One of the many government strategies promised to us over the past year has been a Waste & Resources Strategy. Only a year ago many EIC members in this field were bemoaning the lack of government leadership in this field, yet now we have an assortment of resources-related targets in the 25 Year Environmental Plan (doubling resource efficiency; ending avoidable plastic waste by 2042 etc), and the commitment to publish a Waste & resources Strategy presumably in part to show how these targets will be delivered.
Of course the context of the Strategy is also Brexit, and although the UK appears likely to keep the commitments in the EU Circular Economy Package, we are in theory free to diverge our policies post Brexit.
Anyway, here are five suggestions for the strategy:
First, we should move away from purely tonnage-based targets, but we need to do this in a way that avoids endless complexity or requires local authorities to spend endless time and resource trying to find data they cannot easily access. How when looking at recycling performance how about applying a crude ‘weighting’ factor to tonnages collected for recovery/recycling to take some account of where the weight of a material is not a good guide to its environmental impact. So garden waste might be given a factor of, for the sake of argument, 0.3, glass 0.6, whereas lightweight plastic packaging a weighting of X10.
Second, waste policy has long been bedevilled by a lack of data. If you are trying to understand and influence the flows of billions of fragments of material through a society of 60 million people, without comprehensive, semi-real time data you are pretty much working in the dark. I really think that the digitalisation trend can help here. The amount of granular data retailers process, for example, on the precise types and amounts of product entering the market on a street by street basis is enormous. We need to allow data like this to be used in waste management, along with making an upgraded e-doc type system compulsory.
Third, we need to find a simple way to harness the buying power of that portion of consumers who are willing to buy the environmentally sound product where they can. Just banning random items like plastic straws can never be enough on its own. So how about a single kitemark showing that a meets a set of standards in terms of proportion of recycled content, ease of disassembly and ability of the component materials to be reused or recycled. You then encourage brands and celebrities to commit to only using products with this kitemark.
Fourth, link waste strategy in with the Industrial Strategy. This could be done by requiring all Sector Deals approved by BEIS under the industrial Strategy to identify the key recyclate material streams relevant to that sector and include some commitments to using those in production. In terms this would help local authorities and waste management companies plan strategically around resources flows that would be in demand in years to come.
And, fifth, talking of local authorities, I think we have to recognise that in a circular economy, waste collection may be a locally-delivered service, but it is not a local service anymore in the traditional sense. We must have consistency in basic things like bin colours, so that products can be labelled (put this in your blue bin’ or whatever. Any additional funding incentives should be only available to local authorities willing to move towards an agreed standardised collection approach.
Having said all that, perhaps the biggest challenge for the strategy is allowing enough flexibility. This will be crucial in order to avoid the risk of the public or private sectors getting locked into particular approaches to assets and treatment strategies, which risk being becoming expensive millstones. Treatment technologies and costs could change dramatically and new players (courier firms, supermarkets) could disrupt the market by controlling the movement and destinations of the valuable resources we once called rubbish.
This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen.