Rethinking waste: ASPRG seminar review

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:

Last year proved to be something of a showstopper when it came to environmental policy.

With Michael Gove boldly leading the pack, Defra officials have been working hard to fulfil their mission to be the first generation to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’.

Though the pledges have been plentiful, from plastic-free shopping aisles to zero avoidable waste by 2050, criticism began to mount that the strategies left a lot to the imagination in terms of how these aims will be achieved.

Many now are looking to the upcoming Resources and Waste Strategy, which is expected by the end of the year, to join the dots in Defra’s green mission.

Last month the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (which is thankfully shortened to APSRG) held a seminar to explore the government’s next steps for resource productivity.

The seminar brought together industry, academia and the third sector to discuss what key elements will be needed in the strategy and feed back to government, with the panel made up of a series of MPs and industry representation. RWW took a seat to find out the latest thoughts.

Circle of life

Things kicked off with a very positive discussion on the potential of the circular economy and what it could mean for businesses in the UK. Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol and Environmental Audit Committee member said there is real scope for the environment in this field. “For London alone there’s a potential for the circular economy to put £7bn back into our economy every year if it is developed well. It could facilitate manufacturing jobs, for example, which are drying out.

“Therefore I’d like to see some fiscal incentives put in place in the upcoming strategy for people to observe the waste hierarchy. I’d like to see imaginative measures from the Chancellor as well as better enforcement of the waste hierarchy, which needs to inform government policy more.”

Robert Fell, chief executive of the British Metals Recycling Association, agreed. He said: “We need to use as much secondary materials as possible. The recycling industry needs circular economics in place and stability.”

Who’s responsible for this mess?

PRN reform is a hot topic at the moment, with hopes that a redesigned PRN system could help to both reduce polluted waste and prevent fraud.

Alan Brown, MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, said: “Producer responsibility does need to improve and producers need to seize opportunities for recycling. The Scottish government are also intending to implement a long-term data strategy which will analyse use, recycling elements and waste.”

The panel also questioned who should be held responsible for litter and plastic pollution.

McCarthy added: “We’ve had positive noise from Defra but there’s a long way to go. There was a call for evidence on plastic tax in the Spring Statement but the Chancellor had already announced this back in November. The desire to create headlines is stronger than the desire to do something about it.

“When it comes to producer responsibility, we have the lowest obligations in the EU, with taxpayers having to foot the bill at the moment.”

There was a general acknowledgement across the panel that each element of the chain was in need of a shake-up, including at the design stage of a product or its packaging.

Fell said: “We need to stop making stuff out of materials that can’t be recycled and design and manufacture products which can be easily broken down. The ultimate aim is to avoid being criticised by future generations for not leaving any material behind.”

Where should our waste go?

APSRG chair and Labour MP for Huddersfield Barry Sheerman suggested that designers should visit a recycling plant to see what happens to the products they produce. To tackle current waste issues, Sheerman proposed Energy from Waste (EfW) technology as part of the solution.

He said: “The fact we’ve got a strategy in itself is good, but I don’t think we will be able to get a sensible policy without EfW. We see fine EfW plants in the hearts of cities, and as long as it’s energy recovery I think it is a very important part of the balance.

“Increasingly people are going to be told ‘you produce the waste and you get rid of it’. We need to educate people what good recycling is and we should be forcing waste and recycling back to the community where it comes from rather than shipping it away.”

Yet the role of EfW and its place in the upcoming strategy divided the panel. Brown said: “There is a logic to EfW as it offers reduced energy bills, but it should be a last resort. It’s counter-intuitive and we should be making sure regulations are strict enough so that recycling is still done.”

McCarthy agreed, reinforcing her argument that we should pay closer attention to the waste hierarchy. She said: “EfW is better than waste going to landfill but we should be wary, there has been examples of crops being grown specifically for AD [anaerobic digestion].”

Though conversation was rife in the seminar, it seems as though opinion is still divided on some key issues, demonstrating the difficult job Defra faces over the coming months. Perhaps Fell summed up the attitudes Defra officials ought to have: “We have the choice between doing what’s easy and what’s right.”

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