Defra minister Therese Coffey has told local authority recyclers her department was “on a mission” to stimulate some secondary material markets to boost recycling and held out hopes of extra cash to extend food waste collections.
The initiatives came in a wide-ranging speech to the annual Larac conference in Nottingham which also touched on the challenge of urban areas, collection consistency, waste crime, and UK efforts to have incinerator bottom ash (IBA) included in the national recycling figures.
Coffey said she recognised that the secondary materials market was not working as well as it could be, and Defra and the Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy department (BEIS) were working together to stimulate it, referencing indirectly a policy suggestion contained in the Government’s industrial strategy.
During questions, Claire Brailsford, head of waste management at Derbyshire County Council, called for a long-awaited “coherent and cohesive strategy” in Defra’s 25-year plan which environment secretary Michael Gove has said will be published before the end of the year.
Coffey said he and the two previous environment secretaries had brought “different flavours” to the plan and publication had been hit by the general election.
“Michael Gove is a true radical and it is being reshaped in his own mould,” she said.
Defra was working on its own strategy for waste next year and Coffey said she wanted it to be as compelling as possible to help Larac members improve recycling.
She told them: “This is not a glamorous part of your council’s portfolio, but it is critical. You know you are on a special mission to help save the planet.
“We know we are on a mission to do our best to stimulate some of the secondary markets to make it financially better for you to help on that way.”
On food waste, Coffey said provision had increased but more could be done to address the annual household collection total of 4.6m tonnes.
“We are actively working within government to see what we can do to help that in the future and I’m expecting more in our strategy next year,” she said.
I have to admit that every group of councils Wrap has worked with since publishing that framework not a single one of them has made a significant difference
Later she added: “We are working on something but I can’t make any announcements because we have no agreement or the funding to do it but we are trying to help every council to collect food waste. That is one of the top priorities”
She acknowledged the challenges of recycling in urban areas and most of the EU countries with better rates than the UK were less densely populated but: “I do want to challenge the view that recycling in urban areas is too difficult. Shrugging shoulders or wringing hands won’t see us reach a higher recycling rate.”
Local authorities in Newham (London) and Sunderland were praised for their efforts to rise from low rates.
The minister wrote this summer to 34 authorities whose rate was 30% or lower “to understand their contracts and what they were planning to do to improve recycling”.
She said 22 had responded, several welcoming the opportunity to explain their challenges, but warned: “I’m still waiting for the other 12 and I haven’t forgotten who they are.”
Other agencies could help, she said, and Defra had been involved in discussions with social landlords to consider different pilots in which they could be involved.
Surprisingly we are the only country to have lobbied to include IBA in the recycling targets
Coffey was downbeat about the consistency framework published by Wrap, to improve the quality and consistency of recovered materials and how they are collected.
“So far I have to admit that every group of councils Wrap has worked with since publishing that framework not a single one of them has made a significant difference, and that is one of the ongoing challenges,” she said.
Referring to the proposed EU’s Circular Economy package, Coffey said she wanted recycling targets to be “realistic” and an agreement over the methods for measuring it.
She also hoped the UK’s desire to count IBA in recycling figures would be successful.
“Surprisingly we are the only country to have lobbied to include IBA in the recycling targets,” she said. “We are trying because I recognise for a lot of people this would add an extra 2-3% points. And it is reusing waste in other products. We are working on that.”
Brexit and the Government’s upcoming clean growth strategy for 2050 offered “exciting” possibilities, the minister added.
Waste crime and fly-tipping were challenging but a strategic approach with the Environment Agency was under review and she announced there would be consultation “shortly” to give the agency more powers to work with councils.
“Bins and roads are what everybody uses, that’s what I say to my councillors. When you have sorted bins and roads that’s what keeps residents and, dare I say it, electors happy,” she said.