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The future of waste

 

Harvey Laud, Divisional Director at Reconomy, considers the likely impact of Defra’s resources and waste strategy on the FM sector

Last December, Defra published its long-awaited and highly anticipated ‘Resources and waste strategy for England.’ The document set out the government’s plans to preserve material resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy.

While not all the strategy will have a direct impact on facilities managers, the way we collect, process and manage our waste is going to change as a result of its implementation. The key plans and areas for attention are listed in the box below.

Overall there are few surprises, and the general consensus seems to be that the strategy addresses most of the areas with the greatest potential. As always, however, the devil is in the detail – and arguably this is where it falls well short of the mark. The numerous consultations required to agree progress on key issues mean that it’s light on concrete actions and heavy on ‘definite maybes’. This is due in part to the strategy being intrinsically linked to Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which is vast and has a heavy emphasis on household waste.

As a result, you could argue that the strategy as it stands is not really a strategy at all but more of a framework which identifies a direction of travel. As nearly all the key areas including tax, DRS (deposit return schemes) and extended producer responsibility require consultation, it’s likely we won’t have a concrete strategy with meaningful actions for quite some time. The likely timescale for a DRS coming into play, for example, looks like being around 2024. In practice, this is well beyond the event horizon of most businesses, who will often set strategies over shorter periods.

This may mean that businesses choose to do nothing, or that we unintentionally create an increasingly disparate market through the development of new initiatives which are implemented with partial knowledge. There are already signs of this happening with a number of retailers investigating or trialling small-scale DRS systems of their own. It is unlikely that these will become effective until they are standardised and legislated for.

WAIT AND SEE
Another unintended consequence of the strategy is that it could disincentivise businesses from taking steps to improve their resource management in the short to mid-term. Understandably, very few businesses will want to be the first to make a move, and experience tells us that until the detail is understood and there is a legal requirement to change, the majority of businesses will seek to maintain the status quo and simply comply with current requirements. Ultimately, the risk is that the looming presence of change will result in very little movement for four years.

It is impossible to evaluate the strategy objectively without taking into account the impact of Brexit. Progress on many of the areas identified in the document could have been accelerated if it were not for the current level of uncertainty. Sweden, for example, has had a functioning DRS system for 15 years, which we could have simply taken and replicated. Certainly, we need to be realistic and understand that resource management may not be seen as a priority by the majority of politicians or civil servants in the current climate.

Overall, though, there is reason to feel positive. Those of us working in the facilities management sector have a clearly signalled direction of travel and some clear guidance on where our efforts should be focused to deliver significant change over time.

We must also remember that the strategy is not the sole driver for change. Consumers continue to become more discerning and businesses are increasingly aware of the potential impact on their brand from social and environmental actions, or lack of them. It is important that businesses initiate conversations to leverage this brand capital and avoid reputational damage.

As the strategy continues to evolve, businesses are well advised to look to companies who can support them with the advancement of their resource management plans and services. Delaying these improvements will only result in unnecessary additional costs and a constrained environmental performance.

KEY POINTS THE STRATEGY AIMS TO:

  • Ensure producers pay the full costs of disposal or recycling of the packaging they place on the market by extending producer responsibility
  • Review our producer responsibility schemes for items that can be harder or costly to recycle, including cars, electrical goods and batteries, and explore extending it to other materials such as vehicle tyres, certain construction and demolition materials and bulky waste
  • Introduce a consistent set of recyclable materials collected from all households and businesses and consistent labelling on packaging, so consumers know what they can recycle in order to drive up recycling rates
  • Introduce a deposit return scheme, subject to consultation, to increase the recycling of single-use drinks containers including bottles, cans and disposable cups filled at the point of sale
  • Ensure weekly collections of food waste for every household – restoring weekly collections in some local authorities. This will be subject to consultation, which will also consider free garden waste collections for households with gardens
  • Explore mandatory guarantees and extended warranties on products to encourage manufacturers to design products that last longer and drive up the levels of repair and reuse
  • Introduce annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses. Should progress be insufficient, there will be a consultation on introducing mandatory targets for food waste
  • Clamp down on illegal movements of waste at home and abroad by introducing compulsory electronic tracking of waste and tougher penalties for waste crime.

About Sarah OBeirne

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