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Watching the nation’s wasteline

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Mark Rowney, research fellow at IPPR, explores the issues involved in cutting waste and stopping it going to landfill.

At the end of July, West Sussex County Council gave permission for a new incinerator to be built in Ford. This is a step in the wrong direction, but the council are not entirely to blame. They do not have the tools necessary to make a decision that is in both the local and the national interest. That failure lies with central government.

There is an encouraging development though; policymakers outside the waste and recycling industry are taking a new interest in policy. If the industry joins with them, there is hope for the future.

Since 2000, there has been a dramatic increase in commodity prices and their volatility. The decline in prices during the 20th century has been eradicated.  The average change of monthly metal, food and fuel prices from their annual price average was 4.1% between 1980 and 2005, and exceeded 10% on only four occasions. Between 2005 and 2012, that average change was 15.1%. Many factors have caused this dramatic shift, including global population growth and reduced global poverty. Some policy analysts, such as Chatham House, have concluded that resources will dominate the geopolitics of the future. Only time will tell if they are accurate.

Nonetheless, businesses are already adapting to this new economic climate. Mobile phone manufacturers pay customers to return old phones for re-use. H&M offers customers vouchers for old clothes; most are then re-sold. Heinz and Ford motors are collaborating to make car parts out of leftover tomatoes. Such innovation, combined with the changing views of policymakers, is ensuring increased interest in waste policy. On 24 July, the Environmental Audit Committee launched a report that calls for an end to our throwaway society and for a circular economy to be adopted.

However, recent research by IPPR highlights a stumbling block to increasing waste re-use and prevention. Publicly available data on how waste and materials ‘flow’ around the UK is woefully lacking.  Without that evidence, the market cannot bring about the circular economy, other than through bilateral relationships such as the Heinz/Ford example. A comprehensive resource management policy cannot be developed, because neither market failure nor success can be identified.

This leaves local authorities reliant on facilitating voluntary initiatives to increase materials’ re-use, which is not enough to support a circular economy. Those who find recycling difficult often fall back on incineration, which is environmentally damaging and a waste of valuable resources in a world of rising prices.

This is disappointing, because local authorities will be government’s frontline to create a circular economy. Their policies have already caused a behavioural shift away from landfill and towards recycling. They can do so again, to drive materials towards re-use and prevention. However, like before, local authorities will need leadership and support from central government. Sadly, the Coalition government has almost entirely given up on policy development.

This decision was possible in part because, as IPPR’s briefing sets out, responsibility for waste and resource management policy is spread thinly throughout Whitehall. Policy diversification like this can result in limited accountability and a lack of strategic coordination or oversight for an issue.

That’s why IPPR is calling for the establishment of a cross-departmental Office for Resource Management (ORM), as has the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and EEF, the UK manufacturers’ organisation.

The ORM should be tasked with increasing our understanding of how resources are used in the UK, and facilitating a cultural change in their use and re-use. Meanwhile, policy should regard some incineration as analogous to landfill. The Treasury should launch a consultation to find the most effective means of reducing incineration that causes the lowest burden on business and local authorities.

Bringing about a circular economy is a win-win for the nation. All levels of government will have a role to play in supporting business in bringing it about, although without better data, that role is unclear.

Pressure must continue on central government to take this issue more seriously. The waste and recycling industry should join IPPR, EEF and the ICE in calling for the ORM’s establishment.

If voices from within the industry join those from without, central government will find the call for a step change hard to ignore.

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