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Knowledge is power in a new business age

Smarter regulation is about more than cutting red tape, argues Steve Lee, CIWM chief executive

Regulation in all its forms is under the spotlight, with England’s Coalition Government in particular committed to reducing the burden on business to stimulate the economy. Where it is simply unnecessary levels of bureaucracy in the firing line or outdated and redundant legislation, this is certainly a move to be welcomed. However, when it comes to waste and environmental protection, the emphasis needs to be on smarter rather than less regulation. As Sir John Harman, then Chairman of the Environment Agency, said in a 2004 lecture at UCL: “the key deregulatory question in this field is how to regulate and not whether to regulate”.

It was April 2011 when the Government in England launched its Red Tape Challenge but the lecture given by Harman highlights that the push for better and smarter regulation has been going for longer than most of the incumbent UK governments, and has seen some real progress made towards a modern and efficient regulatory framework around waste management and wider environmental protection. For permitted activities, the inspection and enforcement regime has become more risk-based and there is a much stronger focus on cracking down on illegal waste activities.

Moving outside the waste management sector itself, however, the picture has been far less positive. Days before the pre-treatment requirements came into force in 2007, for instance, a YouGov poll found that more than 80% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were unaware of the legislation – and one could question whether much has changed since then. In 2010, a report into Better Regulation carried out by the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that one of the key issues facing both the regulator and government policy makers was widespread ignorance among SMEs of the waste regulations they should be complying with. A survey carried out by NetRegs in 2009 showed huge gaps in knowledge and awareness amongst nearly 10,000 respondents on some key areas of regulations that affect nearly all businesses. (See box)

Percentage of England businesses (prompted) that have heard of a piece of legislation

·         Duty of Care - 31%

·         End of Life Vehicle Regulations - 17%

·         Environmental Permitting - 16%

·         Hazardous Waste Regulations - 41%

·         Packaging Waste Regulations - 21%

·         REACH - 10%

·         Site Waste Management Plans - 28%

·         WEEE Regulations - 19%

It is quite probable that this situation is similar today and there is a lesson here for the governments and regulators alike. There is little point in working hard to reduce the burden on the business community if it has not been cognisant of the burden in the first place. Instead, initiatives such as the Red Tape Challenge should also be used to raise awareness about key regulatory obligations at the same time as announcing easier ways to achieve compliance.

There is a golden opportunity coming up. A consultation is due imminently on Duty of Care, which imposes on every business a legal duty of care to deal with their waste responsibly and mandating that every transfer of waste from one party to another be documented, agreed and signed by both parties, and a record kept for at least two years.  It is designed to support more efficient regulation by providing a framework to track waste and eliminate irresponsible and illegal waste activities, ensuring that waste does not ‘disappear’ and end up in the wrong place.

A present, it is estimated that approximately 23 million Waste Transfer Notes (WTNs) are currently produced across the UK each year, which means close to 50 million in storage at any one time. One of the main aims of the consultation is to establish whether other forms of evidence may provide an easier and more efficient way to record and store this information.  

Recording the information on invoices is likely to be one of the possibilities considered in the consultation but far more notable is a new system for recording transfers of waste using an online system. Edoc (electronic duty of care) is a free online tool being developed by the Environment Agency in partnership with the waste sector for roll out from January 2014 that will help to streamline compliance and save waste producing businesses both time and money. Its introduction will provide a modern, quick and easy alternative to the exchange of paper WTNs, cutting down on the time and labour cost associated with filing, searching and retrieving records manually, as well as reducing paper and storage needs.  It will also give businesses easy access and the tools to interrogate their own waste data and identify opportunities to improve efficiency, reduce waste and cut disposal costs.

It is a win-win solution. Not only could it cut down the burden by bringing the compliance process into the IT age, it will also help to underpin the move towards a ‘greener’ economy. Edoc and its information will give businesses a tool with which to better assess and understand their waste arisings and inform their efforts to implement smarter and more cost effective waste practices focused around prevention and recovery. And more than that, it should encourage businesses to think about resource efficiency in the round: what raw materials they buy; processes and product design; and the wastes to be managed at the end. Governments around the world are predicting a resource-constrained future so the time to understand and act on business resource use and waste is already here.

Surely, then, the review of Duty of Care and launch of edoc in early 2014 is a perfect platform for government, regulators and other industry stakeholders to really get the message out to businesses. The low level of awareness identified in 2009 will simply not be acceptable as we move forwards. In the intervening years, larger companies have certainly started to recognise and respond to the issue of resource scarcity; in the last few weeks some of the biggest brand names issued a statement through the Aldersgate Group in support of the commissioning of a robust and independent review into the impacts of resource insecurity and climate change on UK growth. SMEs remain a challenging audience, however, and in a world where economic pressures are pushing environmental considerations down the agenda, we will have to work together to get this message out.

There will be a great opportunity to see how the edoc online system works on the CIWM/ESA stand at RWM in partnership with CIWM 2013 (Hall 20 H29-G29). There will be daily demonstrations and staff on hand to answer questions at 11am each day on the stand, so do come and see us to find out what edoc can do for you.

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