-bashing.

“The EU has set a target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020 and 70% for municipal waste by 2030. However, the current government is not keen on mandatory targets,” states McCarthy firmly. “The government doesn’t seem to have a coherent waste strategy and I don’t get the impression they’re trying to put one together, so what we put forward in our plans has to be within a realistic framework and put in a local context so that local authorities are able to deliver.”

It is not just the UK government that gets a thumbs down from the shadow secretary – the EU comes in for some criticism as well.

“We were disappointed with parts of the revised Circular Economy Package. The emphasis should be on designing out waste and looking at the bigger picture, especially as there is the potential to do a lot of work on it; whether it’s by changing patterns of behaviour or enlisting the support of the private sector, along with potential job creation and innovation.”

No conversation with McCarthy would be complete without touching on food waste. In September last year, the MP introduced her Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, which aims to follow in the footsteps of recent Belgian and French proposals to make supermarkets donate unsold food to charities while (with manufacturers) reducing their food waste by 30% by 2025.

McCarthy’s eyes flash as she refers to the 30% of consumable food that goes to waste in the UK. “Everyone you speak to would agree that such a high figure is a scandal and we have to do something about it. The visceral reaction is that good food should not be wasted.” She pauses briefly before taking another swipe at the government: “The government shelved its sustainable goals. So while the US has really set out its ambitions for tackling food waste and has established a target for halving it, and France has set out its stall, the UK should be able to follow suit.

“Love Food Hate Waste has done some great work, but it focuses on domestic food waste and we could do so much more by addressing the big players in the market.”

McCarthy’s cross-party bill, which is supported by food waste campaigning groups Feedback and FareShare, was due to have its second reading at the end of January.

However, the bill was not heard due to an overrunning first bill and two urgent questions. Keen to maintain the momentum created with over 10,000 people writing to their MPs, McCarthy has had the bill re-listed in early March and says she will be pressing government to take stronger and more ambitious action at every opportunity.

The MP also seems inclined to espouse a ban on food waste going to landfill, despite Labour having backtracked on banning food waste to landfill last year.

Could this new broom sweep clean when it comes to food waste and landfill?

She appears to be reluctant to commit just yet and turns instead to the landfill tax, which she says “ought to bring in less money year-on-year so that it proves it’s working.

“I am keen to look at that as it will be further down the line in terms of the development of anaerobic digestion.”

Emphasis on food

There is however a proviso when it comes to AD. “Food-growing land should be kept for food,” says the MP, who is keen to stress that the ‘f’ in Defra stands for ‘food’, not ‘farming’.

The shadow environment secretary warns against what she refers to as “tabloid scepticism”, where people are told not to bother separating recyclable materials as it all ends up in one bin.

“Recycling is definitely to be encouraged,” she emphasises.

The MP recalls how she went out with fishermen in Swansea to look at keeping

the marine environment clean of waste materials such as used plastics and redundant fishing nets.

“As a scuba diver, it brings it home to you,” she says, although she admits the weather was too choppy on her trip to Swansea for them to go out further than the bay.

McCarthy points to a ‘biodegradable lobster pot’ initiative, promoted by animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection.

“That is just individual fishermen coming up with the ideas themselves. If there is a biodegradable option, this is something that ought to be made available.”

Turning to re-use, does McCarthy feel we should be following in Scotland’s footsteps and considering a bottle deposit scheme?

“We supported measures such as the 5p levy on plastic bags, which has already seen an 80% cut in the number of plastic bags used by supermarket shoppers in the UK, but it is crucial that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture. We must meet the EU target for 50% of household waste to be recycled by 2020. I’m concerned that the government’s focus almost exclusively on food and farming does not leave Defra a lot of scope to be very imaginative or innovative,” opines the MP.

The time allocated with the shadow environment secretary is nearly at an end, and I have time for just one more question: What prompted her to spearhead the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill?

McCarthy grins: “It was a chance encounter in Trafalgar Square with Tom Levitt, who stood down as MP for High Peak in 2010. He told me he was doing some work for the charity FoodCycle and they were looking for a patron. I said I would be happy to meet them.

“FoodCycle connects food waste donations with community cafés. I met lots of people and the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill evolved. Food is not just about farming; it’s more about the relationship between farmers, public health, issues such as antibiotics and their use in farming.

“One of my main interests in food waste lies in food poverty and encouraging people to eat in a way that is healthier.”

As a vegan who sparked a strong reaction from the farming community when she was first appointed shadow environment secretary, McCarthy noticeably hasn’t mentioned the ‘v’ word once in the course of this interview and certainly doesn’t use every opportunity to promote her own agenda.

However, it would be reassuring to know – apart from the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill she is pushing – what waste issues she does espouse.

McCarthy’s thoughts on…


We need to rethink the way we manage resources in order to guide Britain toward a circular economy. Labour’s internal Stern-style review will seek to unlock the economic opportunities from greater resource efficiency, and the role this has as part of the solution for sustainability. As we conduct this review of Labour’s waste policies, we are keen to engage with the waste industry.

Energy from waste

Energy from waste is an important tool in closing the loop and maximising the benefits from residual waste that would otherwise go to landfill. Energy recovery provides considerable climate change benefits compared with landfill, but it should not displace the waste hierarchy.

Renewable energy subsidies

Of course, as the cost of clean energy technologies falls so should the level of public subsidy they receive. But the chancellor has made cuts that are so sudden and so severe that businesses have not been able to plan for them, and they will have the effect of limiting the growth of what should be really important new industries.

Standardised household waste collection

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to bin collections so these decisions are best made at a local level. Councils need to be able to take account of the types of homes in their areas when they plan waste and recycling collections.

The push by SNP in Scotland and the Tories in England to standardise LA recycling collection regimes is at odds with their stated support for the localism agenda which is meant to be about empowering communities.

Refuse derived fuel

Ideally, more of this waste should be going to recycling and not for burning.

There will always be a market for RDF, but currently there seems to be a perverse incentive to export this waste for fuel. The EU has made it clear that residual waste should only be exported when recovery has taken place.

There is an argument to say that recovery is a more economic and environmentally sustainable alternative to RDF and it’s something we are keen to hear about from the industry.

Green Labour

The Labour Party has a proud record on climate change and the environment, from creating Defra and DECC to setting up WRAP, conducting the Stern Review and passing the world-leading Climate Change Act, which inspired action and has been copied by around 100 other countries across the world.

We are now looking at ways in which we can develop ambitious policies on waste and resource efficiency, and on implementation of the EC Circular Economy Package, but with four years to go until the general election we are some way off deciding what will be in the next manifesto.

We are keen to consult as widely as possible while we are developing these policies.

LA budgetary austerity

The government’s announcement last year that they are scrapping the central government grant worth £18 billion will have a serious impact on vital council services.

We know there is a very real concern that some councils are not going to have enough money to fulfil their statutory duties, let alone trying to meet the bigger targets, on waste collections for example.

You can’t just pass down cuts, you have to give local communities more power to address local priorities and grow their local economy.

If you’re going to do devolution properly, you have to give local government fiscal powers.

Five things I can’t live without…

My favourite band is Joy Division/New Order. The most recent New Order album is a return to form. I saw them live last month for the 20th time; the first time was in 1982

One of the great things about this role is that I have an excuse to be outdoors. I did a 13-mile hike in the Quantocks with the Ramblers on a beautiful crisp winter’s day; definitely something I should do more often

I don’t get to go diving very often, but I miss it hugely. The best dive I had was in Belize, with a group of nurse sharks, although night-diving in the Philippines was pretty special too

Crime thrillers
I switch off by reading – I’ve worked my way through most Nordic Noir writers and have started on French authors now

My family
Everyone says this, but it’s true. We’re a close family and there are a lot of us. I have five sisters, tons of nephews and nieces, and I’m about to become a great-aunt

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