Was the Resources and Waste Strategy worth the wait?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Illustration by Ely Walton

Just before Christmas, Defra published England’s first new waste strategy for 11 years.

A lot has happened during that time – the industry is dealing with resources just as much as it is residual waste materials, and the notion of a circular economy is now a clear market driver for high-value recovery and extraction operations both home and abroad.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove was keen to reflect this in his foreword for the strategy, which in his words “seeks to redress the balance in favour of the natural world”. Certainly, the strategy isn’t short on ambition – no less than seven consultations will take place this year covering a myriad of policies including extended producer responsibility (EPR), food waste reporting and Duty of Care regulation.

But with so much to scrutinise and discuss, what will actually be delivered – and what might fall by the wayside?

It's a question that Adam Read, director of external affairs at Suez, has been pondering. “This [strategy] is a great step forward, but we know there are seven consultations next year. That means many of them could be watered down, reduced in scope or not be as well aligned as they might seem on the outset.”

EPR reform and food waste collections were the strategy’s biggest headline-grabbers, and understandably so, given that many within the industry have long been campaigning for both. Even so, one proposal took Read by surprise.

“What I wasn’t expecting was mandatory food waste collections,” he says. “That seemed too difficult to get because of the inherent cost incurred with them. In the consultation, I expect a strong kickback from local authorities and it will be interesting to see how that debate develops – because it’s important to meeting our targets, no question, but it is an expensive service.”

Funding questions

Mark Sommerfeld, policy manager for the Renewable Energy Association (REA), also has concerns over how the service will be funded if it goes ahead. “It’s clear from the high-level messaging with the strategy that they are expecting this money to come from EPR, or at least partly from that. I think that is welcome. Having said that, local authorities do raise genuine concerns around the costs of introducing these schemes,” he says.

The REA released its own report ‘The Real Economic Benefit of Separate Biowaste Collections’ back in 2016, which showed that once mandatory food waste collections are in place, they can be highly cost-effective for local authorities, saving them money in the medium to longer term.

“There are cost benefits of doing this, but of course, that needs to be addressed early on in terms of how it’s being implemented. Government is going to have to look at how it can support local authorities and recognise that local authorities are very cash-strapped right now, and that’s probably going to need some form of central government funding,” Sommerfeld adds.

Read doesn’t see EPR necessarily working as a funding mechanism for food waste collections, unless food waste is obligated under EPR. “Why would the likes of Coca-Cola or P&G want some of their money to go on food waste collections?” he questions.

Rather, he believes ERP will over time reduce collection costs for local authorities, which may well turn out to be the solution.

“My take will be that the food waste collection costs will be borne by local authorities who won’t be paying for the costs of target materials. As that target material portfolio grows, and as we simplify packaging over the next four to five years, the entire cost of the system will come down, paid for by producers,” he says.

“That will leave local authorities with only one or two streams they’ve got to collect, one of which will be food waste. My opinion is that food waste should go to pay-as-you-throw. It seems to be the logical endpoint.”

Mandatory food waste collections

The Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) says it has been working closely with various government departments and the Treasury on costed proposals for separate food waste collections to try and get some much-needed clarity on the issue.

The government’s aim is for every household in England to have a weekly separate food waste collection in place from 2023, but Jon Harrison, external affairs manager at ADBA, says the timescale is concerning.

“We understand that there are around 70 local authority waste contracts up for renewal in the next three years. It would be far cheaper for these renewed contracts to include food waste collections now rather than add them in at a later date,” he argues.

Similar implementation timeframes for EPR packaging reform and a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) haven’t gone unnoticed. “2023 is a long time away for something which industry and legislators have already agreed must change,” says Fran Witthuhn, an EPR consultant at The Sower Environmental.

While acknowledging that it may take time to get the right solution given the complexities of such regimes, she says she would like to see packaging reforms introduced sooner.

“We should not forget that the full-cost EPR model has been around for a long time in other countries, and as for the increased fees, many multinationally selling companies are well familiar with the actual cost of packaging from countries like France, Germany and Belgium.

“Also, an overhaul of the system need not necessarily mean a total scrapping of existing measures, some of which work quite well and could be retained. Administrative changes should not take four years to take effect.”

Witthuhn adds that any packaging reforms will require “unprecedented co-operation” between local authorities and compliance schemes to take into account considerations like council tax, ownership of waste materials, performance indicators and governance.

“Producers will want more accountability from being charged more,” she says. “How will they know that what they are paying is the net value? I would strongly suggest that other financial support mechanisms or incentives are factored in for cash-strapped local authorities. In addition, financial incentives should be discussed for consumers, who producers will pass the increased cost on to in their product pricing.”

Single-use obsession?

On the topic of plastics packaging, packaging design consultant Tracy Sutton, founder of Root Innovation, feels the strategy is too focused on single-use or disposable materials, and lacks details when it comes to promoting genuine circular solutions.

“I'd like to see more commitment on clarifying decoupling from the use of fossil fuels, and more definition between renewable and fossil-based materials, in terms of how we should be using them. And more leadership on clear incentivisation of reuse models – there’s no real commitment to that,” she says.

While believing that plastic bans do have a role to play, Sutton thinks waste prevention should be prioritised as an approach over innovation in substitute materials that might come with their own unintended consequences. “We never used to have laminate films and flexibles, there are clearly alternatives we've been using for decades and that's where reuse and refill come in.”

When it comes to other items such as consumer electronics, Susanne Baker, head of environment and compliance at techUK, also thinks the strategy falls short. “It hasn’t really dealt with the nub of barriers to repair nor sought to look at ways to incentivise circular economy models. Lots of stick, but where are the carrots? This is a real missed opportunity.”

On the flipside, she feels proposals for digital tracking of waste represent a real opportunity for the tech sector. “As the strategy points out, not only will this provide important insights on the flow of resources through the economy, it could provide an important tool in fighting waste crime.

“What will be important here is that we ensure that all innovative measures on data – the materials datahub, the tracking pilots – are using a common language so they are fully interoperable.”

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