We stand at a crossroads in resource management in England, brought about by a series of events that have exposed the paucity of long-term policy commitment to recycling by the Government.
These include, in no particular order, the Chinese ban on contaminated imports, the Blue Planet TV programme exposing the extent of ocean plastics and the EU circular economy package and its likely impact on extended producer responsibility systems.
There is no doubt that the declining quality of paper for recycling remains a key issue for the industry. Poor quality affects both the efficiency of domestic manufacturing and the marketability of material in export markets.
I hope that recent events drive a realisation that producing low-quality materials will no longer do, with a move back towards a minimum of dualstream collection and away from commingling.
Recyclability will also be a growing theme for the future. Our on-the-go lifestyles are changing the nature of material coming into the supply stream and increasing the complexity of dealing with it. Design for recyclability must run alongside developing new packaging and processing technologies to support the circularity of materials.
Then there is the question of who pays for recycling. Those who believe that the taxpayer unfairly bears the costs are missing the point. In our capitalist society, the consumer always pays. The only way to reduce the social and environmental cost of recycling is to encourage consumers to make different choices.
This is behavioural, and politicians do not like penalising the public for behaviour.
Making recycling easy for the public has been a theme of the past decade, but it has led to a free-for-all and undermined material quality. It is time to introduce some rigour and acknowledge that dualstream collection supports quality and adopt a consistent collection methodology.
We need to engage the public and make up for a lost a decade in communicating about the importance of high-quality recycling. By all means let’s use additional money from an amended producer responsibility scheme to do this, and perhaps use monetary incentives to help English councils adopt consistent collection systems, as in Wales.
So, pay-as-you-throw, deposit return schemes and proper enforcement seem obvious points for early consideration in a debate that should leave no stone unturned.
Simon Weston is Director of raw materials at the Confederation of Paper Industries