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What the industry needs is vision

In 2015 there is one thing we can be sure of: there will be a general election in May.

We also know, from FCC Environment’s recent report, and the experiences in Scotland and Wales in the past five years, that who wins – or loses least badly – will have implications for the waste and resources sector in England. Beyond that it is all a bit murky.

Why does the Government matter so much? One way of looking at this is to ask why the waste sector cannot resolve the argument about whether the UK is building too much energy-from-waste (EfW) capacity. In practice, one of the main differences between the opposing camps is the assumption about future recycling rates.

The pessimists presumably look at the stagnant household recycling rate and the state of council finances and assume the worst. They may be right, but look at the picture in Wales and Scotland when the governments decided to set more ambitious targets and a different story emerges.

Within a broad range, the recycling rate will be what we decide it should be, provided we follow through with the polices to make it happen. One of the problems is that there is no ‘clear steer’ in England about where we want the rate to be post-2020. Where the issue is whether to invest long-term in capital plant we really need that, even more than we need some clue about how the 50% target is going to be met.

I have long held the view that the amount of EfW capacity that will actually get built will depend on the availability of feedstock. But, even here, the signals are not clear.

Just before Christmas, the Government announced that it had spotted a market failure and it was going to look at further regulation of the refuse derived fuel (RDF) market to make sure that we are exporting a product rather than mixed waste. The principle was said to be that, in line with the waste hierarchy, RDF should contain only material not capable of being recycled. Very commendable, but if that standard is to be applied to material for export, what about the stuff that is going to get burnt here?

The best information we have about the composition of the residual waste feedstock comes from a useful report by Resource Futures for Defra. It suggests that, in 2010-11, of the 23.6 million tonnes of collected household waste, 17.5 million tonnes, including more than half of black bag waste, were materials that are already routinely collected for recycling. Applying the principles proposed for RDF would drastically reduce the EfW feedstock assumptions.

SRF plant

When Defra wrote the waste hierarchy into its waste regulations, it said it would be revising its guidance on how to implement it. So far, the 2011 guidance remains unchanged and continues to show a category for residual black bag waste for which the treatment options are largely forms of energy recovery. This has always been a slightly odd arrangement, but the top of the hierarchy for this category is ‘prevention’, which presumably includes more recycling. In any event, the next tier is the production of RDF/SRF, which it seems will now also require the extraction of recyclables before incineration.

The danger is that the waste hierarchy will be ignored. As Eunomia points out in its latest review, if all the planned EfW facilities are built, accompanied by feedstock guarantees to secure funding, we may find our recycling rate artificially constrained.

In the short term the UK has to get the recycling rate climbing again. Everyone says that communications are important for that, and they are, but it is not enough. For real behaviour change we need to reawaken the emotional connection to recycling which was built into the original design of the ‘Recycle Now’ campaign.

That has been eroded since 2010 while WRAP has been prevented from developing the brand fully. WRAP says it is now working on a revitalised campaign, but there will be precious little public funding available.

A successful new campaign will need a coalition of all the organisations with an interest in promoting recycling. The risk is that we will see a growth in the number of good material- and locationspecific campaigns without an overall vision or a strong brand that people can identify with. Recycling is spreading outside the household and involving more people: recycling bins are springing up at stations, airports, shopping centres and in the workplace. Some sense of structure and common messaging would make this so much more powerful.

The On Pack Recycling Label has been a good model for how retailers and brands can put useful information in the hands of consumers at no cost to the taxpayer and marginal cost to suppliers. The potential of that scheme has not been fully realised and there is room for others dealing with other products.

Don’t expect much to happen before or during the election, but let’s hope that afterwards someone with a bit of vision will be in charge.   

Phillip Ward is the owner of Falcutt consultancy and former director of local government services at WRAP

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