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Political parties must adopt policies that effect real change in attitudes

Back in 2006/07, the early promise of a rejuvenated Conservative Party in opposition with a suite of targeted environmentally-focused policies collated in the Quality of Life review was compelling. We looked at these policies and hoped that we would see policy become practice if the Tories took power.

The Quality of Life review included some very strong policy proposals around product stewardship, landfill bans, reward schemes and planning, and using carbon as a base-measure of performance. There was much promise - remember, the economy was riding high and Gordon Brown had famously said in his last Budget as Chancellor “we will never return to the old boom and bust”.

But the banking crisis hit, the economy unwound as the coalition Government came into being. Despite efforts to keep the “vote blue, go green” tagline alive, many of the green policies followed the money, and went out of the window. Chancellor George Osborne’s stated at the Conservative Party Conference in 2011 “let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.” Since then, additional waste PFI credits have been cancelled, and a much-trumpeted potential landfill ban on wood has been parked.

So does this signal the end of the very promising policies set out in the 2007 Quality of Life review?

Efficiency drivers

At the moment, the driver of high-end resource efficiency is a bunch of product-based restrictions on the toxicity of products and the recovery of materials for recycling. Packaging, electrical equipment, vehicles and batteries are all regulated in the EU and in many other nation states in the developed world.

Targets for the recovery of materials within these product categories are frequently debated and negotiated. Whether the targets are challenging enough and governance efficient enough are moot points; nonetheless, material is being diverted from landfill and is the responsibility of the supply chain.

Meanwhile, the Landfill Directive bans tyres and goes some way to limiting other waste, such as biodegradable municipal waste (BMW), from landfill. Voluntary agreements such as Courtauld are playing a limited but well-targeted role with leaders, but what about the laggards?

International carbon reduction agreements are delivering changes to the production and distribution of feedstock materials and products, such as the drive by multinational mining and chemicals companies to reduce energy consumption, whilst also driving change through corporate CSR programmes.

With the exception of tyres and BMW, and the development of measures to target plastics, the other directives target product categories, rather than materials, and this is where I believe the current debate is going off-track.

For corporations to fully buy-in to landfill bans, the focus must be on the products they manufacture: think furniture, paint, clothes.

News editor Christine Ottery’s recent MRW interview with shadow environment minister Gavin Shuker stated that “Defra is fantastic at science but is missing political leadership.” This may be true, and there’s certainly plenty of science around the art of landfill bans, including Defra research and other work carried out by the Green Alliance, to name but one.

But the problem with enacting landfill bans is about political leadership and, fundamentally, economics. It’s about the next shift in corporate behaviour – a crucial one that will set the tone for the next generation. But the wider impacts are just as interesting.

Achieving compliance

Targeting a material is blunt and absolute, leading to genuine problems in policing and in achieving compliance, which were both raised as concerns in the Government’s wood waste consultation. Thinking about metals as a material to target, this would require most of everything to be diverted, which is no bad thing, in theory, but either requires a significant number of exceptions and arguments over percentages or sets up major problems in enforcing any ban, no matter what the lead time.

But if, for example, you banned furniture, it is identifiable, it targets multiple materials, and crucially it is owned by producers. It can be used as a lever for investment in third sector organisations and, tied to other measures that should emerge from the waste prevention strategy currently in development by Defra, lead to substantial local socio-economic benefits: jobs and training opportunities; a supply of products for local authorities to specify in local procurements for furnishing homes and offices; and an attitudinal shift supporting wider behaviour change.

Another example would be clothes. This is one area that, as has been argued previously, really needs attention. While it could be argued that many products have become more durable, though they may be less easy to repair, clothes have definitely become less durable, while fashion is faster. I’m not arguing that we should all be wearing flares again, but when you can buy a t-shirt for £2 there is something wrong. I would argue that landfilling clothes is just as morally reprehensible and economically crazy as throwing food away. Science-wise, it is also a really bad thing.

As the Green Alliance argues in its recent infographic and blog, landfilling stuff that it makes economic sense to recover is a clear market failure and therefore requires an alternative intervention.

The last Labour Government showed interest in landfill bans and direct charging, and then backed away. As already noted, the edge has been taken off the Coalition’s appetite for landfill bans with the announcement that it is “not the right time” to restrict the landfilling of wood waste. However, the door remains open for textiles and food according to recent exchanges between Baroness Jenkin and Lord de Mauley in the House of Lords.

Skirting the issue

And so we turn to Labour’s recent policy review announcement. It sets out the direction of travel and no more, but at this early stage that’s okay. However, the document skirts the issue of landfill bans, something that was picked up MRW’s interview with Shuker, instead choosing to focus on municipal recycling targets and reviewing PRNs.

With strong leadership and a large dose of common sense, a world where the vast majority of “municipal” waste is in fact the responsibility of the producer is easily achievable. A landfill ban can focus and drive producer responsibility - in the words of the coalition “further and faster” than Europe. Let’s hope Shuker can shake things up by leading from the front.

John Twitchen, executive director, Copper Consultancy

  • Sauce Consultancy merged with 3G Communications last summer and this month has rebranded as Copper Consultancy

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