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Death knell for prevention targets?

Sam Jarvis

The labour Government’s approach to public services was defined by the use of targets. The waste and recycling sector was not spared. National Indicator 191 was introduced to measure the kilograms of household waste collected per head of the population which is not sent for reuse, recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion.

This fondness for targets was not just domestic. The Brussels-based sustainable resource use network ACR+ has called for an EU-wide target to cut waste by 100kg per person. And at the end of 2013, member states will have to implement national waste prevention plans, possibly guided by targets.

Back in this country, the change in Government has already seen the comprehensive area assessments of local authorities scrapped and, at the time of writing, the future of national indicators, including NI 191, is in doubt. Could we be seeing a permanent move away from the targets culture and were targets, especially those associated with waste prevention, the best way to achieve change anyway?

As every recycling officer will attest, targets certainly concentrated minds on how best to keep materials out of landfill. The mix of ambitious but achievable targets, support from Defra’s Waste Implementation Programme and WRAP’s Behaviour Change Local Fund, the threat of Government intervention if targets were missed, and a growing body of research outlining how to choose, operate and promote recycling systems, all contributed to a step change in the amount of recyclate collected, resulting in the 40% recycling rate we see today.

But targets are only useful if they lead to lasting change. And they can only lead to change if they are linked to behaviours and circumstances that are within the power of a local authority to influence.

During the past year, this column has considered an array of approaches to promote waste prevention. But the relationship between these approaches and actual measured waste arisings is complex, to say the least. Because of this complexity, prevention monitoring and evaluation has tended to focus on behavioural outcomes that are easy to measure.

There are also many factors influencing waste arisings that are well beyond the control of local authorities. An Open University study in 2008 found that some of these are critical. One key insight, for example, showed that households of six people or more produce almost half the waste, on a per capita basis, of single-person households. Age, life stage and housing type were also important in determining not only how much, but the type of waste produced.

Of course, targets could be set locally to take into consideration such demographic. The problem is they change over time. And with census data collected only once a decade, the causes of variations in waste arisings become even harden to fathom.

So how do we measure performance and, more importantly, how do we drive reductions in waste?

The alternative favoured by the new Government is to publish online a range of data in an ‘open and standardised’ format. This could mean publishing data on overall waste arisings and residual waste. The theory goes that, from this, local media and the public can judge performance for themselves.

But this approach requires a third party to have an interest in such matters and the capacity to understand the issues. Someone needs to be able to interpret the data, decide whether waste arisings are unacceptably high, and analyse the causes. This person also needs to be able to promote it to the wider public in a way that grabs attention, generates interest and, crucially, drives a change in policy. If not, who will hold local authorities to account when waste arisings creep up?

The danger is that we will end up swapping a system that, despite its inefficiencies, does lead to change, with a system that holds no-one to account. And if no-one is held to account, waste prevention and sustainable waste management could simply slide down the list of political priorities.

Sam Jarvis is head of communications at Waste Watch

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