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We need to talk before waste hierarchy binds us legally

The revised Waste Framework Directive, which is due to be laid before Parliament shortly, will pose some interesting challenges and raise to prominence waste prevention and re-use.

While we are all too familiar with the waste hierarchy that the European Union has been promoting for many years, ensuring that it is adhered to as a legal requirement will be a huge step. And prioritising prevention and re-use over recycling, recovery and disposal should result in wide-scale behaviour change.

Introducing methods to encourage householders and businesses to change the way they deal with their waste, or try not to generate it in the first place, will need a fair amount of publicity. Such behaviour change campaigning will require sustained investment – but will it be possible as the country struggles to emerge from recession?

Prioritising prevention and re-use needs wide-scale behaviour change

There are already simple things that we as consumers can do already, such as not buying bottled water or pre-packaged fruit and veg. But while consumers often complain that retailers are not doing enough to reduce packaging, they can be the last to change their behaviour.

Julie Hill, author of the Secret Life of Stuff, highlights that packaging and products are still made with non-recyclable materials, have mixed materials that cause problems to materials reprocessors and comprise composite materials that can’t be separated into useful components.

Despite all the advances that new technologies are providing us she questions whether new products developed can be recycled. Or whether those involved in the science or design of them ever ask or are asked that question during the development process.

I have been calling for a greater focus and involvement from all parties on the whole design process, to ensure everyone from designers to MRF operators are involved in discussions to help rule out unwanted materials and improve recyclability.

Defra’s business waste prevention review, due to report in the spring, will look at a couple of these areas, including research and demonstration projects on cleaner production and waste minimisation; waste prevention aspects of sustainable or eco design, work on sustainable products and materials and work on sustainable consumption and production.

Hill calls for some rules to mandate recyclability and to ensure sustainable sources continue to be used or upgraded. But she wants these sorts of choices made for the consumer to avoid them searching for information on the packaging.

This would require an overhaul of many types of packaging used today but would it encourage people to recycle more?

The British Retailers Consortium has been promoting the use of on-pack recycling labels for nearly two years and many of its members include them on their products. But are they making a difference? And does the consumer know which bin to use where materials are separated at the household?

Consumption from many sectors of society remains on an upward trajectory so while this system should improve resource efficiency does this really help in preventing waste in the first place?

The challenges ahead seem great but starting the conversation is the first step to take. Let’s start having the discussions and get the ball rolling.

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