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Sustainability consultant Amita Vaux says in the debate over deposit return schemes it should be noted that Wales, with no deposit return scheme, ranks among the four highest recycling countries in the world
Mid-May was the deadline for public responses to Defra/HM Treasury consultations on waste and resource reforms. On the table were proposals to make kerbside recycling more consistent; a deposit return scheme (DRS); and a tax/responsibility system for plastic packaging manufacturers. This short article shares some of my observations in reviewing the consultation papers on behalf of Business in the Community (BITC), in order to engage private and public sector organisations in and submit a consolidated response to the government. What follows is neither the voice of BITC or its members.
The DRS and a tax on plastic packaging manufacturers, mooted at 20%, have been championed by both Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Chancellor Philip Hammond. And many would say rightly so. They represent tried and tested systems that have transformed recycling rates in OECD countries around the world.
But is it worth pausing to ask, are we over-thinking, over-engineering and over-pricing something we already have, albeit in a less than optimal form? In short, are we reinventing the wheel on existing circular economy infrastructure?
Wales met its 64% 2020 recycling target back in 2016 simply by setting statutory targets for local authorities
During the BITC debates and through my own research, I became increasingly convinced that consistency in household and business recycling, while not sexy or smart, is the bedrock of all other reforms. Improving existing kerbside collections may not even require us to look to Germany, Sweden or South Korea for inspiration – Wales ranks among the four highest recycling countries in the world, with no DRS, no producer tax and no overly complex producer responsibility system.
It met its 64% 2020 recycling target back in 2016 simply by setting statutory targets for local authorities, policed with fines. For cash-strapped councils, this forced action, with some passing on fines of up to £100 to residents who consistently fail to recycle. Wales is now working towards zero waste by 2050, with an intermediary milestone of 70% recycling by 2025.
We might also look at precedents set by top-performing local authorities in England. Last year, East Riding of Yorkshire topped the leaderboard at 64.5% recycling rate, closely followed by Rochford and South Oxfordshire District Councils (both at 63%). Before Defra and HM Treasury move to the next phase of consulting, would it be worthwhile finding out exactly how high rates were achieved and what barriers hindered lowest-performing councils? If this has already been carried out, it was not evident in the public domain during this research.
With some evidence of the council “stick” forcing positive behaviour change, I found virtually no large-scale evidence around how Brits overall (let alone different demographic groups) actually behave when it comes to recycling at home and on the go. It begs the £7.2bn question (the estimated total cost of the all-in DRS model): if DRS vending machines were introduced, would people actually use them?
Recent emotive public sentiment around climate change and plastic would indicate that people do care (again, scaled evidence is lacking) but that they are confused about how/what to recycle. In WRAP’s 2018 Recycling Tracker Survey around 34% of householders cited confusion over what can be recycled as the reason for inaction. I, for one, am unable to remember the last time my council sent a flyer or email to list what’s “in” and what’s “out” when it comes to bins.
Let's bring UK companies, small businesses, NGOs and consumer groups together in the next phase of these consultations
With more funding, perhaps local authorities could invest in creative marketing campaigns that connect residents with the value in their own waste – for example by illustrating how food waste is composting local parks or how plastic cartons are powering low-income homes. The ultimate message would be to link household recycling with council-tax savings (enabled via local authority recyclate income).
My point is this: without a magic money tree and in an environment where the new “normal” is economic uncertainty, let’s bring UK corporations, small businesses, NGOs and consumer groups together in the next phase of these consultations to examine precedents and hard consumer research data; and to properly model cost/benefit calculations for the entire lifecycle of (at least a few key) materials.
If we can then set those findings against trajectories that extend beyond 15 years or more (akin to the UK’s industrial strategy and the National Infrastructure Audit Committee’s objectives), committing hard cash for local authorities to enable real behaviour changes, then we might start setting the wheel in motion for a smart, circular UK economy – without reinventing it.
Amita Vaux is a sustainability consultant and copywriter.