The Waste Review - reviewed

21 Jun 2011, 11:00

Hannah Hislop - Green Alliance

The government's long-awaited Waste Review was published last week. Green Alliance has previously argued that it would give us an important indication of the government's commitment to sustainable consumption and production, and its place in the green economy.

Unfortunately, the review has revealed that, while the government clearly wills the ends of a zero waste economy, it appears unwilling to put its weight behind any of the policy levers that could actually shift us in that direction. As our director Matthew Spencer told the Chartered Institute of Waste Management (CIWM) conference that launched the review: "this is not a reforming document".

Part of the explanation might be that Defra has been forced to expend both significant resources and political capital fighting the Department for Communities and Local Government over the vexed issue of weekly collections. Returning to weekly collections would cost approximately £530m over the next four years and would depress, rather than increase, recycling rates.

Defra should be congratulated for rejecting this pressure, but an opportunity was lost to specifically encourage and support councils to move towards weekly food waste collections. By claiming to understand peoples' "reasonable expectation that household waste collection services should be weekly, particularly for smelly waste", the government muddies the waters. It could clearly argue that a weekly food waste collection can be acceptable to households and divert this particularly damaging waste from landfill, generate energy and recycle nutrients to the soil.

Elsewhere in the review, the talk of aiming for zero waste seems weak when it becomes apparent that the only target set for England is the EU's revised Waste Framework Directive of 50 per cent recycling of household waste by 2020. This is compared to Scotland, which has a 60 per cent target by 2020 and 70 per cent by 2025; and Wales, which aims to recycle at least 70 per cent of its waste by 2025.

In the absence of targets, other strong drivers are needed to do the heavy lifting. But these are sadly lacking, at least in the short term. There will be another consultation on increasing the packaging recycling targets, but packaging producers and recyclers won't have certainty until the budget next year, and only up until 2017. Producer responsibility schemes are to be reviewed, but with the emphasis on lower costs rather than improved outcomes. A lot of faith has been put in voluntary responsibility deals, rather than shaping the rules and incentives that influence business decisions.

The review does give some hope, however. The landfill tax will reach a floor of £80/tonne by 2014–15, and we were particularly pleased to see that our recommendation to use landfill bans for various biodegradable waste streams will be explored. Green Alliance has studied a number of other countries who have introduced similar rules, and we concluded that bans give certainty to investment decisions. They stimulate both technical and system innovation if signalled well in advance and combined with effective upstream measures, such as putting an obligation on businesses to separate their waste.

Flanders first banned unsorted waste from landfill, as well as sorted waste from landfill and incineration. A couple of years later it banned combustible residual waste from landfill, and the incineration of unsorted waste. It now landfills only three per cent of household and similar waste, and recycling, reuse and composting rates have reached 70 per cent.

There is potential for real cross-sectoral support for such proposals, as Shanks chief executive Tom Drury's comments convey. Green Alliance wants to hear from other businesses and local authorities with views on how bans could be implemented in the most effective way.

While downstream action is essential, a more circular economy also requires action upstream to influence the design of products that eventually become waste. There is some recognition of this need. The review floats the possibility of incorporating resource efficiency into mandatory product standards set by the EU's Ecodesign Directive, and tackling the barriers to reuse through voluntary and best practice standards. However, we think there is still much to be done to move to an economy that properly values the natural resources on which it depends.

We expect to see resource security rise up the agenda, as access to critical commodities gets more difficult and prices rise further. Green Alliance is holding a major conference in the autumn to explore how to address the market failures that let valuable resources go to waste while pressures on primary resources and the environment continue to mount.

Hannah Hislop is senior policy adviser at Green Alliance

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