Recycling, reuse and resource efficiency

Pat Jennings, of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), looks at the recent Reuse in the UK report and discusses the wastes management obstacles in the current reuse landscape

It is always best to get the bad news out of the way first – so here it is. In 2015, the UK household recycling rate fell for the first time in the six years since the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) began publishing the official statistics and, in real terms, probably for the first time in well over a decade.

Of course that figure hides a divergence in performance across the UK. On the plus side, Wales’ rate rose to 55.8 per cent and Scotland delivered a one per cent rise on its 2014 figure of 41 per cent (and both look to have made further progress in 2016), while Northern Ireland saw its rate fall by 0.5 per cent. However, it is England’s 0.9 per cent drop from 44.8 per cent in 2014 to 43.9 per cent in 2015 that has done the real damage, given that it is responsible for 22.2 of the total 26.7 million tonnes of household waste generated in the UK.

While it may seem the least of our worries at the moment, this stalling in the UK’s recycling performance is part of a wider set of challenges around how the UK shapes its future policy; and how we maintain the transition from waste to resource management in which local government waste services have played such a significant role to date.

There are myriad factors at work behind the current recycling stats. Difficult secondary materials markets and loss of domestic reprocessing capacity, cuts to local authority budgets (particularly in England to date) as a result of the austerity agenda, more accurate recording of recycling contamination, fluctuations in the amount of organic waste collected for composting, and collection scheme changes such as charging for garden waste will all have played their part.

A number of voices within and around the sector are expressing the view that recycling is ‘broken’ and certainly the value chain is currently fragile for the public and private sector stakeholders alike. With public funding constrained and price downturns and increased volatility in the relevant global commodity markets, no one is in a position to pump more investment into recycling. This is a particular problem at this stage of the curve because we have already picked the low hanging fruit. Without a change in approach, further increases in recycling will be incrementally more difficult and expensive to deliver because it means tackling harder-to-reach audiences, more difficult material streams, and behavioural challenges such as recycling contamination.

Neither of these barriers – markets or money – is likely to ease much in the short to medium term, so what can be done? Political vision and sound policy has a big part to play. In contrast to Defra’s somewhat detached stance on waste policy in recent times, Wales has demonstrated that a clear and unequivocal central government steer, combined with targeted funding for local authorities, can produce results and the Scottish government’s equally determined efforts to maintain progress are also starting to deliver. As part of wider strategic plans (e.g. One Wales: One Planet [Welsh Government, 2009], Safeguarding Scotland’s Resources and Making Things Last: Scotland’s Circular Economy Strategy [Scottish Government, 2013 and 2016 respectively]), both countries have sought to bring in measures to increase both the quantity and quality of recycling through statutory targets, increased harmonisation of collection schemes, and a strong focus on food waste.

In addition to the potential lessons to be learned from these frontrunners, it is becoming clear that there is now even more to do, however. And any renewed focus on developing waste and resource policy that is fit for the future needs to take into account a number of additional considerations. The first is the growing consensus that the responsibility and cost of post-consumer recycling cannot continue to rest so heavily on UK local authorities; more needs to be shouldered by producers and consumers. Extending the reach and robustness of the Producer Responsibility concept – where businesses that manufacture, import and sell products are responsible for their end of life environmental impact – has been under consideration for some time and packaging in particular has been the focus of much discussion.

In contrast to many other EU countries (and we’ll come back to this topic in a moment), the UK has implemented existing EU Producer Responsibility legislation with a ‘lowest cost to business’ approach where possible; it is estimated, for example, that the current packaging regime only covers around 10 per cent of the cost of collection and recycling. In addition, and again in contrast to some other EU Members, the UK has not rolled out other Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes to waste streams such as tyres, mattresses and furniture. At the other end of the supply chain, UK consumers have no obligation to recycle or factor waste into their consumption patterns and decisions – hence the re-emergence recently of discussion around the Save as you Recycle concept. Whether these are the best options or a more radical rethink is necessary, efforts to ‘reset’ recycling (as suggested by Green Alliance in their recent report Recycling reset: how England can stop subsidising waste) will certainly, among other things, need to assess how cost can be better shared in future.

The second major consideration is Brexit, which in theory at least should bring the issue of the UK’s productivity – including resource productivity – right to the top of the agenda in the Prime Minister’s new UK Industrial Strategy. The waste and resources sector is already an important source of valuable feedstocks for UK plc, both in terms of secondary raw materials (for the bioeconomy and manufacturing sectors, for example) and energy terms (biofuels, and heat and power from thermal treatment facilities), and has the potential to do much more at a national and local level. It also has a role to play further up the supply chain, helping businesses to develop more circular practices that divert discarded materials and products back into productive loops before they even become waste.

And here is the Brexit rub. Not only does a huge proportion of the UK’s existing waste legislation stem from EU Directives (Landfill, Waste Framework, Producer Responsibility) but many of the contemporary issues and challenges discussed above, and proposals to address them, have been picked up in the EU’s new Circular Economy package, which includes changes to current waste legislation that are expected to be agreed and finalised this year. In its totality, the package encompasses a number of wide-reaching proposals, including strengthening and extending the Ecodesign Directive to encourage more environmentally responsible and resource efficient design, a specific action plan to reduce plastic waste, new and higher targets for the recycling of household waste, and a more robust approach to EPR, including a push for full cost recovery. While some aspects of the package are still the subject of considerable discussion and disagreement, it does provide a blueprint to maintain forward momentum in the drive for more sustainable waste management and improved resource productivity.

However, as a result of Brexit, it is not clear to what degree the UK will engage with this ambitious future ‘roadmap’. If all applicable EU legislation is brought over in the Great Repeal Bill, then it is possible that the UK could at the very least benefit from the impetus that this new EU package provides to embed resource efficiency principles more fully across material and product supply chains. It may be that like it or not we will have to meet most of the obligations it lays down in order to trade products and recovered materials with the EU in future given the international nature of many supply chains. Or it may be that it – potentially along with other existing waste legislation – is seen as an unwelcome constraint or cost burden on business post-Brexit and falls victim to more ‘red tape’ culling.

Reuse begins at home
Before we get too gloomy, however, one area of waste policy lends itself readily to unilateral action within the UK’s borders and has the potential to deliver wide-reaching benefits. A report launched by CIWM’s incoming president Professor Margaret Bates last Autumn (Reuse in the UK & Ireland: a ‘State of the Nations’ report) highlights that while reuse has for many years been the ‘neglected child’ of the Waste Hierarchy, it deserves more attention from policy makers, local government, and the waste and resource management industry.

The potential benefits of developing a more proactive strategy on reuse, and the positive environmental, economic and social impacts that could accrue, have been documented. In 2013, the Local Government Association (LGA) published its Routes to reuse – maximising value from reused materials report and estimated that reusing an additional 660,000 tonnes of goods and materials could save councils more than £60 million a year in Landfill Tax as well as realise an economic value of around £375 million – a total of up to £435 million of value available each year from diverting this tonnage to reuse.

Further illustration of the economic and social impact of reuse is evidenced in Scotland. A mapping exercise by Zero Waste Scotland to quantify the size and scope of the reuse sector in Scotland estimated that around 89,000 tonnes of material, including 12,000 tonnes of furniture, 9,500 tonnes of electrical items and 66,000 tonnes of textiles were being reused with a turnover of approximately £244 million. In terms of employment, the study estimated that over 6,000 (full time equivalent) people were employed in reuse, with an additional 3,000 full time equivalent volunteering positions, and a total of over 13,000 people involved in volunteering in some capacity.

Despite these compelling figures and a broad consensus that more could be done to promote and boost reuse, the policy drivers for reuse are weak and the sector faces a very particular set of challenges – not least that success requires very different stakeholders with different motivations to work together. The report paints a picture of a sector primarily driven by third sector bodies and volunteers with a desire to deliver on anti-poverty, social need and health and well-being agendas. Stopping reusable items from becoming waste is mostly a secondary objective but relationships with the public (and private) waste management sector are core to many reuse operations as many reusable items can only be easily accessed at the point of disposal.

Likewise, with responsibilities ranging from waste to procurement, social care and health, local government is uniquely placed to enable, promote and facilitate reuse and to capture some of the environmental, economic, social and well-being benefits, and there are many success stories, a number of which have been included as case studies in the report. Some local authorities are clearly fully engaged with the reuse agenda, employing a strategic and co-operative approach that helps to mainstream reuse operations and increase their efficiency. Across the board, however, the report found that local government efforts to embed reuse and capitalise on the potential benefits are at best patchy and often depend on the presence of individuals who happen to be committed to developing the necessary partnerships and mutually determined and shared outcomes. Addressing this is seen as important, with one interviewee stating that ‘local government still needs to be the centrepiece of the development of reuse’.

Common challenges
In exploring some of the barriers that are currently holding back progress, the report identifies a number of common challenges.

Firstly, despite the efforts of the LGA, Zero Waste Scotland and others to quantify the overall benefits of reuse, the ‘operational’ business case has not been so well articulated. With no common set of metrics, some of the benefits of reuse can be difficult for individual local authorities to quantify, particularly with regard to the value of the potential contribution to social, employment and well-being agendas. In light of current budget constraints, negative perceptions vis a vis the level of investment and the likely returns, and limited mechanisms for assessing potential cost savings across multiple departments, the lack of a clear financial argument for action is often enough to relegate reuse efforts to the ‘nice but not essential’ tray.

Secondly, contractual and procurement barriers are preventing progress. Relationships between local authorities and social enterprises often need to be more flexible than those with a commercial outfit – because of the size of the enterprise, its geographical coverage, or fluctuations in the volume of reusable items it can source and make available, for example. The social enterprise may need upfront support to gear up or develop the business plan to provide the desired service, particularly given that third sector funding flows have all but dried up in face of the austerity agenda.

Successful relationships between local authorities and reuse organisations are often characterised by alternative business models, such as profit sharing, alternatives to reuse credits, mutual promotional and logistical support, and frameworks that formalise the relationship between reuse schemes and meeting welfare and social care needs. With internal resources under pressure, however, many local authorities struggle to dedicate the necessary time and manpower to develop these alternative contract models and partnerships.

Concerns about the risk (real and perceived) of engaging with third sector or social enterprises to deliver sub-contracts can also challenge reuse procurement, as can the minimal role of reuse within broader waste management contracts. It is important when procuring new contracts to be very clear about what is actually being procured in terms of service outcomes and to consider other options such as standalone and service-only contracts, the latter being most relevant to Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) where the actual reuse operation is separate from the site management contract.

There are also plenty of examples of reuse contacts for specific goods or materials, such as furniture, textiles, WEEE or more bespoke items such as bicycles. In an effort to provide support in these areas, WRAP has recently produced guidance for local authorities (How to include re-use in local authority HWRC procurement, WRAP, 2016) which focuses mainly on HWRCs but also touches on wider issues and partnership opportunities and which includes examples of successful reuse procurement outcomes.

Broader procurement rules could also be better aligned with effective reuse strategies, in fact at times these can hinder rather than help. Attempts to formalise and benefit from the work of social enterprises, including with regard to reuse, were made with the introduction of the Public Services (Social Value) Act in 2012. Under the Act, public bodies are meant to take social value into consideration in procurements but it has not had the impact it could have had and is described in the report as a ‘sleeping giant’.

These are just some of the barriers relevant to local government involvement in reuse and of course there are clear areas of opportunity too. Bulky collections are one area where the report suggests that the reuse sector could play a more significant role. While there are examples of good practice where reuse organisations are effectively delivering this service, the majority of UK local authorities collect bulky materials for disposal rather than reuse.

In addition, although many have introduced a charge for this service, it is not generally sufficient to cover all costs. There is an opportunity, therefore, to consider a ‘spend to save’ scenario in which reuse organisations are encouraged to take over these collections with a long term objective that they should be self-sustaining.

To achieve this, reuse organisations may need upfront support in preparing and delivering a business plan, or in raising awareness about what can be collected and how it should be presented. Others may need capital support in terms of vehicles and manpower for the collection. But it can be done and there are a number of good practice examples in this area. The Surrey Reuse Network, for example, currently provides bulky waste collection to a range of local authorities, both working in partnership or delivering the service, or acting as the point of referral for the authority. A consistent approach is being delivered and standards have been raised in terms of the quantity of items being reused and maximum value (in whatever form) being realised from bulky items.

A number of larger charities also operate collection rounds in partnership with local authorities to target small reusable items such as textiles, bric-a-brac, books and small WEEE that might otherwise end up in the household waste stream. The benefits are that the residents receive a convenient service, the charity is provided with additional stock, and the local authority saves money from reduced waste handling and disposal costs.

This is a simplified picture of the current reuse landscape and the report contains much more information. What CIWM has taken away from the research is the need to work in partnership with the different reuse stakeholders on a number of fronts, including the development of more robust policy in this area (ideally linked into wider Circular Economy policy development), more awareness raising and consumer communications, best practice sharing and promotion of useful guidance, and facilitating better engagement between reuse organisation, different local authority departments and other end users such as housing associations and homeless shelters.

We would of course like to ensure that local government is well represented in this work, so please contact CIWM if you would like to be involved.

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