Reaction to the government's waste review was fierce. Defra has been eviscerated for producing a toothless document that fails to provide enough firm targets or concrete policies, and a lack of clarity on those that have been introduced.
Where there may be merit in some of these concerns, our view is that it is by no means all doom and gloom. For one thing, the government got the decision about its headline policy – frequency of household collections – correct. A U-turn is not necessarily a bad thing and that's certainly the case here.
Leaving aside the issue of cost (although £100m is no small matter today), all the evidence shows that encouraging councils to return to weekly collections would have been a major step backwards.
As analysis by WRAP has shown, the reintroduction of weekly pick-ups would result in an annual decrease of 30-46kg of paper, plastic and cans collected from every household.
Across the UK, that equates to almost 1,200,000 tonnes of additional recyclable resource being sent to landfill.
Defra should be applauded for listening to the local authorities on the matter and thereby safeguarding a decade of growth in recycling.
A comprehensive response
The government should also be commended for its recognition of the value of private-sector responsibility deals. Agreements such as Courtauld II have had a material impact on our industry, as witnessed by Coca Cola Enterprises' recent partnership with my business, ECO Plastics, which will double the amount of food and bottle grade recycled plastic produced in the UK. An industry first, it will hopefully pave the way for a wave of similar agreements.
It is unrealistic to expect voluntary measures taken by the private sector to be the sole driver of change however. But when it comes to mandatory targets for recovery and recycling, it seems the government will be led by the new EU Packaging Directive, expected in 2014, delivering results from 2015.
This is clearly far too long a delay. If we are to create a world-leading industry, we need to grasp the nettle today, establishing targets that will drive the creation of the new infrastructure we need – this should include an overhaul of the Packaging Recovery Note system to encourage the reprocessing of packaging within the UK and discourage the export of this resource. It is not enough to simply wait and consult.
Rewards or education
Of even greater concern is the emphasis that the government wants to place on the incentivisation of recycling. The review sets considerable store by this, putting aside funds for the creation of new programmes and research, and encouraging local communities to establish their own initiatives.
The difficulty with this response is twofold.
First, that the battle has already been won. Study after study has shown that people are supportive of recycling. UK consumers should be commended for the huge strides that have been made – general recycling has increased 400 per cent in the last 10 years (from an admittedly low starting point), while in the plastics sector, the figure is even higher.
Potentially more damaging are claims that incentivising consumers to recycle will encourage new levels of profligacy, fuelled by reward. Should this prove to be true, incentive schemes won't simply be an unnecessary distraction, they will actively undermine progress towards the nation's recycling (and CO2) targets.
UK consumers need clarity rather than reward. As the review document acknowledges, uncertainties abound; which products can and cannot be recycled? Which need to be cleaned? And which separated?
To rectify this we need clear and consistent messaging on what to recycle and how to do it. The emphasis must be on quality and not quantity, and the Waste Review shunned a golden opportunity to achieve this. By capturing the highest quality resource we can fuel the growth of a new and vibrant industry that delivers jobs and economic value to the UK.
Rather than waste funds on further programmes and research, use them to communicate this clear and consistent message to the consumer.
For plastics recycling, the message couldn't be simpler – if it's a bottle, get it into the system. Any bottle, drinks, healthcare, detergents, in the home or on the move. Don't scrub them or remove the labels and lids. Just empty, rinse and get the bottle back into the system.
A Passing Grade?
So, how to score the review as a whole? Our view is that it's a solid C grade; progress of a sort, but with much still to do. The achievement in fighting off the populist lobby over weekly collections should not be underestimated and will be crucial in maintaining the momentum built-up behind recycling.
The challenge now is to redouble our efforts, partially through the introduction of legally binding targets but also by ensuring that our efforts are focused on the right areas. That we do so will be crucial. The UK currently exports much of its waste resource abroad and though this works at present, it is unlikely to be a long lasting solution.
We need to lay the foundations today to create the fully self-sufficient industry we will require in the future.
Jonathan Short is managing director of ECO Plastics