It is now nearly a year since I was appointed to my current role. From the very first week in office, I learned the subject of waste would be a very interesting and challenging one. I have been fortunate to inherit a great success story. Wales tops the UK municipal waste recycling league by some margin, and it would also be just off the top of the EU recycling league, if its figures were reported separately. Challenges remain – not least in moving from our current municipal recycling rate of 61% to our 2024/25 target of 70%. And beyond that we need to work towards our aspirational target of 100% recycling by 2050, as set out in our waste strategy, Towards Zero Waste, published in 2010. But sustainable waste management is far more than just meeting numerical recycling targets.
Wales is leading the way when it comes to our Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The Welsh government and most Welsh public bodies have a statutory duty to carry out sustainable development. We must take steps to maximise our contribution to the seven well-being goals. Improving the efficiency of our use of natural material resources in Wales through developing a more circular economy can make a significant contribution to nearly all of the goals.
One planet resource use goal
A key aim in Towards Zero Waste is to ensure that by 2050 we only use our fair share of the earth’s resources – which we have termed as our ‘one planet’ resource use goal. This compares with the nearly three planets worth of resources that we use now. We need to ensure we are designing products with less material use, increased recycled content, longer lifetime, increased repairability and ease of remanufacture, as well as ease of disassembly and recycling.
Equally important is working towards a zero tolerance of litter, and everyone taking full responsibility for trying to reduce it to as close to zero as possible.
We already have a lot in place in Wales to work towards our one planet goal through moving towards a more circular economy. We have worked with our local authorities to move towards more consistent household waste collections – through our collections blueprint. This enables high quantities of higher-quality recyclable materials to be made available to manufacturing companies in Wales, creating better circularity.
We are working to use public sector procurement as an engine to drive circularity across Wales. I want to see an emphasis on procuring products that have been remanufactured, or which have a high recycled content. I want a focus on new business models, with the procurement of services rather than products. The public sector will play an even greater role in the future in providing high-quality recyclate for Welsh manufacturers.
The new waste regulations that will be developed under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 Part 4 are intended to help greatly increase recycling by the public sector and businesses.
One of the things I have learned over the past year is that what appears at first glance to be a simple solution to tackle waste is not always the case. A case in point is finding new and better ways to tackle litter. Litter is a blight on our towns and countryside. It has serious environmental, social and economic impacts. I have a lot of sympathy with those calling for the imposition of levies on single-use items, or for a deposit return system for drinks containers. Before we rush into something, though, we need to take a careful, balanced look at the pros and cons, and also whether a more holistic, strategic approach might deliver more multiple benefits.
The big question I am asking is whether we have the right producer responsibility system in place, particularly for packaging. It does achieve the recycling targets set by the European Union and it is, apparently, one of the cheapest systems in the EU for the obligated businesses. Does our producer responsibility system for packaging achieve enough to help us meet our waste prevention, recycling and one planet resource use targets? Is it tackling litter effectively? Are the obligated companies actually paying the full net cost of the end-of-life management of the packaging?
We are about to undertake a study to try to answer these questions for Wales, and whether a new, revised system of extended producer responsibility needs to be brought in. It is important we look at everything very carefully, and seek the views of all those with an interest.
I am determined to improve on Wales’s performance in respect of the management of natural resources.
I want to ensure we become a more prosperous, resource-efficient,
low-carbon nation that helps businesses thrive and be resilient in what are likely to be very challenging times ahead.