W-h-ither waste?

After graduating and after getting over the initial ‘yuck, rubbish’ factor, I was grateful I worked in recycling. Why? Well, many of my fellow students ended up in a variety of green sectors, mostly things like conservation and climate change, where there was little or no discernible progress. Meanwhile, I had a lovely little tonnage graph on the wall at the council I worked at that, as services were introduced, rolled out and refined, made steady upward progress. There you go – increasing environmental benefit, clearly shown in excel form. You couldn’t get much more satisfying than that.

Well, that was ten years ago. And of course, the reason for this growth was a clear set of drivers, working on multiple fronts from explicit recycling targets to increasing disposal costs, ensuring that supporting increased recycling was a no-brainer for all but the most reactionary councillor.

So, that’s why this wholesale, and possibly dogma driven retreat from waste – first seen in the draft waste prevention plan, and now seen in Defra’s retreat whole policy areas – C&I, C&D and energy from waste – is so worrying. There are, as CIWM CEO Steve Lee said in Letsrecycle last week, some things that only government can lead on.

The response from the sector has been admirable. One of the problems of the resource sector is that the room for debate is actually sometimes quite limited. There are many highly experience and extremely knowledgeable individuals, but for those working in the public sector, their roles do not allow them to criticise policy direction, and for those in the private sector, a fear of alienating future public sector clients (and their political masters). Hence the spectacle of WRAP, arguably holding the greatest concentration of knowledge in the sector, meekly sitting by while it is dismembered and having to give support to sub-optimum policy decisions such as the weekly waste fund.

There aren’t actually very many campaigning organisations involved in the sector any more, pushing the ideal scenario. Those that do, such as FoE, are not always considered in mainstream debates and have limited capacity. This is ironic for a sector that owes much of its existence to campaigns, in the UK and Europe, by such groups in the 70s and 80s, for more recycling and better waste management.

However, we have seen organisations like the CIWM and Resource Association making strident comment in an informed, evidence based and unpartisan way. And the call for unity is important and one we wholeheartedly support. Here is our contribution to the debate:

– The private and public sector are ready to go on the circular economy, waste prevention and second generation recycling issues, like quality. The knowledge, understanding and drive is there – it just needs a minimal framework from central government to light the touch paper.
– It’s the green economy stupid! At their conference, WRAP were clear about the economic as well as environmental benefits of the circular economy. The reason these behaviours aren’t already happening are either business mind-sets or high start up costs. This is where central govt needs to lead. Environment vs economy is not either or, but as well as.
– LCRN is a firm believer in localism – but there does have to be a framework from the centre, giving the private sector investment confidence and the public sector the ability to make the right decisions locally. At the moment, crazily, as outlined in a recent Isonomia blog http://www.isonomia.co.uk/?p=2505, under Section 47 of the Localism Act 2011, local authorities are now explicitly forbidden from introducing PAYT, despite it being the single most effective measure they can take to apply the waste hierarchy. If, on the one hand, local communities were given the ability to collect, charge for and manage their own waste the waste hierarchy, we think we would see a win-win-win for environmental outcomes, local democracy in action and costs to business.

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