Now that the first round of government consultations on the Resource and Waste Strategy are complete, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published its responses, we’ve taken a big step forward towards implementing significant change in how waste is managed in the UK.
Fortunately, the strategy is still high on the agenda following the recent government shake up. With Brexit uncertainty looming, there are questions about how the strategy implementation will play out; however, it’s a positive sign that DEFRA has confirmed that the EU Circular Economy Legislation will transpose into UK law. International Leadership in this area is another ambition outlined in the strategy, long-term commitment to the UK having an influential role on global environmental issues is also a positive sign. With much of the detail yet to be finalised, it’s crucial that this momentum is sustained.
The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) is one of the primary ways in which the strategy will be implemented. In simple terms the idea places a value on a returnable item, i.e. drinks containers, and consumers are financially incentivised by paying a ‘deposit’ at the point of purchase which is redeemed when items are recycled. Two models of DRS are being debated.
Firstly, the ‘all in model’, including all drinks containers; aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles, regardless of whether they are consumed and disposed of at home, or on the move. The alternative model is the ‘on the go’ scheme which is for smaller drinks containers, sold as individual units, that are generally used away from home and are unlikely to be disposed in household recycling collections. For example, a multipack of cans purchased in the supermarket would be included in the ‘all in model’ but no in the ‘on-the-go’ system, whereas a bottle of water purchased at the gym would be included in both schemes.
On the face of it, the ‘all in model’ is simpler to administer because it is a single system that covers all drinks containers. However, there are concerns around the cost of deploying and managing the scheme and potential unintended consequences. For example, if consumers need to take their drinks containers to specific return points, rather than including containers in kerbside collections, it is feasible that additional car journeys will result.
Research from CPRE found that 72% of the UK population would support a Deposit Return Scheme, but the same cannot be said for some councils, local authorities and segments of the waste industry. Clear PET bottles, aluminium cans and glass are high value materials in kerbside collections, as well as in business collections. There is a concern that the scheme would extract this valuable material from kerbside and trade recycling collections.
Local authorities have called for DRS to be delayed until other work streams in the strategy, including the consistency piece, have been clearly planned.
A potential consequence of the Deposit Return Scheme could be that consumers take the brunt of change, facing a double penalty by paying a deposit up front when they purchase items in a plastic bottle or tin can, if they don’t redeem those items themselves in a separate collection to their household waste. Add on the potential impact of kerbside recycling becoming more expensive because councils will get fewer rebates from higher value items and the consumer will really feel the pinch. Of course, this is the worst case scenario – through further consultations and being aware of all potential unintended consequences, the entire process can be considered so that it works for everyone involved.
Consistency is key
One of the current barriers to increasing recycling levels is consumer confusion. A focus on simplifying processes is required and consistency is one of the best ways to make recycling easier. For example, Scotland is pushing forward with a Deposit Return Scheme and DEFRA plans to monitor how the Scottish project progresses. The Government’s recommendation for England and Wales’ DRS scheme to be consistent with Scotland’s will avoid adding complexity. A single DRS scheme across the UK mainland will prevent further confusion for consumers.
The waste generated by many businesses, particularly offices, is similar to household waste. Therefore, improving consistency in the materials collected from households across the country and replicated in workplaces, where appropriate, can only make it easier for everyone to recycle more.
Proposals are being finalised to standardise recycling collections to include; glass, paper and card, plastic bottles, tins and cans. Also, food waste collections are highly likely to become mandatory. Feedback from hospitality kitchens highlights that segregating food waste makes it visible. Understanding what food is being wasted and why helps drive reduction, which will also save people money.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
This part of the strategy intends to ensure costs for managing and recycling packaging waste are the responsibility of the producer. While DEFRA has confirmed this will be introduced by 2023, the next steps are to consider how the fees and incentives can be used to encourage better packaging – to design out waste in the first stage.
How can EPR be used to inspire rethinking and a more circular approach to product design, rather than it just becoming another tax with a new name? Once collections are consistent it will be easier for manufacturers to make decisions about packaging, choosing materials that can be recycled and ensuring items are produced with clear labels, increasing the likelihood that packaging will be recycled, no matter the disposal location. Improved labelling on products has a key role to play in increasing recycling rates. Accurately communicating which materials can and cannot be recycled by the refined, consistent collection system will improve the quality and quantity of recyclables.
The emphasis will be placed on the manufacturer but they are unlikely to take the whole hit – some costs will inevitably be passed on to the consumer. The real opportunity is to focus on long term solutions; this should not be about quick fixes. A major shift away from single use disposable items should be the objective, rather than swopping to ‘less bad’ materials.
Long term solution
That these issues are being debated and given the attention they deserve shows significant progress. It appears that the relevant stakeholders are engaged to develop solutions for managing resources which will work for the next generation. To integrate change on this scale across different areas, and for the UK to secure a global leadership role in transforming the recycling sector, the government must continue to prioritise the strategy and the smooth implementation of the initiatives.