DEFRA’s waste strategy: fill in the blanks

Westminster’s plan to tackle plastics is big on promises but short on detail – for now. By David Burrows.

The government has hit the food sector with a whirlwind of announcements relevant to the future of waste in the past three months. The Clean Growth Strategy and new Industrial Strategy kicked things off late last year, and then in January came the 25 Year Environment Plan, which turned the spotlight firmly on plastic. “Hell” is how the Foodservice Packaging Association chairman, Howard Colliver, described it at the organisation’s environment seminar last month – he and his team have been shunted from one broadcaster to the next to talk about plastic-free packaging and explain the astoundingly low recycling rates for on-the-go packaging.

If you have followed government policymaking on waste for the past few years – major announcements: nil – it’s hardly surprising that some are feeling the burn from being in the spotlight. But they will need a second wind.

This month there will be a “call for evidence” on how charges and taxes could be used to cut consumption of single-use plastics as well as (apparently/probably) a bioeconomy strategy. The former could result in a latte levy while the latter will, hopefully, throw more light on how compostable packaging, for example, might actually be composted (Footprint’s recent investigation on compostable straws suggested some of the commitments aren’t quite as sustainable as we’ve been led to believe; in fact, they suck).

But let’s take a breath for a minute, because with all that’s going on it’s all too easy to forget the big prize: and that’s the new Resources and Waste Strategy. All that’s come so far has been little more than scene-setting, according to Lee Davies, the head of resource efficiency and circular economy strategy at DEFRA.

At January’s Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum in London, he said: “Our ambition was that these strategies should present a coherent vision for what our high-level ambition is. And that the resources and waste strategy would be a delivery mechanism that sits under all of those documents … and not be seen as something that just follows on from the DEFRA environmental plan – that this is a truly government-led ambition.”

Davies admitted there hasn’t yet been a massive amount of detail – but he’s on it. “There's an exhausted but courageous team of people, as you can imagine, after the delivery of the 25 Year Environment Plan, who are now turning to the delivery of the Resources and Waste Strategy, which we've got a commitment to publish at some point in 2018.”

A bead of sweat didn’t appear on Davies’s forehead but it’s clear the hard work for his team starts now. There have been fine words and grand visions but now we need to see some policy for how to deliver them. One imagines the team sitting at their desks, cursors flashing in the top left-hand corner and screens blank apart from the words “Resources and Waste Strategy”. That white space might be giving DEFRA officials the jitters but for everyone else it means there is everything to play for – or everything to fight against.

Listening to Davies would have cheered environmentalists but brought foodservice companies and their packaging suppliers out in a cold sweat. He said pricing and market-based approaches and regulatory approaches are “really good” places to start for the strategy.

A revamp of outdated and (for some) hated producer responsibility requirements is probably top of the “to do” list. WRAP, the waste and resources charity, and INCPEN, which represents packaging firms, have been speaking to a range of organisations asking their views on plastic packaging. Reform of producer responsibility “was something that came through very strongly”, according to the WRAP boss, Marcus Gover. Their findings are being fed back directly to the environment secretary, Michael Gove, he told me.

No surprise then that this issue is also on Davies’s radar. “When you look at producer responsibility arrangements at the moment they've been very effective at delivering what they were set up to do in a lot of ways. But actually, when you think about the circular economy objectives, do these regimes actually promote design of better products?”

Mention of the circular economy was a definite plus – and Davies mentioned it more than once. “What we want is policy that’s going to deliver the circular economy ambition,” he said.

Fine words again, but now comes the hard bit: how? Davies admitted that the whole-lifecycle approach to packaging and products is “fantastically complicated” and that his team were struggling with significant gaps in waste data. Still no sign of a bead of sweat – thankfully no one had mentioned that the government reportedly opposed higher recycling targets during negotiations in Brussels on the circular economy package.

But let’s look on the bright side – the pages of the new strategy might still be blank but the commitment to fill them is progress. “It’s great to see government taking this seriously after so many years of neglect … and four of them were mine,” said Colin Church, the chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and a former director of waste at DEFRA.

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