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Minister repackages official line on energy recovery

A Parliamentary debate on packaging has yielded intriguing insights from resource minister Therese Coffey on local authority recycling, energy from waste (EfW) and the waste hierarchy.

Her contribution was in response to a petition signed by more than 75,000 people calling for all packaging to be 100% recyclable or compostable.

The debate in Westminster Hall did not attract a big turnout of MPs but those who did engage were David Mackintosh (Conservative, Northampton South); Mark Pawsey (Conservative, Rugby); Barry Sheerman (Labour, Huddersfield); Scott Mann (Conservative, North Cornwall); Gavin Robinson (DUP, Belfast East) and Mary Glindon (Labour, North Tyneside).

Packaging debate - sparse crowd

Packaging debate - sparse crowd

After speaking in general terms about the benefits and challenge of packaging, Coffey asked: “Why is our recycling rate not sky high?” She identified several issues for householders and collection authorities.

“While all councils are required to offer recycling of plastic bottles, several councils inform us that it is not economically worth while for them to collect and recycle some formats, such as yoghurt pots or ready meal trays. 

”They also inform us that local reprocessing infrastructure may be limited; that the type of reprocessing needed could create different environmental impacts that outweigh the resource efficiency benefits; and that there may be a lack of end markets for some types of recycled materials. There is also the problem of contamination, which can make the contents of an entire recycling bin unfit for recycling.”

She praised those councils doing good work but added: “I challenge the view that recycling in densely packed urban areas is difficult or that local authorities cannot do more to improve recycling rates.” It is a view she has expressed before.

There was a fascinating insight in a comment on EfW, when Coffey disagreed with a positive comment on EfW from Pawsey. He had pointed out that residual household waste generating heat in the manufacture of cement was a better use of the calorific value of packaging than sending it to landfill.

She cautioned: “In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it. The opposite is true of food—it is better to burn it than bury it. We need to be careful about what incentives we push.”

Underpinning this view, perhaps, may be laudable concern that policies supporting EfW could hit the recycling rate. But it is hard to understand how a Defra minister can ignore the waste hierarchy so blithely.

Packaging debate Coffey

Packaging debate Coffey

It was also interesting to hear that Coffey’s top priority is air quality, followed by urban recycling. It underlines that, with Defra’s other responsibilities such as agriculture, food and flooding, waste policy in general is well down the ministry’s pecking order.

It has already been clear that, in England, Defra is unhappy to match the regulatory regimes of Scotland and Wales, with Coffey saying she was not persuaded of the merits.

“I do not want just to apply a stick to councils. There are other incentives and we want to encourage not only businesses to play their part, but councils to make the process as easy as possible for householders.”

She mentioned Unilever and its efforts to move to a circular economy (CE) model. The company has recently pledged to ensure that all plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, packaging weight will be cut by one third by 2020 and it will use at least 25% of recyclable plastic content in its packaging by 2025.

“It would be good to see even more than that,” she said, without registering the fact that Unilever is something of a global leader in sustainability and most of its rivals are miles behind. The company might be a little miffed.

Coffey also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to negotiate with the EU “in good faith” as the UK progresses through the Brexit process.

“I am approaching the negotiations on the eventual outcome for the CE in a way consistent with that. On the timing, it is likely that we will still be in the EU, which will mean that we are required by directive to introduce it into law. But we are approaching the matter in good faith while negotiating quite hard on behalf of the UK and what we think is achievable and realistic.

”First, we must agree a definition of ’recycling’. There are many different views.”

I was intrigued by another reference to the CE – and what seemed to be a continuing unwillingness to buy into the concept. In September, Coffey told the Environmental Audit Committee: “The words ’circular economy’ to me are at risk of implying there is no growth. If we continue to grow, it doesn’t just need to be a closed loop… I am going to look into it more carefully.”

Four months on, she told the petition debate: “We have referred to the CE negotiations. When we leave the EU, I genuinely believe that what the Hon. member for North Tyneside [Glindon] refers to as the CE and we call ‘resource efficiency’ could be a genuinely competitive advantage for UK plc.”

It seems odd to keep a distance from a concept that, while it can be challenging to understand or explain, is the foundation for the mainstream approach to sustainability. Resource efficency is lots of things but it is not as holistic as CE.

In fairness, the minister ended on an upbeat note: “We have seen a tremendous transition over the past decade from a throwaway mindset to one that focuses on extracting the value from resources more than ever before.

”But we must continue with this trend, finding new and innovative ways to extract even more value from our resource assets and protect the quality of our environment. Companies, consumers and the environment will benefit. That is the triple crown for which we all strive.”

Is the order of the threesome significant, I wonder?

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