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Blueprint for a green economy a clear way forward?

Sauce Consultancy managing director John Twitchen helped the Conservative Party put together the waste management chapter of its recent Quality of Life Report. Here he writes about what this report includes. The disposal days are over. That was the key message presented by Chapter 6 of the Conservatives Quality of Life review Blueprint for a Green Economy published earlier this month. Led by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith, the review took 12 months. Towards a zero-waste economy sets out the structural, organisational and behavioural changes needed to set the UK on a course to make the most of what is described as a huge opportunity. The document sets out proposals that will be considered by the Conservative front bench team over the coming months. The detailed proposals centre on extended producer responsibility teamed with landfill bans for specific materials. Previously, the zero waste movement has attracted plenty of criticism, but the tide is turning. It has to be viewed as a mindset, so the Tory document says. In the past zero waste has suffered from being deemed an absolute and therefore unachievable in practical terms. However, as a framework from which to hang well-targeted policies which can be clearly communicated to consumers and businesses, its time has come. Towards a zero-waste economy states that recycling is the second priority and this is what sets it apart from previous efforts. Recycling only becomes relevant once a process has accepted that waste (a system inefficiency) will be produced. This is an important feature of the document and one which runs throughout. As Winston Churchill once said, we are stripped bare by the curse of plenty. The Quality of Life Review addresses three important areas which are likely to lead to some great debates over the next few months, in the party and within this industry sector. The benefits of extending producer responsibility are not limited to the effect it might have on driving and financing collection schemes, though these may be significant. As is demonstrated through, for example, lightweighting of packaging, the effect up the chain is at least as great as it is on consumers. With less than 10% of resources used ending up as product, clearly the entire supply chain for a given product has to be included. This will take time, but must form part of an integrated policy shift. The review proposes focusing initially on more hazardous products before moving on to other product sectors. This looks likely to gain significant consumer voter support. It is interesting to note that the issue will be looked at in some detail as part of the Governments Waste and Resources Evidence Strategy, announced just a week after the Quality of Life review. Setting a timescale for banning specific materials from landfill sends the ultimate signal to waste producers. While there are references to this direction in the revised waste strategy, the Quality of Life review sets a clear path with recommendations for banning biodegradable material from landfill by 2015 a huge task, but an unambiguous signal. The proposals go further. It is also proposed to ban recyclable materials from incinerators by 2012, increase the landfill tax to £80 per tonne by 2015 and impose a disposal tax on less efficient incinerators. The document notes that the tax could be in the form of an expansion of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which hints of further things to come. It is clear that the planning system currently is struggling to deliver and remains a major concern to waste management and recycling companies. With a vast number of new facilities required, the Conservatives recommend a number of improvements (set out in Chapter 6 with additional comments in Chapter 4 The Built Environment). Tackling non-determination and reducing the lead times for public inquiries are prioritised. However, the document also makes it clear that small, flexible and selective schemes rather than inflexible mass-burn schemes are favoured. There are three areas where current policy is not delivering: planning; promotion; and producer responsibility. PPS10 promises much but many of the old problems remain, notably indecision at the local level. Linked to this, the fantastically successful national recycling awareness scheme has demonstrably delivered, creating legions of committed recyclers and yet local communities generally remain in opposition to proposals for MRFs, composting facilities and locating innocent recycling banks. This issue has to be deserving of a national awareness campaign. So to producer responsibility. While it is recognised that packaging targets have helped, the Government has shied away from expanding this to other sectors, notwithstanding what its been required to do by Europe. Its too early to tell how the WEEE scheme will go; there is clearly some settling in to occur judging by recent articles in MRW, and no real sign so far of the consumer awareness scheme that was due to roll out in September. Meanwhile, ELV seems so far to be on a contented tick-over. The Government has clearly made some good progress over the last few years, but we are now left with the impression that there are a lot of well meant initiatives that attempt to tackle similar issues but in different ways, particularly in the context of climate change. LATS, ROCs and the landfill tax each perform different functions, but all theoretically with a common aim. Perhaps these disparate initiatives now need to be combined under an expanded Emissions Trading Scheme. One of the most important roles performed by opposition parties is to inform debate on the development of policy. Putting politics aside, Towards a zero-waste economy does just that. As one national media commentator put it last week, Quality of Life review challenges the Government and industry leaders to go further and be bolder. Quite. But what do you think? What would you change? The report can be downloaded at John Twitchen is the Managing Director of environmental communications company Sauce Consultancy

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