As 2015 dawns there is at least one thing we can be sure of: there will be a general election in May. We also know, from FCC’s recent report, and the varied experiences in Scotland and Wales in the last 5 years, that who wins – or loses least badly- will have implications for the waste and resources sector in England. Beyond that it is all a bit murky.
Why does government matter so much? One way of looking at the question is to ask why the waste sector cannot resolve the argument about whether we are building too much EfW capacity. In practice one of the main differences between the opposing camps is the assumption about future recycling rates: take a pessimistic view and we are not building enough; take a circular economy or EU regulatory view and we are building too much.
The pessimists presumably look at the stagnant household recycling rate and the state of local authority finances and assume the worst. They may be right but look at the picture in Wales and Scotland when government decides to set a more ambitious target and a different story emerges. Within a broad range, the recycling rate will be what we decide it should be, provided we follow through with the polices to make it happen. One of the problems we have is that there is no clear steer in England about where we want the rate to be post 2020. Where the issue is whether to invest long term in capital plant we really need that, even more than we need some clue about how the 50% target is going to be met.
I have long held the view that the amount of EfW capacity that will actually get build will depend on the availability of feed-stock. But even here the signals are not clear. Just before Christmas the government announced that they had spotted a market failure and they were going to look at further regulation of the Refuse Derived Fuel market to make sure that we are exporting a product rather than mixed waste. The principle was said to be that, in line with the waste hierarchy, RDF should contain only material which was not capable of being recycled. Very commendable, but if that standard is to be applied to material for export, what about the stuff that is going to get burnt here?
The best information we have about the composition of the residual waste feedstock comes from a very useful report by Resource Futures for Defra. That suggests that in 2010-11 of the 23.6 Mtonnes of collected household waste, 17.5 Mtonnes, including more than half of black bag waste, were materials that are already routinely collected for recycling. Applying the principles proposed for RDF would drastically reduce the EfW feedstock assumptions.
As an aside, 700 Ktonnes of the currently non-recyclable residual waste is disposable nappies: time for a producer responsibility scheme?
When Defra wrote the waste hierarchy into their waste regulations, they said they would be revising their guidance on how to implement it. So far the 2011 guidance remains unchanged and continues to show a category for residual black bag waste for which the treatment options are largely forms of energy recovery. This has always been a slightly odd arrangement, but so the top of the hierarchy for this category is “prevention” which presumably includes more recycling. In any event the next tier is the production of RDF/SRF, which it seems will now also require the extraction of recyclables before incineration.
The danger is that the waste hierarchy will be ignored. As Eunomia point out in their latest review, if all of the planned EfW facilities are built, accompanied by feedstock guarantees to secure funding, we may find our recycling rate artificially constrained.
In the short term we have to get the recycling rate climbing again. Everyone says that communications are important for that – and they are- but it’s not enough. For real behaviour change we need to reawaken the emotional connection to recycling which was built into the original design of the Recycle Now campaign. That has been eroded since 2010 while WRAP has been prevented from developing the brand fully. WRAP says they are now working on a revitalized campaign, but there will be precious little public funding available from Defra or the local authorities.
A successful new campaign will need a coalition of all the organisations with an interest in promoting recycling. The risk is that we will see a growth in the number of good material and location specific campaigns without an overall vision or a strong brand that people can identify with. Recycling is spreading outside the household and involving more people: recycling bins are springing up at stations, airports, shopping centres and in the workplace. Some sense of structure and common messaging would make this so much more powerful.
The On Pack Recycling Label has been a good model for how retailers and brands can put useful information in the hands of consumers at no cost to the taxpayer and marginal cost to suppliers. The potential of that scheme has not been fully realised yet and there is room for others dealing with other products.
Don’t expect much to happen before or during the election, but let’s hope that afterwards someone with a bit of vision will be in charge.