As with any industry, there are going to be times when those working in waste management have different views on what policy direction needs to be taken. It often depends on how changes affect them and their business model.
This was highlighted by two recent industry reports to which LARAC responded in what some might see as a robust manner.
There is general consensus that the UK is in danger of missing the 50% recycling target in 2020. The good work that local authorities and their private sector partners have done in getting the rate up to 45% looks like it is slowing down. The major reasons are well known; the vastly reduced central funding and the fall in commodity prices means that local authorities have to choose which services to keep and which to cut.
These are tough decisions for local councillors to make and getting it wrong can mean they lose their seats at the next local elections.
The report by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), Delivering sustainable growth, was unclear on how the role of local authorities would develop in the future and further discussions are needed with them to establish their thinking on this. The suggestion in the report that lots on inefficiencies still exist is unhelpful and is in danger of perpetuating a myth that is at least a decade out of date. Councils have worked hard in recent years to make their operations a lot more efficient.
On the face of it, the recent Renewable Energy Association (REA) report claiming that introducing food waste collections can save money should have been seen as a win-win. However, on closer inspection the content of the report did not match the headline and message the REA was pushing.
It is true that Wales and Scotland have mandated food waste collections for councils and businesses and that the recycling rates have leapt ahead of those in England. The report fails to acknowledge that alongside making food waste collections mandatory the Welsh and Scottish governments provide millions in funding to help facilitate the changes.
It also worth noting that all councils in those countries are unitary, so any disposal saving can be used directly to offset the increased collection costs. In England the majority of councils are either responsible for just collection or disposal. So one authority incurs the extra costs of collecting food waste and the other has the savings of reduced disposal cost. In the current economic climate, it is not always easy for the savings to be shared out between the two.
The savings identified in the report were also largely made up of reductions in residual collection frequency and an assumption that food waste being produced would decrease by 15-25%. Again, it is true that if you introduce weekly food waste collections it makes a move to fortnightly or three-weekly residual collections more acceptable to the public. However, we are still feeling the effects of the weekly bin collection mantra that DCLG pursued under the previous minister and there are councillors who feel that a move away from weekly collections in their area is not an option. And food waste collections have not seen 15-25% reductions in the amount of food produced across the board, making it a very optimistic assumption.
So in the real world that councils operate, the theoretical savings outlined in the report are going to be hard to achieve. We would have been able to point this out if we had been involved in the process at the start, meaning a more useful report could have ended up being produced – one that we could have all got behind. This is why we want to see more collaboration and less speaking at councils, so as in industry we can move recycling rates forward to the benefit of all involved.
Photo by hazelnicholson