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A public debate about waste services going private

New York has a problem with recycling – the rate for businesses in the city is 10 percentage points BELOW what it was in 2004. According to researchers, the current figure is 19% versus 29% then, with the US national average reported to be 34%.

Admittedly the data comes from an environmental campaigning group Transform Don’t Trash but its claim indicates that where there isn’t a will there won’t be a way.

I liked the anecdote from a bar owner who said one waste collection company told him not to bother separating his recyclables. “Now we’re putting out our bottles out for people who are happy to take the five cents,” he said.

This was reported in a New York Daily News article which was spelling that private operators were getting it wrong. But they were getting it wrong because they weren’t incentivised to recycle - or reuse, even.

On 10 May, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) published a report called ‘Delivering Sustainable Growth: How the Resource and Waste Management Industry Benefits People, the Environment and the Economy’.

A key element is the good news story of how the resource management industry employs more than 100,000 people and is the sector that delivers the circular economy (CE). The ESA called for £10bn investment to create 50,000 new jobs and boost GDP by £3bn.

The report made four recommendations. Three were not contentious: boost secondary markets, improve collection efficiency and drive out waste crime. The fourth was more intriguing: “a new framework for producer responsibility (PR) with resource ownership switching from local authorities to product supply chains”. This would match the likely drive towards extended PR in the new CE proposals from Brussels – assuming we remain in the EU.

In fairness, the ESA says it will commission more research into how any new arrangement might operate but the desired “direction of travel”, as executive director Jacob Hayler put it, seems to be a privatisation of sorts.

Some at the launch event for the report thought this might appeal to the core beliefs of a Conservative government in a way that would have had no traction under the Coalition. Although residents will still pay under a private sector regime, council tax bills would fall as a consequence and that would appeal to Tory politicians.

The ESA report was clearly a more unilateral approach than the collective one heralded 18 months ago when the association and CIWM launched its joint lobbying group Resources & Waste UK. The three ‘non-controversial’ recommendations in the latest report featured to some extent in its ‘manifesto’ submission ahead of the last general election. But a shift in control was not on the agenda. 

The household collection in the UK cannot said to be working when the recycling rate has fallen this year for the first time and we are only likely to get to the 50% target by 2020 by changing the rules, for example over incinerator bottom ash.

Defra’s impending harmonisation/consistency review of collections with WRAP may make a difference eventually as contracts reach their conclusion but it is not a fundamental change. We will still have too many fingers in the recycling pie.

Consolidation of more collection authorities into partnerships, as Viridor has suggested, could be an answer to boost efficiency, as Manchester has shown. But what about making these large bodies private entities and bringing in more entrepreneurial experience?

For its part, local government can make a strong case for keeping control having worked hard in the face of an austerity regime to make services cost effective and is now able to provide waste producers with cost-effective collections on a par with the private sector.

The status quo cannot continue but the best alternative is open to debate – and credit to the ESA for kicking one off. But what is essential, as the New York example indicated, is the need for genuine leadership from Whitehall.

As MRW has reported, the heads of Viridor and FCC Environment both called for greater direction from the Government and described their difficulties in getting ministers’ interest.

So it’s hard to argue with the critique from shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy that Defra’s current position is a “recipe for inaction”.

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