Signatories must be made accountable in voluntary waste deals

Voluntary responsibility agreements are important in driving innovation in waste management, but regular reporting is required to assess individual performance and deals need to be backed by the threat of regulation.

That was the underlying message to emerge from a panel discussion on the impact and expansion of voluntary agreements at a Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum keynote seminar in London yesterday.

Highlighting the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA) voluntary responsibility agreement with the Government as part of the Waste Review, ESA policy director Matthew Farrow said that voluntary deals can be put in place more quickly than legislation and sometimes can be more effective than regulation, pushing behaviour beyond policy.

“There is so much innovation and change going on in this sector and regulation struggles to keep up with that,” he said.

But Farrow added that deals were context dependent and the Government needed the right counterparty to make effective voluntary responsibility agreements with.

He explained that voluntary deals only really worked effectively where there was a well defined sector and a prime trade association to work with.

Outlining the pros and cons of voluntary deals, SJ Berwin partner Angus Evers agreed that they would continue to have a future.

“Voluntary responsibility deals are viewed fairly favourably by the Government and they do seem to fit fairly well with its deregulatory agenda,” he said.

Evers outlined seven key features that should underpin an effective voluntary responsibility deal and emphasised the importance of accountability.

“There has to be regular reporting in a standardised format so that individual performance can be assessed,” he told delegates.

Evers also added that voluntary deals needed to be backed by the threat of regulation.

But Southampton University’s professor of applied environmental science Ian Williams was sceptical that voluntary agreements would work in the construction sector.

He told delegates that individual producer responsibility (IPR) would replace extended producer responsibility (EPR) in the future and cited the electronics sector.

“The general move in the electronics sector is away from EPR to IPR and I think that’s where we are going to see things moving,” he said.

“I see no reason why IPR should not be applied by the construction and demolition sector other than the lifetime of buildings is a lot longer than a mobile or a laptop, and so there are some legacy issues.”

Waste Watch’s business engagement manager Claudia Kuss-Tenzer also questioned the efficacy of voluntary responsibility agreements. The problem, she said, was that it was difficult to pinpoint and assess the individual performance of the signatories that take part.

But she added that voluntary agreements could be used to develop new business models and to support innovation.

“Any voluntary agreement as well as legislation needs to make sure that all stakeholders across the value chain or lifecycle are fully involved in the process of drafting the voluntary agreement and that their responsibilities are very clear,” she said.

Nick Warburton

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