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Time to admit ownership of waste

The political dust has largely settled after May’s general election, but the waste sector is still working out what challenges and opportunities the new administration will ultimately bring. Many problems will not magically disappear, including the difficulty the sector experiences in gaining consent for much-needed new infrastructure.

The UK has made great strides in improving its waste management record since 1997. We now see rates of recycling and recovery that once seemed out of reach. But it is easy to forget that, despite this progress, our performance could be considered modest at best when compared with our European neighbours.

According to the latest data published by Defra, England achieved a 38.8% household waste recycling rate for the year ending September 2009. This is a 2.8% improvement on the same period for 2007/08. Data for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all
point towards a slowdown in recycling rate progress, with a household waste recycling rate of 34% in Scotland and 32% in Northern Ireland. Wales may reach its 40% target for 2009/10, but only just.

“We could strengthen the link between the waste we generate and the need for local waste infrastructure to handle it”

By comparison, Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands all had recycling rates of 60% or more in 2008, according to Eurostat. And Germany, Sweden and Belgium had dry recycling rates of 35% or above compared with 23% in the UK. We would be justified in asking why, after 13 years of investment, the average household recycling rate here has yet to breach the 50% mark.

Our performance suggests that, despite the roll-out of multi-material kerbside collections, there are many householders who either do not recycle or recycle only a proportion of recyclable waste. This is despite recycling being made easier here than in other countries, where materials often have to be taken to bring banks rather than being collected at the kerbside.

This situation highlights an interesting paradox. A multitude of pressure groups exist across the UK to oppose the development of new waste infrastructure, in particular landfill and incineration, in places where recycling rates are, by German standards, low. What prevents local populations from making the link between their own behaviour - creating unseparated waste despite being provided with comprehensive recycling services - and the urgent need for additional treatment infrastructure?

East Sussex presents an interesting example of this contradiction. The county’s two remaining landfill sites are rapidly approaching their capacity, and the county council is already sending municipal waste out of the county for treatment and disposal. Much of the commercial and industrial waste generated in East Sussex is also being transported elsewhere.

The situation will partly be remedied by the completion of a much-needed energy-from-waste plant in Newhaven, currently under construction as part of the authority’s contract with Veolia. And the council has also been developing a Waste and Minerals Development Framework to identify how and where waste should be dealt with in the county up to 2026. The Development Framework is controversial locally because it has identified potential locations for land disposal sites that are currently green fields. Such is the nature of East Sussex that there are very few remaining mineral extraction sites suitable for landfill activities, and much of the county is classified as a ‘valued landscape’, including the new South Downs National Park. The sites that are identified as suitable lie in an agricultural area known as the Low Weald.

It is common for the waste planning process to cause controversy. Numerous local pressure groups have sprung up in East Sussex to oppose the waste plan. But the urgent need for new infrastructure appears not to have occurred to such groups, as if they did not produce waste themselves or the waste they did produce could be sent ‘elsewhere’.

So how can we understand the apparent disconnection between householders’ actions at home, where they create large amounts of residual waste, and their attitudes to the infrastructure needed to manage it? And how should local government, the waste industry and central government collectively handle this situation so that important policy objectives can be met on time? We have a number of potential choices.

We could accept this disconnection, where waste generators feel they have the right to create unseparated waste without having to accept the associated infrastructure. Under this scenario we might expect recycling rates to stagnate or creep up at best, and opposition to new infrastructure to remain.

Alternatively, we could promote variable charging or incentives as the best way to change the behaviour of those householders who are seemingly resistant to recycling messages. While variable charging may be a proven option elsewhere in Europe, in the UK it remains politically unpalatable. Meanwhile, we have limited experience of incentives to date, although their effectiveness is likely to become clearer as they become more widely adopted.

Or we could seek to engage the population more effectively in the choices we face, strengthening the link between behaviour at home and in the workplace, the waste we generate and the need for local waste infrastructure to handle it. The success of the ‘Recycle Now’ campaign demonstrates how it is possible to persuade the wider population of the merits of sorting waste. It could be a strong platform from which to extend and strengthen the message.

That the UK needs a mix of waste management technologies, even if the highest recycling rates were achieved, is beyond argument. But this transition could happen more smoothly, and perhaps rapidly, if those involved in it acted together to promote the changes needed to achieve sustainable waste management. Arguably, the waste management industry and local authorities have largely been left to demonstrate the merits of new infrastructure on a case-by-case basis. Stronger support in the public domain from central government could be the missing link.

There is now an excellent opportunity for the new administration to be braver in making the case more explicitly for new waste facilities. This, combined with a reinvigoration of the recycling message, could speed our sector’s transition towards sustainability and ensure that we maximise our contribution to the new Government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets.

Justin French-Brooks is an independent waste policy adviser and technical writer providing advice under the business name Word to Dialogue

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