UK Releases 'Toothless' National Strategy on Waste Reduction

UK Releases 'Toothless' National Strategy on Waste Reduction

[Editor's note: Since the release of the U.K.'s waste plan earlier today, the environment minister has come under fire for the report, while at the same time the government-backed Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has laid out a plan to save £2 billion (US$3.2 billion) in waste costs by 2015.]

The government unveiled its long-awaited waste strategy [PDF] today, outlining ambitions to create a "zero waste economy" where the amount of waste being sent to landfill is slashed in favour of reuse, recycling or waste-to-energy infrastructure.

However, businesses are unlikely to face significant new waste regulations as a result of the review, as Defra has mapped out plans for a light touch regulatory regime largely reliant on voluntary targets and incentives as the primary means of cutting waste and bolstering recycling.

The proposals drew a stinging response from green groups, which accused the government of simply recycling old policies that have consistently failed to deliver sufficient cuts in waste levels.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman will present the review at the Chartered Institute of Waste Management this afternoon and will argue that the proposals underline the government's commitment to accelerating the process that has seen waste going to landfill halved since 2000 and domestic recycling rates hit 40 percent.

"For too long, we've lagged behind the rest of Europe, although we are catching up fast," she will say. "Communities and businesses can help us become a first class zero-waste economy and unlock the real value in the goods that people no longer want."

Central to the new strategy will be an extension of the voluntary responsibility deals that the previous government brokered with the supermarkets in an attempt to reduce packaging waste.

The review proposes the launch of similar voluntary agreements with other industries, such as the hospitality, paper, direct mail, textiles and construction sectors. It promises that legally binding targets for waste levels and recycling would then be adopted only if voluntary agreements are shown to have failed.

A spokesman for Defra said that it was "no secret" that voluntary responsibility deals represented the government's preferred option for reducing business waste and encouraging reuse and recycling.

The review does, however, outline plans for a consultation next year on whether to ban wood waste that can be reused or harnessed to generate energy from being sent to landfill.

It also promises to deliver an additional review on whether other materials that have significant reuse or energy value, such as metals, textiles and biodegradable waste, should be similarly banned from landfill.

In addition the review confirms that the government will consult on the case for higher recycling targets for 2017 for plastic, steel, aluminium and glass.

"The scale of the increases we consult on will depend on our Impact Assessment, which will consider issues such as affordability for businesses and government," the review states.

More broadly the review sets out a series of ambitions and pledges designed to help businesses reduce waste levels, and encourage developers and investors to deliver recycling and waste-to-energy infrastructure.

For example, the review promises that Defra will create a new comprehensive Waste Prevention Programme, work with industry and NGOs to tackle food waste, and partner with the waste management industry to develop a new voluntary Responsibility Deal designed to improve small businesses' access to recycling services.

Significantly, the government has also pledged to remove barriers to the rollout of energy from waste technologies, and produce a guide to energy from waste to help stakeholders and investors make decisions best suited to the specific requirements of an area.

"While remaining technology neutral, we will look to identify and communicate the full range of recovery technologies available and their relative merits -- right fuel, right place and right time," the report states.

"The government will also provide the necessary framework to address market failures, and ensure that the correct blend of incentives are in place to support the development of recovery infrastructure as a renewable energy source."

As widely anticipated a large section of the review deals with the controversial topic of weekly bin collections, confirming that, while ministers will continue to encourage councils to provide more frequent collections, they are not able to impose a ban on fortnightly collections.

However, it does promise to scrap "unfair bin fines and taxes" at the same time as promoting recycling incentive schemes.

"It's time to consign the failed policies of unfair bin taxes, bin fines and bin cuts to the dustbin of history," said Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.

"Families pay £120 a month in council tax. Both Whitehall and the town hall need to raise their game to deliver more frequent and better rubbish and recycling collections in return."

The review also confirms that Defra is working with the Department for Business and the Environment Agency to reduce waste regulation requirements on businesses and ensure that enforcement is better targeted at repeat offenders.

The review was slammed by green groups and received a mixed response from the industry.

"We welcome the significance that this review has put on waste as a resource. This is a first step in convincing investors that the government understands waste as a contributor, not a cost, to our economy," said Rhian Kelly, CBI director for business environment.

"We now need this review to make an impact throughout all government departments and feed into the decisions being made on planning, sustainable development, localism and energy.

"It's important that the government also effectively communicates these opportunities to the public. Harnessing waste as a resource is a much wider issue than household bin collections."

However, Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Julian Kirby slammed the review for failing to incorporate any significant new measures.

"The government has spent a year reviewing its approach to rubbish -- at vast public expense -- and all it's managed to do is reduce its ambition, recycle old ideas and dump its commitment to a zero waste economy," he said.

"Ministers should be helping to cut waste and boost recycling, but they've produced a half-hearted document that takes waste policy back in time."

This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen, and is reprinted with permission.

Photo CC-licensed by timtak.