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Change is gonna come: but what?

We have just had two significant reminders that the way we collect and recycle our packaging waste needs serious thought.

The first came from the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which is establishing a laudable agenda around how ‘recycling’, in its widest, popular sense, should be paid for. Central to this is the expectation that some form of extended producer responsibility (EPR) will come, regardless of our position in relation to the EU, and the industry can help to shape policy.

The second, a report from the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), argues that the business case for reuse and its environmental, economic and social benefits is rarely articulated effectively. In tandem, new president Margaret Bates used her inauguration address to urge a greater focus on the top end of the waste hierarchy.

Just as the UK household recycling rate is flatlining (OK, OK, I mean England’s), we are also going nowhere in waste policy. This is always an awkward situation to discuss because there is much policy activity in the nations. Overall, though, there is an absence of direction from Whitehall and a clear resistance from ministers to the more prescriptive but dynamic ideas coming from Brussels or Strasbourg.

What are we left with? A mature recycling industry led by cash-strapped local authorities and served by resource management companies unable to make the healthy profits of yesteryear from selling our domestic (largely packaging) waste materials.

It may well make sense for politicians to consider switching responsibility for collections from councils to compliance schemes

The principle of ’polluter pays’ offers a more lucrative source of funding for the recycling market through the producers and the supply chains. EPR can clearly be used to obligate each link in the supply chain to chip in more, whether it is through PRNs or, as in one ESA option, compliance schemes.

Very few businesses affected by EPR would willingly sign the cheques for a new arrangement without wanting to share in the proceeds, and that logic could drive change, perhaps along the line of the ESA idea.

It may well make sense for politicians to consider switching responsibility for collections from councils to compliance schemes because they have a much closer relationship with waste producers: indeed, producers may well already be members of such schemes.

‘Wasteful’ members of the supply chain might then develop a healthier relationship with packaging collections, especially if they are retrieving their own valuable, sustainable resource.

This will not go down well in town halls, where a justifiable case can be made that local authorities are collecting this material very efficiently and any ‘privatisation’ could end up being more costly for the taxpayers.

All of this may be some time off but change is inevitable in modern economies: the questions are what change and when.

And that is why Bates is right to urge her CIWM audience to help shape public opinion to embrace goals higher up the waste hierarchy, rather than getting embroiled in recovery, treatment and recycling. The public has to be on-side, which is why WRAP’s consistency guidelines for recycling materials are also timely and welcome.

It is worth finishing with Bates’ inauguration speech and her call for the industry to remind itself that it was doing a good job: “The waste and resource sector is an amazing sector to be part of; it is both friendly and supportive, and innovative and cutting edge… We persuade a large number of people every day to think about their waste, rinse it and put it out separately for recycling, even though there is no direct benefit to them at all – can you think of another area that could make similar claims?”

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