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Waste minister hints at mandatory MRF code

Waste minister Lord Taylor last week gave a heavy hint that the long-awaited code of practice for materials recovery facilities (MRFs) would be made mandatory.

He told a Local Government Association conference that a consultation could run on the code this summer. 

Lord Taylor said: “We are considering whether to make the code of practice mandatory. If we take the decision to make the code mandatory, then a consultation will take place in summer of 2012.”

Officials were working closely with the Environmental Services Association to finalise a draft of the code, he added.

The Waste Review, published by the government in June 2011, said an industry-led code of practice would “promote quality in the way recyclable materials are sorted, particularly at Material Recovery Facilities.”

In essence, the code will require the measurement of input and output material to give MRF clients such as local authorities, businesses and reprocessors confidence in the quality and contamination levels of MRF material.

A ministerial decision on whether to make signing up to the code mandatory or voluntary was expected last autumn but Defra delayed its decision, citing the need for further consultation.

However, local authorities have already indicated that providers who are not signed up to the code face losing out on work.

A tender notice from the London Borough of Harrow’s refuse recycling services placed on the Official Journal of the European Union last month explicitly stated that sign up to the “ESA Code of Practice will be required”.

COMMENT: MRW senior reporter James Illman

Defra’s dithering frustrating but not surprising

Defra’s dithering over whether to make the materials recovery facilities (MRFs) code of practice mandatory or voluntary is frustrating for the industry but not surprising.  

The code’s aims are simple. It’s about ensuring a high quality of recyclates come out of the circa 150 MRFs in the country.

This, says Defra, is “vital to demonstrating that commingled collection is a valid form of separate collection under the revised Waste Framework Directive”.   

This is common sense and already appears to be gaining traction with local authorities issuing tenders (see story above).

But with ministers’ enthusiasm for cutting red tape, or at least for appearing to do so, such a code was always going to raise ambivalence in government.

Whitehall observers talk of an informal ‘one in, one out’ policy, a bit like a nightclub for laws, whereby if a department wants to introduce a new regulation, it has to repeal an old one.   

Defra has already clashed with the Department for Communities and Local Government over bin collections and it could face a tussle with other departments to make the case for enforcing a mandatory code.

The code represents “smart industry self-regulation”, according to the Environmental Services Association, which has also played down concerns aboutthe cost of compliance.

Some fear the protracted nature of the negotiations can only serve to water down the original aims of the code.

“Generally speaking, you end up negotiating down to the lowest common denominator, not up to the highest standard,” says Adam Read, global practice director at consultants AEA.

“Are we going to end up with something that does not go far enough?”  

For MRF providers that want to play by the rules, it’s important the code is made mandatory.

Any costs accrued for signing up are going to be put pressure on prices. If some choose not to sign, they will be at a competitive advantage.

Either way, an end to the uncertainty would certainly help the industry understand the rules by which it is expected to adhere to.

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