CIWM: Circular economy will suffer without Government’s helping hand

EXCLUSIVE: Businesses must be given the right tools from Government to take up an "incredibly powerful" role in the UK's resource and waste management system, according to the new chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).

Colin Church also believes that ministers must act now to provide long-term certainty for businesses that resource productivity will be a key strand of economic policy, regardless of the UK’s future involvement in the EU Circular Economy Package (CEP).

Speaking exclusively to edie six months after assuming the role as CIWM boss, the former Defra environmental quality director noted the unique position of major brands to boost national recycling rates through extended producer responsibility and enhanced consumer engagement.

Church noted, however, that England lacks a formal strategy for waste, while the current framework only extends to 2020. Unless harmonisation and consistency is strengthened by Government in the long-term, the role of businesses in enhancing the waste agenda will be limited, Church warned.

“It is absolutely the case that if they were given the right tools and context, then they could play an incredibly powerful role in moving this agenda forward,” he said. “But you can’t expect them to perform miracles. The fact that they don’t have a single recycling message that they can use across England, let alone the UK, is really problematic for them.

“It is absolutely essential that local and central Government together enable businesses to play a part in the communications and engagement side of things by giving them as simple a message as possible. That means greater harmonisation and greater consistency of systems, materials and approaches across at least England. That’s not straightforward because that plays straight into lots of local and indeed national politics around these things. But it is really hard for businesses to play their part without it.”

Business benefits

England’s recycling rates fell in 2015 for the first time in 14 years. In recent times, a large share of responsibility has been burdened on local councils, which have no control over product design or packaging. Church highlighted the unsustainable nature of this system, with local authorities spending around £300m each year dealing with waste packaging alone.

“The one thing that local authorities are worried about in this space at the moment is the availability of money and resources,” Church said. “Austerity is really biting. Local authorities are finding some really innovative ways to collaborate and reduce costs, but there is a limit to how far that can go.”

Church believes a fairer system that incentives responsible companies to design more resourceful packaging to improve recycling would help to boost rates and cut costs to local authorities. He also points out the economic benefits on offer for businesses that develop closed-loop models, as highlighted in the latest research by business alliance the Aldersgate Group.

The opportunitiy to embrace a circular business model has been grasped by a host of major firms in recent months. Coca-Cola, for instance, recently reversed its traditional antipathy to a plastic deposit return service. Church said that, in this instance, the company realised it could no longer afford to ignore the financial gains of the scheme. He also reserved praise for multinational tech firm HP, which now manufactures more than 75% of its ink cartridges using closed-loop recycled plastic. Now, the CIWM chief wants to see more businesses play a bigger role in producer responsibility.

“You can see there are some business benefits to that kind of thing,” Church said. “For some product and resource streams you can see there is already a driver there. For others like generic plastic packaging, we are going to have to put that in place. That is why it is one of our six priorities. That is why the sector as a whole has taken an interest in it.

“Bringing producer responsibility into line will mean more costs for the producers and retailers and lower costs on lower authorities, but that has to happen to align those incentives better to get people to do it. So that is another area where business does have a significant role to play, by helping Government to design and put in place sensible extended producer responsibilities schemes in place for the streams that need it.”

Post-2020 certainty

The potential for long-term growth within the waste management sector could hinge on upcoming talks between UK and EU officials during Brexit negotiations, particularly around whether the UK will be bound to the recycling and landfill targets set in the Circular Economy Package. In numerous talks with CIWM, Defra officials have made it “abundantly clear” that they will negotiate to maintain membership within the package, Church said.

But with ministers hinting at a desire to overturn certain elements of the Package, including weight-based targets, Church believes there is a “reasonable case” that the UK will seek to adopt the Package and then pursue an alternative pathway at a later date, as is the case with the Great Repeal Bill. Regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations, it remains essential for certainty to be provided in the short-term, Church said, to ensure that businesses and local authorities can plan investment in the sector long into the future.

“Uncertainty is awful in this sector,” he said. “We need certainty about what will happen beyond 2020, and at the moment the only way we are going to get that is if the Package does apply. The alternative is that Defra, in the next year to 18 months, has to come up with an alternative. We are mid-2017 now, so if we are going to have certainty beyond 2020 that isn’t the Package, then Defra needs to develop an alternative now.”

“You need to bear in mind that waste and resource management policy in the UK is devolved, and the pressures on the four administrations [England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland] are very different. At the moment all of those are constrained by a common EU framework. Post-Brexit, if we don’t adopt the Package, what is the common framework that governs all of those nations? Or, do we get into the position where the fragmentation of waste management policy across the UK becomes more extreme? This a concern for a lot of people who operate across those borders.”

George Ogleby

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