Is the Waste Review fit for purpose?

Has 12 months of government consultation resulted in a policy paper that the industry can be proud of? Adam Read thinks not

Missed opportunities: Adam Read

Missed opportunities: Adam Read

I was at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management's (CIWM) annual conference this month at which Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman set out the key points from Defra's Waste Review.

Having carefully read the 80-page document, the Government is clearly making the right noises: the priority is resource efficiency, realising the value of resources (not waste) and communicating these messages to consumers to help them make informed decisions.

However, I fear they have not gone far enough in terms of setting the policy direction and framework within which green growth, investment and improvements can flourish and their (and our) aspirations can be delivered. Just how do we make a zero waste economy a reality?

On one hand we have the commitment from the Government to review health risks from energy-from-waste (EfW) and to help communicate EfW best practice to society. We also have: more analysis of landfill bans for specific materials, including biodegradables, wood and textiles; a revised anaerobic digestion strategy; and a commitment to the development of a national waste prevention plan. These are all sensible and laudable.

There was the expected U-turn on financing local authorities wishing to switch back to weekly residual waste collections, although Defra will offer advice if required. But, who will be tasked in providing the advice about service design, efficiencies and delivery?

I suspect the Waste Resources & Action Programme (WRAP) may have to deliver this in the short term and that may not fit with its technical perspective on what is a sustainable local service.

From the review, it would seem that WRAP has a central role to play in delivering on almost all of the Government's objectives from voluntary commitments and public facing information campaigns, to product design and the reuse agenda. But the programme has less budget and staff than before, and its ambitious business plan targets will need a strong prevailing wind if they are to be met.

I think it is fair to say that Government has failed to embrace carbon metrics in the decision-making process (unlike Scotland), has failed to set challenging recycling targets (like Wales) and has failed to align waste, resources, energy and economic policy.

Many of the initiatives outlined are little more than the recycling of old ideas from previous administrations: looking at landfill bans; discussing higher packaging targets; and initiating a voluntary agreement for local authorities to sign up to. Why did it take 12 months for so little extra?

This review has not done enough and until government thinking and action is aligned across all departments, then innovation and action will be difficult to realise. It is a massive challenge managing the competing agendas of DCLG, DECC, BIS, Defra and the Treasury. Without alignment we will not get the efficiencies required or successfully deliver on our 2020 targets.

It's disappointing. The nervous energy in the room prior to the unveiling of the review was electric and the past 12 months have seen the sector waiting on tenterhooks for some leadership.

Once again, the opportunity to make that step change we hear about so often a reality, has been wasted. While the words and commitment are good in theory, the real test will be in the delivery where we will all have a role to play.

Dr Adam Read is global practice director for waste management & resource efficiency at AEA

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