ANALYSIS: New sense of urgency builds around resource security

The Government is facing mounting pressure to take a stronger stance on resource security as market forces won't be enough in themselves to drive the issue forward, according to industry experts.

In January, manufacturing lobby group EEF published a report that examined the Government’s Waste Policy Review six months on. Apart from illustrating that Wales and Scotland are ahead of the game (both have zero waste plans), and England could learn much from them, the study is strongly in favour of a more proactive government approach.

It argued that resource scarcity should be put at the heart of strategy. It recommended an “ambitious resource strategy” that would reward and remove obstacles to resource efficiency. It also lamented the Government missing a “vital opportunity” to set clear direction on how to value waste and allow it to circulate easily and at the right specification.

Furthermore, it called for a long-term framework to be established to provide businesses with the certainty to adapt and change.

Julie Hill is an associate of environmental think tank the Green Alliance. She feels that businesses – excluding the trailblazers – are averse to making changes to become more sustainable because of the risks associated. Implementing changes to working practices require investment, which invariably pushes up costs.

What is needed, she says, is a “level playing field” so that companies who want to do the right thing aren’t penalised. The type of support recommended in the EEF report could go some way to achieve this such as improving the availability of affordable and convenient recycling facilities. The EEF believes there is a “genuine need” for more complex waste treatment processes.

Not only does the study argue that strategy is lacking, but that existing legislation could be counterproductive. It says current government strategy does not even “consider how a business would want to manage waste as a resource”. Worst still, it finds that lack of clarity around whether a material is a waste or not, and requires a permit, is actually preventing the use of waste as a resource.

It cites, as an example, that sawdust and wood chippings, which could be reused at horse riding centres are not currently being redeployed in this way because it’s not clear whether a permit is required.

Business needs a helping hand and as well as simplifying waste policy, the EEF wants to see manufacturers involved in the design and monitoring of initiatives to improve recyclate quality. The report also picks up on the $18bn in cost savings the Government says could be achieved through no or low-cost resource efficiency measures.

It questions the accuracy of the data and assumptions used to come up with this figure and wants more information on how these savings could be made, and by whom. Otherwise, it argues, “savings eluded to will remain out of reach”.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: businesses can benefit from becoming more resource efficient, it’s just that they need help doing so. There are many reports that concur with this argument, such as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation report Towards the Circular Economy or the CBI’s report Made to Last.

“Historically, materials have been cheap to access and waste disposal has also been low cost,” says Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association. “It’s only recently in the past decade that landfill tax is driving waste disposal costs up – and this has seen a lot of companies go back to budgets to see how they can save money on waste disposal. You’ve seen the downward trend shoot up in the opposite direction.”

It’s not that resources will necessarily run out, it’s about avoiding the unpleasant consequences of extracting them from the environment, Hill adds. Ways of working that don’t respect resources only appear cheaper and more profitable because the environmental costs aren’t factored in.

While Hill broadly agrees with EEF’s stance, she argues that the ‘green consumer’ is a bit of a myth. The market provides choice, so that while it is possible for a consumer to buy recycled toilet paper, it also provides the option to buy toilet paper made from virgin material and even brands that have cashmere in it.

“There are people who don’t care about the green agenda,” she says and this is one reason why she wants to see firmer government targets around resource security – because it’s too important a problem.

To finish, Hill makes a tantalising argument – just as we expect not to be poisoned by the food we buy, shouldn’t we also expect that same product should not be poisoning the planet that grows it. “You don’t expect someone to tell you, your food is unadulterated – you expect that these things have been done to a certain standard.”

Katie Coyne

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