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Time for policy direction not speculation

Professor Chris Coggins

There is much speculation as to what the Government’s waste review will contain. I wonder whether it will actually deliver a step change in waste management in England.

We have heard discussions on producer responsibility, extended producer responsibility and the role of households. The focus seems to be on increasing the number of voluntary agreements for businesses, but will these deliver if they are not supported by strong regulatory underpinning and the ultimate threat of sanctions and penalties?

Recent media reports about the Government removing the threat of penalties for households which do not sort waste from recyclables, leave side-waste and over-fill their wheeled bins will potentially nullify the efforts of those who have helped the recycling rate in England to exceed 40%.

Metrics will continue to vex decision-makers. Definitions, terminology and an over-emphasis on tonnages has led to garden waste dominating the recycling figures for England because it is a heavy material and collecting it ensures local authorities meet their recycling targets. But are weight-based targets the best method to measure success? And will there be any mention of using carbon metrics as in Scotland?

In evaluating technology options for dealing with waste, the Government has retreated from its earlier commitment to a ‘huge’ increase in anaerobic digestion (AD), but has still established working groups to develop an AD strategy document. Many people in the waste industry and those proposing innovative technologies would prefer a more technology-neutral approach.

“How will England respond to the potential ‘re-casting’ of the Landfill Directive?”

Indeed, despite the changes in the definition of municipal solid waste to include similar wastes from commercial and industrial sources, will there be enough food waste to justify the scale of AD investment? In WRAP’s Love Food, Hate Waste report of 2007, the figure of 6.7 million tonnes was quoted for food and drink waste being thrown away by households. But the Local Government Association in April 2011 quoted 5.07 million tonnes from more recent WRAP data.

Will England show courage and recognise the potential role of energy from waste, including combustion technologies, as shown in the Ministerial Statement accompany the Welsh Assembly Government’s Municipal Sector Plan published in March 2011? It said:”Until we reach the goal of a zero-waste society, we shall produce some wastes that cannot be recycled. While we wish to minimise the combustion of materials, it is better that wastes that cannot be readily recycled are burned with maximum recovery of energy.”

The landfill tax escalator has had a significant impact in promoting recycling and composting. How will England respond to the potential ‘re-casting’ of the Landfill Directive, with new targets for 2020 and 2025 to ultimately ban biodegradable wastes from landfill? Especially after the Government announced it had stepped back from landfill bans last year.

After this long list of speculative issues, we should remember that waste prevention is the most important policy objective of all for the industry.

Professor Chris Coggins is an independent consultant trading as Wamtech

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