The General Election – Let’s Not Waste This Chance

Rebecca-Watkins.JPGAs the general election approaches and the political parties ramp up their rhetoric, can we expect a wave of imaginative new waste policies? Or will it turn out to be a huge wasted opportunity? Wardell Armstrong’s Rebecca Watkins reviews what we know so far – and what she’d like to see. CIWM Journal Online Exclusive

votingOne early election headline caught my eye the other day. It reported a so-called “u-turn” by Labour on an apparent promise to introduce landfill bans for food waste if they gained power. It came from a Conservative cost analysis of supposed Labour policies, triggering Labour to deny that the ban had ever been a policy of theirs. That’s probably typical of the claim and counter-claim games we can expect in the run-up to the election. But what do we actually know about the waste resource management policies and commitments likely to make it into the competing parties’ manifestos?

With Labour not committing to introduce food landfill bans during the next parliament, I had a root around for what they might be promising. What stood out was the lack of any clear pledges on recycling, landfill diversion or the big one from the last election – “the zero waste economy”.

I did, however, find a number of commitments relating to energy market reform – including securing sustainable, low carbon energy supplies and setting carbon reduction targets – where waste and resource management could certainly play a role through reducing waste generation, and increasing diversion from landfill, recycling and energy recovery.

How about the Conservatives? Although their manifesto isn’t out yet, neither their website nor 2014 European election manifesto seem to mention waste or resource policies. Like Labour though, they do have energy commitments like promoting a level playing field for low carbon technologies (including renewables). This could provide some scope for promoting waste technologies such as EfW, gasification and AD.

The Liberal Democrats – aiming again to hold the balance of power – have historically been strong on environmental issues. This commitment appears to be holding. In their 2014 “pre-manifesto” they propose a series of “green laws” including a “Zero Waste Britain Act”. This would “set Britain on a path to a ‘circular economy’… with binding targets and a clear action plan to reduce waste and end landfill.”

UKIP seem to have no particular waste and resource commitments. In related areas like climate change and energy they appear to be actively looking to turn the clock back, by abolishing the DECC and scrapping green subsidies.

And the Green Party? Not surprisingly they have a plethora of policies on resource and waste management – including a commitment to implement a Waste Avoidance and Recycling Act. This would set minimum recycled content requirements for suitable products, and introduce packaging specifications to reduce waste generation.

So what do these commitments (or lack of them in some cases) say about our aspiring political masters’ approach to waste and resource management? More to the point, how should we be influencing them?

Zero Waste – Too Big A Challenge?

Let’s start with zero waste – a key environmental commitment for both main parties last time. OK, so recycling rates across the UK have risen and landfill volumes have fallen in recent years. But the figures are hardly compelling. So why does the politicians’ enthusiasm seem to have evaporated? Do they see better battlegrounds to engage the public? Or do they think the zero waste agenda is just too big a challenge – especially having seen it implemented (and watered down) in Scotland?

Either way, it hardly bodes well. And with a high likelihood of neither of the main parties winning an overall majority, it may prove even harder for any coalition or alliance to push forward a progressive waste management approach. It looks particularly unlikely with a Tory/UKIP arrangement. Given the relative lack of progress towards zero waste during the current coalition, it seems unlikely too that the environmental credentials of either the Lib Dems or the Greens would find much traction. What of a Labour coalition with a more pro-active partner – the Lib Dems, the Greens or the SNP? While Labour may currently be short on waste commitments, they’ve previously intimated support for higher targets, so a Labour coalition could potentially represent a more progressive approach.

So what should the political parties be doing to develop the UK’s waste and resource infrastructure, minimise waste generation, encourage the market for recyclables and promote renewable energy generation from waste?

Beyond the clear need to promote waste minimisation as a priority, we need additional legislation across both the municipal and C&I sectors, including landfill bans and possibly tougher recycling or diversion targets, to give waste companies and investors more confidence to develop the infrastructure necessary to move towards a zero waste economy.

And while it’s all well and good compelling local authorities and the private sector to “recycle more” there clearly needs to be an end market for the materials produced. This is key if we’re to achieve the concept of the “circular economy”. The Greens’ idea of setting minimum recycled content targets is therefore appealing – although how practical it would be to implement is an open question.

In energy generation from residual waste, advanced technologies like gasification along with AD and EfW facilities have a part to play in helping to address both low carbon energy generation and energy security issues. Combined with our current dependence on export of RDF, additional support to promote the development of UK waste to energy facilities would be welcome.

As the election draws nearer, let’s hope that more progressive waste management policies may yet emerge. And let’s do all we can to promote them.

Rebecca Watkins is waste resource management specialist at Wardell Armstrong and has worked as an environmental consultant for over 10 years, specialising in waste and resource management for 7 of those years. She provides technical advice and support to leading UK waste management companies, particularly in relation to the development of PFI/PPP style waste procurement projects.


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