More questions than answers on the future of waste policy

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Photo credit: Kew Gardens

Maxine Perella dissects a speech by former environment secretary Michael Gove, which explored Defra's plans for a DRS.

An ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme (DRS) for England – discuss. Well discussion is what some industry leaders want more of following former environment, food and rural affairs secretary Michael Gove’s lengthy but significant speech at London’s Kew Gardens last month.

During his talk Gove gave the strongest signal yet that the government is leaning towards introducing a more comprehensive DRS. It would likely cover all types of drinks containers, including cartons (maybe pouches), of all sizes, and all types of materials (including glass).

“There will be new powers to introduce deposit return schemes for drinks bottles,” he announced. “We need to work with business to make deposit return schemes as effective as possible and I believe an ‘all-in’ model will give consumers the greatest possible incentive to recycle.”

While no final decision has been reached it’s worth noting that the following day Defra minister Thérèse Coffey appeared to support Gove’s viewpoint during an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee evidence session on plastic packaging waste.

There’s nothing like a DRS to divide opinion, and you will never get consensus on this issue. It’s just too contentious. It probably doesn’t help that the government is looking to push through a raft of waste and recycling reforms (and judging by the number of consultations we are being swamped with) perhaps a little too hastily.

I think by nailing his colours to the mast so soon on what type of DRS he’d like to see rolled out Gove caught many by surprise. Not least local authorities who perhaps have the most to lose from an ‘all-in’ scheme – whether it’s in the form of valuable commodities, cannabilised collections, or a dent in their recycling performance.

DRS reverberations

The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) has called for a DRS to be deferred in light of the wider reforms taking place; most notably on collection consistency and extended producer responsibility. These will undoubtedly have significant implications on local authority budgets and services. So they were certainly surprised.

LARAC appears concerned, somewhat justifiably, that Defra may already be favouring an ‘all-in’ option when the public consultation on DRS’ only closed in May. The organisation was quick to issue a statement following Gove’s speech urging Defra “to consider fully the consultation responses and undertake further research before making such critical decisions”.

LARAC went on to state that “it is wrong to suggest that an all-in DRS is appropriate for the UK at this time” until further research has been undertaken. It also believes that actions in other waste policy areas need to be implemented first. It’s a common-sense approach.“There is a danger that an all-in DRS now will cause confusion,” LARAC continued. Again, I’m inclined to agree.

I don’t know if a DRS of any description is the best way to tackle litter and increase recycling rates. I’m still undecided as like many I can see both pros and cons. But I recognise the logic in giving due consideration to how a DRS is going to interact with other reforms (those relating to packaging in particular will be crucial) – and that takes time.

As Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), notes: “It is important that interactions between a DRS and a new producer responsibility scheme are fully analysed to ensure that all parts of the system work together to achieve the best environmental outcomes.”

Following Scotland's lead

Perhaps Scotland’s recent DRS announcement, which will notably include glass, motivated Gove to speak out on this sooner rather than later. He may have heard the recent call by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) to go one better than Scotland and introduce a more comprehensive scheme covering all container sizes and materials. CPRE claims the economic benefit of this would be eight times greater than that of a watered-down system, and deliver a £2 billion boost to the economy.

But perhaps there is also a sense that Gove’s time was running out. He’s left Defra now the Tory leadership contest has been decided- but has remained in the cabinet as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster.

During his Kew Gardens speech The Guardian reported that Gove was asked whether he’d like to stay on in the department. Significantly he did not make a special plea to remain as environment secretary. He did not make a special plea to remain, which has perhaps been reflected in his move.

However, he did say: “It is an amazing wonderful job and I wish whoever does it in the future nothing but good fortune. This speech is designed to ensure there is a solid platform whoever continues to do this job.”

While Gove may be gone, he knew how to make impression. It remains to be seen whether his replacement Theresa Villiers will have the same impact.

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist.

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