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What did the waste review really achieve?

Jonathan Short

Now the dust has settled, some two months after the actual announcement, it seems a good time to look again at the waste review. While the Government has faced fierce criticism, it is by no means all doom and gloom.

For one thing, Defra got the decision about its headline policy - frequency of household collections - correct. A U-turn is not automatically a bad thing and that is certainly the case here. Leaving aside the issue of cost - although £100m is no small matter in today’s climate - all the evidence shows that forcing councils to return to weekly collections would have been a major step backwards.

As analysis by WRAP has shown, the reintroduction of weekly pick-ups would result in an annual decrease of 30-46kg of paper, plastic and cans collected from every household. Across the UK, that equates to almost 1.2 million tonnes of additional recyclable resource being sent to landfill.

Defra should be applauded for listening to the councils on the matter and thereby safeguarding a decade of recycling growth. The Government should also be commended for its recognition of the value of private sector responsibility deals. Agreements such as Courtauld II have had a material impact on our industry, as witnessed by Coca-Cola Enterprises’ recent partnership with my business, ECO Plastics, which will double the amount of food and bottle-grade recycled plastic produced in the UK.

But it is unrealistic to expect voluntary measures taken by the private sector to be the sole driver of change. It seems the Government will be led by the new Packaging Directive, expected in 2014, which could mean that it is 2015 or after before fresh mandatory packaging recycling targets are actually introduced.

This is clearly far too long a delay. If we are to create a world-leading industry, we need to grasp the nettle today and establish targets which will drive the creation of the new infrastructure we need.

Of greater concern is the emphasis that the Government wants to place on the incentivisation of recycling. The review sets considerable store by this, putting aside funds for the creation of new programmes and research, and encouraging communities to establish their own initiatives.

The difficulty with this is two-fold. First, the battle has already been won. Study after study has shown that people are supportive of recycling. Consumers should be commended for the huge strides that have been made. More worrying are claims that incentivising consumers to recycle will encourage new levels of profligacy, fuelled by reward.

Consumers need clarity rather than reward. As the waste review document acknowledges, uncertainties abound. Which products can and cannot be recycled? Which need to be cleaned? And which separated?

To rectify this we need clear and consistent messaging on what to recycle and how to do it. The emphasis must be on quality and not quantity, and the waste review shunned a golden opportunity to achieve this. By capturing the highest quality resource, we can fuel the growth of a new and vibrant industry that delivers jobs and economic value to the UK.

Jonathan Short is founder and chief executive of ECO Plastics

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