Encouraging growth in resource efficiency

Written by: RWW | Published:

An economy that is committed to achieving higher levels of resource efficiency is somewhat of a pipe dream right now for those trying to deliver intelligent-led waste solutions, but if an influential group of Conservative MPs get their way, this could soon become a reality. Maxine Perella, freelance journalist reports.

Last month the 2020 Group - composed of around 40 Tory modernisers - published a report entitled Sweating our assets which called for a re-think of the UK’s economic metrics, writes Maxine Perella, freelance journalist. 

The study, led by Laura Sandys MP, puts forward a strong case for government to re-examine the concept of GDP (gross domestic product), which doesn’t take account of resource depletion, and shift its thinking to the profitability of turning waste into a valuable business commodity.

To do this, the report argues, ‘waste’ as a government policy area needs to be renamed ‘resources’ and moved from its current home within the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). 

This shift, it says, would enable waste to be given strong sectoral support as a commercial opportunity, rather than to leave it languishing at Defra where the focus tends to be around environmental protection. 

Such a policy shift has ignited opinion within the waste industry which has expressed disappointment of late with Defra’s increasing retreat on certain policy issues around energy from waste, TEEP (technically, environmentally and economically practicable) guidance and the heavier, industrial end of waste generation. 

Many observers believe such a move would have advantages as it would signal a more business-led approach and would be more in tune with circular economy thinking.

“Given the emergent priorities for Defra around farming, flooding and food, it is inevitable that the waste to resources agenda will slide off their radar,” notes waste expert Peter Jones. “The shift to BIS could crystallise the real opportunity for the back end resource economy to flourish. The resource economy needs to be recognised for what it is - the largest logistics and re-refining opportunity in the UK.”

Laura Wilton at Policy Connect, an independent, cross-party, not-for-profit UK think tank, believes the move would certainly signal a different approach to waste. 

“It would bring waste policy under one main department, integrating issues such as WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) and ELV (end-of-life vehicles), as well as broader issues such as the green economy,” says Wilton.

Potential complications

Likewise Matthew Farrow, executive director at the Environmental Industries Commission, sees much to be gained provided that BIS puts “time and thought” into how it could help facilitate a resource efficient economy. 

However, he points out there could be potential complications, particularly around the regulatory side of waste management. 

“The trick is to maximise the overlap between good business and good environmental practice, and to get the right balance when the two conflict. BIS should be more alert to the economic opportunities, but it is important that environmental protection is not compromised when trade-offs are made,” he maintains. 

According to Farrow, these complex areas centre around technical waste regulation where needed to protect human health and the environment, such as with hazardous waste, or the intricacies of legal compliance with the EU Waste Framework Directive. 

He says: “Defra has technical/policy expertise here plus a close relationship with the Environment Agency which BIS would need to replicate or find some collaborative mechanism to cover. However, the loss of waste expertise in Defra over the last two years makes this less of a factor than it was.”

Keith Freegard at plastics reprocessing firm Axion Polymers echoes this view. 

“Would BIS want a relationship with the Environment Agency to support things like ensuring someone doesn’t set up an illegal dump?” He asks before adding: “If you find you have the use the word ‘waste’ to describe it, it’s probably something that needs to be in Defra, but if it’s about job creation, market development, circular flow of resources around some sort of new economic model, green business, skills, new technology programmes - all that feels like a BIS job.”

Given the fact that Defra and BIS already have joint input into directives like WEEE and batteries, a cross-departmental approach to waste overall might be a more workable solution - provided there is proper interdepartmental co-ordination. 

Joined-up government?

Steve Lee, chief executive at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), hesitates to use the term ‘joined-up government’ but that, he feels, must be at the heart of any policy shift.

“Whether it is in Defra, DECC [Department of Energy & Climate Change] or BIS what matters more than anything else is that government is wired so they can actually talk and work together on what is a ‘golden thread’ issue … an issue that unites every business sector. I don’t really mind whether it sits in BIS, it’s what government does between departments that’s important. The economic development end of waste and resources is no more or less important than the local community or environmental issues associated with it,” Lee points out.

However he remains sceptical that government can achieve this policy cohesion in practice. 

“We’ve been really frustrated with the lack of signals of joined-up working between government departments. What about the crack in the plaster between DCLG [Department of Communities & Local Government] and Defra? What about the uncertainty over who is managing which aspect of extended producer responsibility between BIS and Defra? They started to make some good strong links towards the end of the last government, but under the coalition I’ve not really seen very good signals at co-ordinating working across government.”

While Wilton thinks a wholesale shift to BIS would not be straightforward, pointing out that even if the political will was there, departmental budget cuts would struggle to support such a move, she says there is no “one clear solution” given cross-departmental working already happens on various strands of policy, not just in waste. “I think a good start would be to embed transparency in this work, ensuring that documents focusing on common policy areas are linked to more than one relevant minister,” she suggests. 

Meaningful progress

John Twitchen, executive director at Copper Consultancy, sits on the CIWM communications committee and feels that ultimately, political dogma and heritage will hinder any meaningful progress being made on this agenda. 

“Personally, I don’t think it makes all that much difference in principle. The point of ministries is that they manage policy around issues. I would hope that any shift in responsibility would enable the sector to ramp up its relationship with, and relevance to, government - at least for a short while.”

RWW caught up with Laura Sandys MP who is leading calls for a switch to BIS and put these points to her. She acknowledged that regulation of the “extreme element of the waste agenda” (that which can’t be recovered) should still stay with Defra. 

“You can have a regulatory arm not sitting in the same place as what I call the promotion arm,” she reasons.

In terms of making BIS the ‘promotional arm’ of waste, Sandys is confident it could be carried forward without any significant complications. 

“It’s perfectly feasible to move portfolios around and it’s perfectly feasible to ensure that one department takes lead over another, none of it is problematic. We would have to ensure that there was absolute clear cross working. I don’t think there’s a problem there at all.” 

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