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Sector holds strong views but left in dark on policy

MRW has conducted a survey of the waste and resources industry to examine the issues that matter.

“Leaderless and rudderless” – this opinion on the Government’s attitude to waste policy from a respondent encap­sulates the strength of feeling held by the sector as a whole. The UK’s resources industry is facing up to some very tough challenges. Brexit, local authority austerity, volatile secondary materials markets and political uncer­tainty have all contributed to a general sense of unease.

MRW’s independent and exclusive survey reveals opinions from across the sector on a wide range of issues which reflect key stories we have reported on during the past few years.

Many of you have a lot to say, and hold strong views on where the industry should be heading and what the obstacles are. And one message is clear: 88% said that a lack of Government leadership is a ‘significant’ or ‘big’ prob­lem. This was far ahead of other indus­try niggles such as volatile commodity prices.

The strongest policy lead from the Government in recent years is perhaps the promotion of harmonised house­hold waste collections, and our survey respondents were very much in favour.

Frustration with the Government has been building for a number of years. Speaking at the launch of a report on infrastructure at RWM, Suez chief executive David Palmer- Jones said his company had been “unwittingly” led into trying to fill a pol­icy void left by the Government, which he said had “abandoned” the sector.

infrastructure

infrastructure

“It’s not the first time we have entered the debate in setting the ambition levels for our country,” he said. “From that will extend the needs, requirements and the level of the different waste treatment [options]. I tell them [the Govern­ment] that it takes time to develop infrastructure, you can’t magic it up. It takes at least three to five years to do so.”

Chris Holmes, managing director of the Green Investment Group, also spoke at the RWM event. He said: “The Government should now provide a stable platform…to facilitate a more effective investment environment.”

The need to boost investment in UK reprocessing capacity – in whatever form – has been strongly backed by survey respondents. Eighty-five per cent said that this would have a ‘significant’ or ‘profound’ impact on recycling rates. The Government withdrew support for a number of prospective PFI waste pro­jects a few years ago, severely restricting expenditure. Companies are under­standably hesitant to put millions of pounds into facilities unless there will be a guaranteed market.

So who is currently responsible for the lack of leadership?

Resources minister Therese Coffey has been in post longer than most, but she has not engaged as much as many would hope. Last year, she indicated unease at the idea of the circular econ­omy on business grounds, and there is little to suggest she has changed her mind. Her boss, environment secretary Michael Gove, is still getting to terms with his brief. He has focused on waste crime, but as yet shows little application to the economics underpin­ning the sector.

David Adams, managing director of Clarity Environmental, makes the case for investment.

“A third of respondents believe that manufacturers should shoulder the bur­den for boosting the recyclability of packaging, and the same percentage believe that mandatory take-back schemes would make the most differ­ence to resource efficiency,” he said.

“While it is important that manufac­turers take responsibility, legislation must be the driver to encourage invest­ment in recycling technology and boost the amount of recycled material.

“Recycling targets should continue to be challenging enough to encourage recycling and the use of recycled materials in new products and packaging.”

One thing Coffey has given an indica­tion on is moving away from weight-based recycling targets, which could be a popular move. The survey revealed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for targets as they stand – just 38% said they were ‘vital’ or ‘significant’ in driving recycling.

One respondent said: “Recycling tar­gets are in reality weight-based collec­tion targets and thereby debase the quality of what is collected.”

Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) president Mar­garet Bates made a similar point to Palmer-Jones about being stymied by not knowing what the UK’s ambitions are. She said you “can’t hit a target if you don’t know where it is”.

But there is general consent that har­monising council waste collections is a good thing. CIWM chief executive Colin Church said: “A headline figure for me is the broad support for more harmoni­sation.

“While this will not be delivered over­night, it has the potential to help us get strong and consistent messages out to householders, improve the quantity and quality of recycling, and reinforce the value of recycling – including the ‘end destination’ information that many of the respondents feel would be the most effective way of improving the public perception of our industry.”

Another interesting survey result is the differences in pay between male and female respondents. We found that 40% of men said they were in the high­est earning bracket of £51,000+ com­pared with just 19% of women.

Although we cannot claim the survey is scientific enough to give a truly robust figure, this does reveal an area that would be worth exploring further.

There is no reason to think the waste and resources industry is immune from national trends. According to the Office for National Statistics, the gender pay gap for full-time employees in 2016 was 9.4%.

Government reports the industry is waiting for 

Defra’s 25-year plan: Defra is working with the Natural Capital Committee to develop a comprehensive 25-year plan for the environment. It was promised by the end of 2016 but has yet to materialise.

Defra’s second waste crime consultation: In 2015, the department issued a series of proposals to tackle waste crime. A second raft of proposals was due to be set out last summer, but the unexpected general election has delayed proceedings.

Outgoing Environment Agency deputy director Nicky Cunningham told MRW that the second consultation would give the agency more powers to check at the permitting stage on the likely performance of the person applying for a waste permit, allowing checks to be made on their competence and assess the financial model for their activity.

It is also looking at financial provision for landfill sites to make sure that, if something does go wrong, the operator has the funds available to remediate it.

Chief scientific adviser report on waste and efficiency: Former Government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport announced that a report with a series of chapters from specialists, including those from the waste industry and local authorities, would be published by the end of 2016.

MRW has been told that From Waste to Resource Productivity will be released “in the near future”. 

National Infrastructure Commission: Environmental consultant Anthesis has been awarded a contract to carry out an analysis of the UK’s waste infrastructure to “identify the best value infrastructure investment strategy”. The report is scheduled to be published next year.

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