Scotland's environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham doesn't hold back at this year's Scottish Resources Conference

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Roseanna Cunningham (right) had a lot to say at this year's conference

Roseanna Cunningham was in bullish mood at September’s Scottish Resources Conference in Edinburgh.

The day before the environment secretary’s keynote speech, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) had released household recycling data showing that rates stumbled up one percentage point to 45.2% in 2016.

The missed target of 50% by 2013 remains some way off, while 60% by 2020 must now be aspirational rather than possible. Mind you, East Renfrewshire has done it (60.8%).

“While this is encouraging, at national level it’s not at the pace we’d like,” Cunningham said. “There are also problems with contamination of household material. So, the recycling ‘loop’ of our circular economy is not working as effectively as it could.”

She hopes that another chunk of funding might help: £8.4m is being allocated to projects that improve recycling rates, reduce emissions and re-use resources. Half of it (£4.2m) is via Zero Waste Scotland for small to medium-sized enterprises working on new products; the other half is for councils that have signed up to the Scottish Household Recycling Charter.

“Our investment will make it easier for households and businesses to put their things in the right bin by removing some of the confusion of different systems and working towards a national recycling system,” Cunningham explained.

Considering further measures

If that doesn’t work, the environment secretary won’t be afraid to legislate. “I must make it clear that I want to see real progress towards our recycling targets, and I will consider using further measures to help achieve that,” she told those packed into the International Conference Centre.

Room has already been made in the parliamentary schedule for a circular economy bill, of course, through which the government will be exploring “effective legislative measures [that] can support a circular economy”. Work on the bill is ongoing, but this shouldn’t affect the progress of the recently announced deposit return scheme (DRS).

Earlier in September, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that a national DRS will be introduced. It’s a controversial idea, but environmental campaigners are delighted with the news. There was even support from an unlikely source. “I’m a fan [of deposit return schemes],” said Adam Read, who was recently appointed external affairs director at Suez UK.

It’s an odd position for a waste contractor to take, he admitted, with many councils and contractors concerned that the scheme would undermine kerbside collections (bottles are a high-value stream). However, for Read “it’s the right thing to do. We [Suez] might have a less significant role in the materials involved in a DRS but a more significant role in everything else.”

Paving the way for a deposit return scheme

That a DRS will be launched is no longer a matter for debate; however, what it looks like definitely is. In briefings with journalists after her speech, Cunningham admitted that modelling on the design of the scheme continues, as do conversations with lawyers about the best legislative route.

Cunningham is mindful that critics of the idea will unpick the proposals to find any grounds for a legal challenge (as industry continues to do with plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol). She said the proposals must be “unchallengeable.”

Government is most likely to use the Climate Change Act 2009 to introduce the DRS – specifically sections 84 and 85, under which Scottish ministers “may make regulations … only where they consider it necessary or expedient to do so for the purpose of promoting or securing an increase in the recycling of materials”.

The Circular Economy Bill is the other possible route, but that will take more time and Cunningham is clearly keen to get going. “I want to look at which way you can do this quickest,” she said.

The 5p charge on bags has “fundamentally changed people’s behaviour”, and the DRS is “the next step”, said Cunningham – but she is already thinking about the one after that: “What we have in our sights is the coffee cup.”

The government is in the process of establishing an “advisory group to consider fiscal and other measures to reduce waste and boost the circular economy”, according to its 2017-18 legislative programme.

“We’re interested in a possible charge on single-use cups,” Cunningham explained. “Could that shift people towards ‘re-use’ as a way of life, in the same way as with carrier bags? And can measures such as these encourage companies to redesign their products so they are less likely to end up as waste?”

Changing attitudes

From bags to cups is a big leap, according to some (something RWW will be analysing in more detail in the next issue), but reading between the lines, the government could already have made its mind up. That doesn’t mean a coffee cup tax will happen, though – in case you haven’t heard, there is a power struggle going on between Westminster and Holyrood.

At the heart of the struggle are the 111 EU competencies the UK government believes relate to devolved powers. Among these are powers relating to packaging and waste producer responsibility, and the Scottish government fears that its counterpart in London is prepared to throw a Brexit-sized spanner in Holyrood’s positive environmental work.

“As we continue to develop our policy on a circular economy, we may need to update our legislation,” Cunningham said. “That will be difficult if the EU (Withdrawal) Bill moves powers beyond the direct control of Scottish ministers. We must oppose any attempt at a power grab by Westminster when it comes to bringing back decision-making from Brussels.”

Scotland has certainly used its devolved powers to set an ambitious course on the environment, and those in Holyrood won’t give this up lightly. On this form, Cunningham is certainly up for a fight and, if she wins, those in the waste industry should steel themselves for more legislation, not less.

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