The sense of excitement about the strategy around the table echoed the reaction felt by the industry generally when the strategy was finally published on 17 December 2018. Despite an initial rush to congratulate Defra’s bold approach, it became apparent on closer inspection that there are omissions and a lack of detail on some policies that pose real concerns.
Defra project manager Dawn Woodward said at the event, which was held in Westminster, that work was well underway to tackle deliberate misuse of the waste system. She confirmed that more detail of measures to deter waste crime were expected in consultations planned to follow December’s launch of the long-term strategy document.
“I can’t deny that it takes a long time,” she said. “I was working on regulatory delivery looking at serious and organised crime six years ago in Defra and we are still grappling with the same problems in some cases – but things are moving on.”
Woodward said bids shortlisted through a programme to find new ways of tracking waste would receive £50,000 each, with further funding for the finally chosen solutions: “We are trying to find innovative things.”
Phil Conran, general manager at compliance consultancy 360 Environmental, told attendees at the round table – which was backed by the All Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) – that technology was critical to cracking down on crime.
“We have no online tracking of waste, and we are pathetic at how we manage our industrial and commercial waste.”
“We are still in the dark ages with our data tracking,” he said. “We have no online tracking of waste, and we are pathetic at how we manage our industrial and commercial waste.”
Paul Vanston, chief executive at packaging organisation Incpen, set out his concerns about the ways in which the new strategies outlined by Defra could play into the hands of criminals.
“Waste sector crime is very organised and much of it is about avoiding costs that should be paid to all sorts of parties, including HM Treasury,” he said. “With new systems such as the deposit return scheme (DRS), we will increase the opportunity to grab a load of that money. Enforcement will need to be ramped up massively to ensure that, when the DRS is launched in 2023, we don’t leave the door open with these systems to be exploited by those who are very canny at doing so.”
Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, said he was pleased with certain anti-crime measures in the strategy but desired greater law enforcement.
“You have to stop criminals entering the sector in the first place. We’ve been crying out for carrier-broker-dealer reform – it looks like that is happening,” he said. “The other big element is shutting down criminals faster: we want to see more effort on enforcement. There has been a shed load of money over the years for this and I want to see more action.”
Tom Murray, deputy head of resources and waste policy at Defra, set the tone for the round table discussion when he said: “Let’s celebrate the strategy coming out but the real work starts today.”
Keith Freegard, head of the British Plastics Federation Recycling Group, added: “The important thing now is to get policy instruments that have a balance of rewarding good behaviour and penalising the bad. If we end up with a load of sticks then people will find ways to avoid them.”
With the DRS, extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging waste and mandatory standalone food waste collections all timetabled for 2023, there was some concern about how performance would be improved during the next four years. Hayler asked: “What new measures are there to meet 2020 household recycling targets? Many of the interventions are far beyond those.”
Local Government Association environment spokesman Martin Tett warned that there would be a “massive cost” to implement proposals in the strategy.
“The difference between collecting from a long gravel drive in a house in Surrey to collecting from a pokey 1960s tower block in central London is vast,” he said. “To break contracts early involves a cost. If you want a different collection regime, there is a cost. To have a consistent bin collection system across the country could mean significant costs for local authorities that are really cash-strapped.”
Tett added that councils had spent “hundreds of millions of pounds” developing a “value chain” leading to certain waste being turned into energy: “If the Government introduces an incineration tax, that’s an enormous change of policy that needs to be thought through.”
This sparked a vibrant debate about the merits of energy-from-waste (EfW). John Glover, managing director at recycling giant Bywaters, insisted that, as long as the correct technology was used, EfW was “an extremely reliable answer”.
Dismissing opposition to the methodology, he added: “Some people are never satisfied with anything. We should give them the responsibility for dealing with residual waste.”
Julie Fourcade, head of external affairs at waste company FCC Environment, agreed with the broad argument in favour of turning waste into power: “There is a big chunk of residual waste that needs to be dealt with. EfW must be a better way of treating it than some other historical methods.”
Freegard conceded that EfW had a role to play in treating waste, but said selection of input material was critical. He said Sweden and Norway, for example, were looking to take plastic out of waste before burning it.
“Energy production [from certain waste streams] is pathetic compared with burning clean gas in a close-coupled gas turbine. Let’s make sure we understand the impact of skyfill as opposed to landfill.”
A row then ensued about the need for EfW plants to deal with surplus waste after recycling. In an annex to the resources and waste strategy, Defra said that significant additional incineration or advanced conversion technology “above that already operating or planned to 2020” would not be needed.
However Hayler warned that, in the near term, the UK was “chronically short of treatment capacity”.
He said: “In 2035 the capacity gap in the evidence annex is 6.5 million tonnes post-meeting recycling targets. We need investment. EfW is the flexible, bankable, proven technology that will do that efficiently. It should have been front and centre of the strategy.”
Murray said the strategy was clear on the role of EfW: “Our evidence is suggesting that, when we meet recycling targets in 2030 and 2035, recycling will leave no capacity gap. It is about having the right amount of investment in EfW and the right amount in reprocessing.”
Adrian Hawkes, director of policy at compliance provider Valpak, said EfW had struggled historically as “plants have generally been built miles away from residential areas because people don’t want them near them”.
But Fourcade noted: “We have one in the middle of town in Lincoln and a heat network in Nottingham that is 30 years old. It is possible.”
The need for buy-in from the general public was widely agreed at the event. Ministers last year announced a tax on plastic packaging that does not have at least 30% recycled material in it, while its consultation on bans of plastic straws and cotton buds closed on 3 December and its consultation on doubling the plastic carrier bag charge closed on 22 February.
Fourcade said: “The plastic tax will allow material to be driven through, but it all rests on what people choose to put in their recycling bin at home. How do we make sure we get the right material in to allow it to be recycled in a quality way? A lot of what we see at the moment is not good enough.”
Tett called for packaging markings to be standardised and simplified: “The industry tends to know what can and can’t be recycled, but virtually everyone I speak to does not. The film on the top of the microwave meal, for example – people don’t know which bin it goes in.’
Freegard said the straws and buds consultation “fills me with woe”.
“I know it is a response to newspaper headlines, but it seems ridiculous to talk about 0.1% of the tonnage when 66% is going overseas,” he said. “We risk losing the general public. They know plastic is going in the ocean, but I’m not sure they’ve made the link that we are sending masses of it out deliberately and getting paid producer responsibility money to do that.”
Murray defended the policy announcements: “Systems such as the DRS can help bring citizens with us and we’ll explore that in the consultation. There is a broader strategy. Items such as plastic-stemmed cotton buds are commonly littered or end up in the open environment.”
Fourcade asked what was being done to drive down people’s creation of food waste. Tett said many councils had ditched public awareness campaigns as austerity budgets had bitten.
“We used to do a lot of it, but all those teams have disappeared because you could not demonstrate the value. Matched against children’s services or adult social care, you couldn’t work the equation so most councils have deprioritised that.”
Hawkes said it was hard to turn back to campaigns that had dwindled.
“When we looked at the experience of other countries that have been high performers, they have had communication programmes funded for a long period of time,” he said. “You cannot change messages every five years.”
Rick Hindley, executive director at the aluminium packaging recycling organisation Alupro, echoed these sentiments: “Behaviour change for aluminium requires funding for a consistent message. Properly funded, creative, continuous communication will be a big part of driving up recycling rates.”
But Vanston warned of the dangers of giving mixed messages.
“I can see a situation where citizens are told ‘don’t waste food’ alongside ‘give us your food waste’. We will have to be clear on what we mean about avoidable and unavoidable waste.”
Freegard proposed a radical solution to changing public behaviour.
“There is a plethora of TV programmes about shopping more carefully and you could extend that to waste,” he said. “About a tonne is created per household [in a year], so consider going to someone’s front garden and tipping that amount for them to look at it. I would love to watch that programme.”
Woodward said “only a few” of the people on her Bromley cul-de-sac put out a food waste caddy for collection.
“There is a culture change needed,” she said. “There is a lot of work going on, including the announcement of a food waste champion. There will be publicity campaigns and money behind that. We are looking at how we can encourage businesses to waste less.”
Meanwhile Glover said commentators got “too excited” about a DRS: “They work for materials that already have a value. We know that while ferrous and aluminium cans, PET and HDPE have easily recoverable value, a solution is needed for the rest.
“What will we do with them [non- PET, aluminium or HDPE packaging] once we recover them? They won’t go to China any more so we need to encourage construction of plants.”
Fourcade agreed: “We need a solution that is cost-effective that we can invest in and deliver to deal with low-grade materials.”
Hindley said he was concerned that the Government’s focus on plastic waste could bring “collateral damage” to efforts to reprocess other materials.
“We are concerned about DRS,” he added. “We might get higher recycling rates, but then companies will have to deal with the low-value materials and quality could become worse.
“Experience in those countries with a DRS is that the quality of residual material not going through the scheme is so poor that they have to put them, for example, through a pyrolysis process that we simply don’t have in the UK.”
Wilf Lytton, senior researcher at the Bright Blue think-tank, asked a fundamental question about the usefulness of the so-called plastics tax.
“Is the plastic produced with 30% recycled material itself recyclable? Otherwise you are not achieving a great deal and could produce a more damaging product,” he warned. “And how do you ensure compliance of plastics produced overseas and sold into the UK? It’s pretty hard to get right.”
Government plans for EPR came under the spotlight at the Westminster event. Hawkes said packaging producers would expect a greater degree of control over how end-of-life systems operated if they were paying for them.
“This is a really important part of the equation,” he said. “How it works remains to be seen. I could well imagine that, given a free hand, there might be scope for economies of scale, greater consistency and better arrangements than currently.”
He added that reform of the packaging recovery note system would create a “significant” opportunity: “We are looking at how that works to the benefit of the UK. I would expect it to affect our business an awful lot whatever direction reform goes in.”
Vanston said the waste industry as a whole had to come together to maximise the value of the investment expected as a result of Government policy.
“On the EPR side, in the gap between 2023 and 2035, we could see up to £12bn going into the system,” he said. “If there is anything sub-optimal in the system we have to identify it and sort it out. Even when we’ve designed the optimal system for the whole supply chain, the citizen is an incredibly important part of that and, if we leave them behind, we will not get the optimal performance we are paying for.”
He said it was critical that money invested got to its intended destination.
“My clear worry is that producers put money in but, as a result, the Treasury then reduces local council settlements or councils cut their waste budgets.”
Murray said the Government was determined to create effective policy through EPR: “We are setting out to ensure we get this right. It links to tax on packaging and DRSs. It’s all big and exciting stuff that we are going to deliver. If we can fix the producer side then I hope that will make the consumer side more straightforward to tackle in the future.”
Woodward added that the resources and waste strategy looked at the long term but the Government was also dealing with more immediate challenges.
“We have a team dealing with the EU exit, particularly with waste transfer notes,” she said. “There are two issues – markets following the China ban and others who may be following suit, and the potential issues if you are unable to export quickly to the EU.”
Glover said any barrier to fulfilling deals to send materials across the Channel after March could lead to “lots of bills” for some UK companies.
Woodward concluded: “The strategy sets out the vision but there’s a long way to go. One thing we didn’t mention was international leadership – we are very involved there. The UK recently signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Economy Global Commitment.”
APSRG chair Barry Sheerman MP told attendees that the appointment of “big beast” Michael Gove as environment secretary created “a lot of opportunity”: “We have now got every indication that we are looking at waste in our society, waste globally, seriously. We have a Government that is engaged, an Opposition that is engaged, everyone knows there is a problem.”
Vanston said it was time for the industry to come together to ensure the Government strategy could be implemented effectively.
“In the 20 years I worked in this industry, we start every discussion by blaming other parts of the value chain,” he said. “This strategy should be a line in the sand and, rather than fingers of blame, we should extend hands of friendship. Cost shunting needs to stop so we can maximise the value of the money put into the system.”
See a video of the event at https://bit.ly/2R2WvHN
julie fourcade fcc
Julie Fourcade, FCC:
“There is a big chunk of residual waste that needs to be dealt with. EfW must be a better way of treating it than some other historical methods.”
Paul Vanston, Incpen: “I can see a situation where citizens are told ‘don’t waste food’ alongside ‘give us your food waste’. We will have to be clear on what we mean about avoidable and unavoidable waste.”
Martin Tett, LGA:
“If the Government introduces an incineration tax, that’s an enormous change of policy that needs to be thought through.”
Tom Murray, Defra:
”We are setting out to ensure we get effective policy through EPR. It links to tax on packaging and DRSs. It’s all big and exciting stuff that we are going to deliver.”
keith freegard british plastics federation
Keith Freegard, British Plastics Federation Recycling Group:
“The straws and buds consultation fills me with woe… it seems mental to talk about 0.1% of the tonnage when 66% is going overseas.”