Has Defra been too ambitious?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

There’s a lot going on right now with regards to shaping future waste and resources policy. Last

Last month a series of consultations closed on Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy; extended producer responsibility (EPR), consistency of recycling collections, deposit return schemes (DRS), and a plastics packaging tax to boot. As industry leaders vie for ministerial attention with their consultation responses, undoubtedly there will be winners and losers in all of this.

One stakeholder group facing possibly the biggest shake up is local authorities. Their waste collection and disposal mandates could be disrupted on several levels – from the prospect of EPR reform and a national DRS, to the costs associated with service standardisation. What exactly will the Resources and Waste Strategy mean for councils, and has enough preparatory work been undertaken to assess these implications?

On 20 May the government’s Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee hosted an oral evidence session inside the House of Commons to try and find some answers. Witnesses invited to give evidence included Sherilyn MacGregor, a reader in environmental politics from the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute, Nicky Gregson, director of research in the geography department at Durham University, and WRAP CEO Marcus Gover.

Gregson began by questioning the current relationship between local authority waste collection systems and waste contracts, given the wider context of the Resources and Waste Strategy and its focus on transitioning to a circular economy.

“One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is with the infrastructure we have assembled, which is very much about diverting waste, how easy or difficult is it to move this infrastructure to something that is more accordant with the principles of a circular economy – and how possible is it to do that in very constrained financial circumstances for local authorities?”

It was a pertinent point, and certainly there are no easy answers here – especially given the long-standing austerity pressures that councils have had to endure. Asked by the Committee if local authorities should be concerned about the financial implications of implementing the Strategy MacGregor replied: “I think they definitely should.”

She argued that while the Strategy is highly aspirational it lacks assurances around practicalities of cost. “What I don’t see in the Strategy is a very clear sense of how it will be paid for. I think a lot of the questions around standardisation will cost a lot of money.”

According to Gregson the Strategy will place at least six additional demands on local authorities. These include changes to collection methods and materials for standardisation, food waste collections for those that don’t currently offer them, the prospect of mandatory free garden waste collections, greater reuse at household waste recycling centres, not forgetting the possibility of a national DRS rollout.

It’s worth noting that the Strategy does contain a fairly strong commitment to cover councils’ costs on several of these fronts, stating that they will “receive additional resource to meet new net costs arising from the policies set out in this Strategy once implemented. This includes both net upfront transition costs and net ongoing operational costs”.

This commitment was something that WRAP’s Gover was keen to point out to the Committee, although he did acknowledge that the finer details – for example how such funds will be distributed – still need to be worked out.

Another area of concern is the higher local authority recycling targets proposed under the Strategy. MacGregor made the point that recycling in itself may be counterproductive given the wider context of circular thinking. “Recycling can actually go against what the Strategy is asking for, which is to be more efficient and reduce the amount of material and resources being used.”

She also questioned whether the Strategy had taken into account certain social barriers to recycling, such as building design and public trust in the system. “There’s been a lot of concern from some citizens that recycling is happening in a very asymmetrical way. There’s a lot that needs to be done in terms of building the relationship of trust between councils, businesses and citizens to improve recycling rates and I don’t see that reflected in the Strategy.”

It was a point echoed by Gregson. “The Strategy doesn’t say much about this, but how could you design into a housing infrastructure the capacity to recycle, rather than impose it from the outside with a service provided by local authorities?”

You do wonder whether Defra has bitten off a little more than it can chew with such an ambitious set of policy proposals – proposals that will require fundamental reshifts in how society consumes and uses resources. Going circular is about systems reform on so many levels. It’s becoming rapidly apparent that social and psychological considerations will matter just as much as hard economics and service redesign.

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