Two recent public policy presentations from resource minister Therese Coffey have yielded intriguing insights on local authority recycling, energy from waste (EfW) and the waste hierarchy.
One was a formal response in Westminster Hall to a petition signed by more than 75,000 people calling for all packaging to be 100% recyclable or compostable. The other, delivered by a civil servant because Coffey lost her voice, was at an event held by the Aldersgate Group (see box opposite).
After speaking in general terms in the debate about the benefits and challenges of packaging, Coffey asked: “Why is our recycling rate not sky high?” She identified several issues for householders and collection authorities.
“While all councils are required to offer recycling of plastic bottles, several councils inform us that it is not economically worthwhile for them to collect and recycle some formats, such as yoghurt pots or ready meal trays.
“They also inform us that local reprocessing infrastructure may be limited; that the type of reprocessing needed could create different environmental impacts that outweigh the resource efficiency benefits; and that there may be a lack of end markets for some types of recycled materials. There is also the problem of contamination, which can make the contents of an entire recycling bin unfit for recycling.”
She praised those councils doing good work but added: “I challenge the view that recycling in densely packed urban areas is difficult or that local authorities cannot do more to improve recycling rates.”
It is a view she has expressed before.
There was a fascinating insight in a comment on EfW, when Coffey disagreed with a positive comment from Mark Pawsey, Tory MP for Rugby. He had pointed out that using residual household waste to generate heat in the manufacture of cement was a better use of the calorific value of packaging than sending it to landfill. But she cautioned: “In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it. The opposite is true of food… we need to be careful about what incentives we push.”
Underpinning this view may be laudable concern that policies supporting EfW could hit the recycling rate adversely. But it is hard to understand how a Defra minister can ignore the waste hierarchy so blithely.
It was also interesting to hear that Coffey’s top priority is air quality, followed by urban recycling. It underlines that, with Defra’s other responsibilities such as agriculture, food and flooding, waste policy is well down the ministry’s pecking order.
To be fair, ministers confronted with an issue that is actually killing people – air pollution – or one that threatens to kill them – flooding – are hardly going to go to the wire on the number of bins in our front gardens or who picks up the tab for recycling cardboard packaging.
She mentioned Unilever and its efforts to move to a circular economy (CE) model. The company has recently pledged to ensure that all plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, packaging weight will be cut by one third by 2020 and it will use at least 25% of recyclable plastic content in its packaging by 2025.
“It would be good to see even more than that,” she said, without registering the fact that Unilever is something of a global leader in sustainability and most of its rivals are miles behind. The company might be a little miffed.
Coffey also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to negotiate with the EU “in good faith” as the UK progresses through the Brexit process.
“I am approaching the negotiations on the eventual outcome for the CE in a way consistent with that,” she said. “On the timing, it is likely that we will still be in the EU, which will mean that we are required by directive to introduce it into law. But we are approaching the matter in good faith while negotiating quite hard on…what we think is achievable and realistic. First, we must agree a definition of ‘recycling’. There are many different views.”
I was intrigued by another reference to the CE and what seemed to be a continuing unwillingness to buy into the concept. In September 2016, Coffey told the Environmental Audit Committee: “The words ‘circular economy’ to me are at risk of implying there is no growth. If we continue to grow, it doesn’t just need to be a closed loop… I am going to look into it more carefully.”
Four months on, she told the petition debate: “We have referred to the CE negotiations. When we leave the EU, I genuinely believe that what the Hon. member for North Tyneside [Mary Glindon] refers to as the CE and we call ‘resource efficiency’ could be a genuinely competitive advantage for UK plc.”
It seems odd to keep a distance from a concept that, while it can be challenging to understand or explain, is the foundation for the mainstream approach to sustainability. Resource efficiency is lots of things but it is not as holistic as CE.
In fairness, the minister ended on an upbeat note: “We have seen a tremendous transition during the past decade from a throwaway mindset to one that focuses on extracting the value from resources…Companies, consumers and the environment will benefit. That is the triple crown for which we all strive.”
One wonders if the order of the threesome significant.
debate in westminster hall
Who was listening?
The debate in Westminster Hall did not attract a big turnout of MPs but those who did engage were David Mackintosh (Conservative, Northampton South); Mark Pawsey (Conservative, Rugby); Barry Sheerman (Labour, Huddersfield); Scott Mann (Conservative, North Cornwall); Gavin Robinson (DUP, Belfast East) and Mary Glindon (Labour, North Tyneside).
Aldersgate group event
Whitehall ‘cannot regulate’
Defra waste and recycling deputy director Chris Preston read Coffey’s planned speech, carrying the message that Whitehall “cannot regulate” a shift to a more resource-efficient economy and business should take the lead.
Preston said: “Up to now, much of our policy in this area has been driven by a need to meet EU waste targets.”
This surrogate speech included a pledge to consider policy options including extended producer responsibility, product design standards and incentives to promote demand for recycled materials. Sustainable resources would be a key part of Defra’s forthcoming 25-year environment plan, but with a focus on voluntary commitments and sharing of best practice as suggested measures.
“Sometimes it does not make sense to have a circular business model until you have got a CE to support it. In responding to this challenge, business leadership is absolutely critical. Business has to take the lead.
“Government also has a key role to play. We cannot regulate and force this change but we can ensure the right policy framework is in place to support the market, businesses, local authorities and the public to make this change that will help us transition to a resource-efficient economy.
“While the food manufacturers have looked for solutions… I have not noticed the recyclers coming forward with proposals on how to adapt their machines to be able to sort black trays, [for example]. I thought it was only IT companies that tried to get manufacturers to change their processes to give their technology a market.”