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Open Data – what does it mean for the waste and recycling sector?

Those of us that work in the policy world watch the political party conference season through a different set of lenses to those used by most of the public and always have done. This year was no different, and while attention is rightly paid to the pronouncements of those in opposition, it is the speeches of Ministers that tend to command most attention.

For us this year, we waited with bated breath for an announcement from Eric Pickles about the outcome of his Weekly Waste Collection Fund, but MRW’s recent reporting probably put paid to that while a rethink goes on.

Elsewhere, the new Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson was given a tough slot - early on the final morning, before the Prime Minister, but after the last big night of parties. (This would explain the rows of empty blue seats more akin to a midweek Carling Cup match at Manchester City rather than a Ministerial keynote).  This was a pity, as the tone of his remarks about the need to strengthen British farming and British low-carbon industry in general deserved a wider audience.

Sandwiched in between was a little reported speech by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who has the task in Government of championing what is called the ‘transparency agenda’.  Not a bad thing at all, potentially very refreshing in terms of driving forward reforms in the public sector that deliver better access to information about public services that in turn help to deliver greater choice to residents.  His message couldn’t be clearer, as quoted from his speech to the Conference:

“We are determined to remain the most transparent government in the world. We want the media and a nation of armchair auditors to hold our feet to the fire and help us cut out waste.

Crime maps, sentencing, medical outcomes, school results – all this drives up standards in public services. There’s no going back. Open data is the new raw material for the twenty-first century, helping a whole new generation of entrepreneurs to build the businesses of the future.”

Mr Maude singled out some data sets that tend to command greater political salience, but as he spoke I wondered about the extent to which the waste and recycling sector and public servants within it have grasped the emergence of this agenda and its possible implications for them?

Over many years now at countless conferences, we have heard the mantra “the data could be better”, “there hasn’t been a survey for years, the data set is very old” and similar, all descriptions of the situation in waste management that has only started to feel less familiar recently.  In the days when the industry was primarily landfill based, and before Landfill Tax, it could be argued that it didn’t matter as there were enough holes in the ground to go round and no pressure to do anything different.

That world has certainly changed, and as the industry transforms itself into a modern resource management industry that needs to produce resources fit for manufacturers in the green, low-carbon economy as well as account fully for what is landfilled as well as exported, the data challenges for the sector are real. 

It is true that today we have better data than ever in the waste and recycling sector, but there is still plenty of scope for improvement. 

Better public information and the ability to make judgements about public services as demanded by Maude’s Open Data White Paper launched in June need better data management. This potentially has several implications for waste and recycling – but consider this one scenario: if you are a local authority with robust data on what materials are collected by you or for you; are confident that any materials rejected at a MRF are accounted for and removed from recycling data; and are then clear where the materials processed are then sent for recycling whether at home or abroad then you potentially have a good story to tell Mr Maude.

If not, the increased demand for transparency clearly evidenced by public opinion and responded to by this Government should command your attention with some urgency.

Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Nice one, Ray. I thought this was about transparency right up to the end when you reveal it was just another piece about kerbside sort vs commingled all along!
    However, your "twist in the tale" devalues your article with the suggestion that the drive for data and transparency only affects Councils that use MRFs to sort materials. If you really want a headache, try tracking where all the components of your recycled WEEE end up!

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  • In spite of the rWFD of last year, EA and Councils continue to ignore the fact that incineration, composting, glass-to-aggregate, AD, etc. are NOT recycling. This enables both they and large waste companies to give wholly false figures for recycling volumes. For the residue, it is common to trumpet that they are doing "Zero to Landfill", because so much is no sent to incineration. Whether for efw or not, the bottom ash (20-30%of the total) IS landfilled. Though vast volumes of this are sent to Europe, (boasts of 'energy from waste' ignore that it is not energy for the UK!), Landfill is still landfill and this is still a sizeable chunk of what they lead the public to believe is being "recycled". In practice a great deal of that material COULD be recycled, but is excluded from waste management plans because of its historic lower value, so instead is labelled "not recyclable" or "not currently recycled" - both of which are patently untrue. The Government has worked hard not to implement the spirit of the rWFD (aimed at segregated and clean materials collections), under influence of protests of cost from councils and the major waste companies. As a result, a very large proportion of the UK's recyclable material is not, and can not, be recycled because it is too soiled and cross-contaminated, as ALL the evidence makes abundantly clear. Where there is no will there is no way, and certainly Nil transparency.

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  • Ray Georgeson

    Dear Alan
    Transparency IS the issue, not the collection system. Just to restate - if the products from commingled collections can be processed to source separation equivalence as expected by the Commission's guidance on the rWFD, and this is verified by a robust MRF Code of Practice and good regulation that improves quality, you won't hear any complaints from me!

    The issues related to WEEE are no less serious - I agree with you...

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