Reducing unnecessary waste saves money and helps the environment. It should be uncontroversial. But while the Government’s newly published waste prevention programme represents an advance on past waste strategies, it ought to have been far bolder.
The 5p tax on single-use plastic carrier bags was welcome and overdue but it is essentially a token gesture that will not reduce waste volumes significantly.
The report highlights several interesting developments, particularly recent work on longer lasting clothing by the publically-funded WRAP: over one million tonnes of clothing are discarded each year in the UK. But too often it is unclear how laudable proposals are going to be realised in practice.
For instance, the programme proposes that products should be designed for optimum lifetimes and with repair, reuse, remanufacturing and recycling in mind. Yet it doesn’t explain the process whereby companies might respond to its plea. If commercial logic favours short-lived goods, how might change come about? Not by fine words alone.
A key design requirement is ease of repair and maintenance: products must be quick to disassemble in order to minimise labour costs. Crucially, spare parts must be affordable. Yet all too often products suffer from poor design and spare parts are overpriced. When repair work costs more than half the price of a new product, as is all too often the case, replacement is understandably seen as a more reasonable option.
It appears that many companies prefer users to replace faulty products in order to maximize their revenues. And if commercial logic currently drives a throwaway culture, then governments need to produce robust proposals to incentivise change.
One intriguing idea in the report is the possibility of a shift towards hire as a resource efficient business model. In theory, greater intrinsic durability is encouraged as the supplier retains ownership of the product. Yet advocating hire sounds unconvincing from a government whose policies has been forcing the closure of hundreds of hire specialists - public libraries.
The programme reveals a new scheme to support communities taking action on waste prevention, reuse and repair. This is excellent: we can only tackle the problem of waste if people work together. But the paltry sum allocated, just £800,000, amounts to £470 per town in England and Wales. That’s not going to change the world very fast. It’s tokenism rather than a serious effort to reshape our economy.
Waste begins when we shop, and the report’s recognition of ‘information failure’ is important. Consumers need more information on the anticipated life expectancy of the products that they purchase, particularly cheaper items. Too often we are left in the dark. So it’s imperative that more is done to develop some form of lifespan labelling, or far longer guarantees are offered, replacing ‘extended warranties’ of dubious value. People need to be able to judge when it is worth paying more for premium priced products.
Ultimately, a product will reach the end of its lifespan and become waste. Successive governments have been reticent to introduce weight-related charges for household waste disposal, such as those used in other countries, and in this regard the new waste prevention programme represents another missed opportunity. Waste represents discarded resources - and these resources are in finite supply. It’s only right that the less a household throws away, the less it should pay in tax.
Professor Tim Cooper, head of the Sustainable Consumption Research Group at Nottingham Trent University