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Recycling, devolution and political will

Colin Church, new chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, was until April 2016 the senior official responsible for waste at Defra. In the first of a two-part interview with MRW editor Robin Latchem, Church considers the challenge of declinging household recycling.

A statement from the CIWM in response to the declining recycling rate urged politicians at Westminster to sit up, take notice and demonstrate commitment to recycling. Why this lack of attention?

One of the problems Defra has always faced with this topic is a great deal of accountability with relatively little power.

When Defra asks the Treasury for more money, the business department for agreement to introduce a slightly more regulatory approach or the com­munities department for permission to push local authorities in a particular direction, each of those have got signif­icant numbers of other priorities which mean that Defra’s request is less engaged with.

How does it manifest itself? Did you go into meetings thinking, “I don’t even know why I’m bothering doing this?”

No. You know that, in order to get change, you need a cast iron case. One of the reasons in my view why Defra is so rightly proud of its evidence base and its approach to evidence-based policy-making is because that has been one of the few ways for decades to get people to do something differently: “Here’s the evidence of some serious problems and, by God, we need to do something about it, don’t we?”

I think it would be fair to say that some other departments have been able to bring about policy change through commitment and belief because of their relative power position within the Government. They have been voted in on a platform of doing this thing and so they don’t need any more evidence base. That’s how a democracy works: that’s the mandate, so just get on and do it.

So how can Westminster demonstrate commitment?

It’s about having the political will to do something. There will be a price tag attached to that, either for the taxpayer because it will be about public funding or fiscal instruments or for the private sector because it will be regulation that they will have to pay for somehow.

All of which, of course, ends up on the individual as a consumer, citizen or tax­payer because none of this stuff is free. But there are things that could be done.

Wales’ policy-driven agenda shows what ‘could be done’, surely?

Wales is a different case, in some respects. If you scaled up the resources that Wales has put into achieving its recycling targets, it would be really expensive for England to replicate it.

On the other hand, part of the reason that Wales had to put in so much money was because they were ‘first mover’ and feeling their way, if you like. England could now look at Wales and say: “Actu­ally, we can see that those three things worked, those two were quite expensive and made a marginal difference, and that one, no, thank you very much.”

A couple of years ago you told MRW you did not think that these Welsh and the Scottish examples could be scaled up to England because of the cost.

It’s clear that thing work differently in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from England. The community is closer, there is a more communautaire feeling and people seem to want to work together rather more altruistically.

And the ability of the Welsh first min­ister to stand up and say, “local authori­ties really need to do this”, and then those authorities – whether they share the same political persuasion or not – take notice does not translate in the same way to England.

It does not help, of course, that there isn’t an ‘English Government’. I’m not advocating that there should be one, but it does mean that when Whitehall and Westminster speak to the country, half of their message is for England, a third of their message is for Wales and Scot­land, and only a little bit left is for the whole of the UK.

“We have created this pro-behaviour and then we’ve confused the hell out of people by having different ways of collecting different materials – we have undermined that good faith.”

Did you find that difficult when you were in Defra – having to talk to a minister who had that sort of twin role of looking to England but also seeing how the other nations do things?

It varied immensely. Some ministers did not really think about devolution – for example some agriculture policy has been separate for as long as anyone can remember.

It was one of the very early devolution things and the regimes have diverged quite significantly, so that somebody like George Eustice, the current agricul­ture minister, always thought about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate administrations and separate ways of doing things. When he talked about agriculture he was always talking about England, because that was absolutely all his kind of space.

Other ministers kind of forgot about devolution and thought they were talk­ing to the UK. They had to be reminded that they weren’t. It’s a complicated con­stitutional settlement and takes some navigating through. It’s exciting and fun, but not straightforward.

I don’t think that the Welsh model can be scaled up to work in England because it would cost too much. That doesn’t mean to say you cannot learn from the Welsh model and cherry-pick the things that would work in England.

After all, at one level, that’s what the WRAP-led consistency on collections work is trying to do: learn from the Welsh blueprint experience, learn some of the messages about the savings that some councils are able to make through those kinds of changes and so on, and saying to English local authorities, “Look, here’s some experience and, if you did these things, you could possibly get some real benefits.”

progress to the 2020 target by country

progress to the 2020 target by country

Are we allowing a thought to prevail that we just need to make collections more consistent, eradicate confusion and we will solve the stalled recycling rate?

It is really easy to forget how wonder­fully well the UK as a whole has done on recycling. If you look back 15 years, as CIWM president Margaret Bates says, what other endeavour in human life has had the success that this sector has had? By sector I mean industry, NGOs, local authorities, central Government, media – the whole lot, not just the big waste management companies.

We have created this sort of pro-behaviour and then we’ve confused the hell out of people by having different ways of collecting different materials at different times in different places, so we have undermined that good faith.

Now, I don’t know how many per­centage points improvement on the overall recycling rate greater consist­ency would give us, but it would probably give us some. More importantly, I think it [harmonisation] would help to grow the trust that recycling is a good thing. Therefore, when you ask people to do something else as well, you are building on something that is solid.

WRAP has been highlighting food waste; can you see anyone driving that so that it actually happens?

It is really interesting to see how many different arrows are pointing at the importance of separate food waste col­lection in terms of increasing the UK household recycling rate,.

More food waste needs to be col­lected by more councils, and another strand is the recycling of plastic pots tubs and trays. If you get those two – and food waste is more important because of the weight issue – then that gets you to your 50% recycling target.

A second point that is half of the pro­pro­jected greenhouse gas emissions from landfill sites between now and 2030 is from stuff that is already in landfill. It means that half of the projected emis­sions until 2030 from landfill sites is stuff that we haven’t yet put into landfill, most of which is food.

What about policy on climate change?

The Government’s commitment to the Climate Change Act remains and we have seen the setting of the fifth carbon budget relatively recently. You have got the impact on this on agriculture, which is really hard to tackle, and the growing sector of shipping, air transport and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), which needs to be decarbonised.

There is not a lot left to play with across these industries, so waste starts to become more important, and waste gases from landfill a much more impor­tant element of that.

One of the potential solutions is to use biogas from anaerobic digestion (AD) plants which are short of feed­stock. You can see a whole bunch of rea­sons why a number of players, including the Treasury, might start to look at get­ting more food waste into AD plants as a better way of tackling a number of issues. I’m not as negative about that as I perhaps once was.

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