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Common sense and the 'green blob'

While we are waiting for the new Defra Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss to say anything substantive on the environment or resource use, I am still reflecting on former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s comments proclaiming how he had stood up to the “Green Blob”.

Leaving aside the question of what constitutes a blob, I am more interested in what he meant by “standing up to” and whether that was different to simply ignoring those arguing for a more rational approach to resource use, climate change and sustainable development. Standing up to someone surely requires debate supported by evidence. Putting your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘la, la, la,’ doesn’t count. Only over badger culling can I recall a real attempt to deal with environmental concerns by debating evidence, but it quickly became apparent that the weight of evidence was against culling as the way to deal with the problem. Elsewhere, Paterson is reported to have declined to be briefed on the scientific evidence on climate change.

I am detecting a tendency for our politicians to prefer their gut instincts – which they characterise as “common sense” – over the evidence, not unlike the Tea Party in the US. This was on display again when Eric Pickles announced £5m of funding for incentive schemes, but only for authorities with weekly residual waste collections. Part of me welcomes the acknowledgement that these authorities need to do more if they are going to raise recycling rates, but I am more concerned by the hectoring rhetoric and the absence of evidence that this represents good value for public money. There are a lot of government funded trials already underway, which have yet to show that incentives produce a sustainable increase in recycling rates. 

The resort to common sense over evidence is justified by the “electoral mandate” argument. We need to watch out. There is an election coming and I would not be surprised to see Pickles arming himself with a weekly collections mandate, probably in the form of a commitment to require minimum service standards for local authorities.

What irks me are the blatant inconsistencies in the government’s position. Restricting the space provided for the most expensive waste options (landfill and incineration) to encourage use of much cheaper recycling services is a classic ‘nudge’ or behavioural economics approach. In other contexts the Government is happy to boast about its world-leading nudge unit, but not here. Similarly, fining people for misusing waste services, whatever the cost implications for other council tax payers is seen as an outrage, but justified for those with a spare bedroom.  Why not incentives to downsize?

But back to the blob. I wonder who is included? Clearly I would be, along with various government chief scientists. But I wonder if it includes some major UK and global businesses? I was lucky recently to get a sneak preview of the new Novelis aluminium recycling plant in Nachterstedt in Germany. With an annual capacity of 400,000 tonnes, it will be the largest such plant in the world and use its central location to draw feedstock from the whole of Europe. With its sister plant in Warrington, this Euro 200m (£160m) investment will make a big contribution to US-based Novelis’ commitment to recycle 5m tonnes of aluminium a year (80% of its total product) by 2020.  It will also reduce carbon emissions by 10m tonnes and bauxite extraction by 15m tonnes a year. Alongside the recycling plant at Nachterstedt, another major investment is taking shape to meet the needs of car manufacturers, like Jaguar Land Rover, who are increasingly turning to aluminium to lightweight their cars to reduce carbon emissions and increase end of life recyclability. So are these major companies part of the blob or have they just been duped by it?

A rational view is that they are neither. They are companies with a wish to have a market for their products now and in the long term. They have looked at the evidence, assessed the risks and put their money where their mouths are. There are risks, of course. Some of these are technical, but Mike Killen, Novelis’ manufacturing director for Europe, who previously managed the Warrington plant, has put a lifetime of experience into a design which he has been involved with “since it was a blank piece of paper” as he puts it. Innovative shredders and rotary kilns have been designed to go with some astonishing water chilled casting technology.

But underlying the investment are assumptions that governments will take sensible, evidence-based, decisions about climate change and resource issues and enable effective recycling collections to provide sufficient feedstock. The latest residual municipal waste figures from Resource Futures suggest there is broadly enough aluminium from that source alone to fill the Warrington plant, but Pickles’ gut instinct to confront the “Bin Barons” is going to make it harder to access that material.

It is easy to see that the waste industry has problems at present: prices are soft, there are too many fires and insurance is getting harder to find; some players are withdrawing from the market, but the Environment Agency is finding it hard to deal with others who are cowboys. I think we all deserve better than talk of blobs and denigration of those trying to map a sensible way ahead. We need some vision and a sustainable policy environment. Over to you Elizabeth Truss.

Phillip Ward is the owner of Falcutt consultancy and former director of local government services at WRAP

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