EU Waste Regulations - Group Leader's Comment - 20 April 2018

Top of the agenda this week is our response to the proposed changes in two hugely influential documents:

The National Planning Policy Framework in consultation now until 10 May; and the EU Waste Regulations that will be introduced into the UK statute book after Brexit but will apply until the end of 2020, and beyond if that, if that is what the UK chooses to do. It was passed by MEPs this week. Next it goes to EU environment ministers, including Michael Gove, who must accept or reject it without further amendment.

We have been working on the regulations for months, seeking support for our environment and for costs incurred by local authorities. Many, though not all, of our recommendations were adopted.

I am currently the Council of European Municipalities and Regions’ elected spokesperson for the Environment, with particular reference to waste. 

There is a big move to reducing waste in the first place, especially the packaging, and the re-use of materials, rather than incineration; though there remains a place for both across Europe (see the LGA Environment, Economy, Housing and Transport Board’s Waste and Recycling Policy report, undertaken by the consultants Eunomia in December 2017). Measures need to be wide-ranging and innovative. For plastic-digesting enzymes, our bio-digesters will need to be lined with something other than plastic I presume! There is a stronger move to re-use materials by developing an effective “circular economy”.

Under a revised Waste Framework Directive, national authorities will have to ensure that, by 2030, 60 per cent of municipal refuse is being routinely recycled, with an interim target of 55 per cent for 2025. Some countries recycled less than 20 per cent in 2013 and got a five-year grace period. Packaging gets the tougher target of 70 per cent being recycled by 2030. And, from 2035, the amount of municipal waste landfilled should be reduced to 10 per cent or less of the total amount of municipal waste generated.

We are required to separately collect hazardous waste, textiles and bio-waste by 2025 latest, for safety and for re-use of materials. New rules on the treatment of scrap cars, batteries, and waste electrical and electronic equipment bring them in line with the new, broader EU rules on the treatment and prevention of waste.

This is clearly the right direction for us and our communities. Many councils are now revising their joint waste management strategies, working cross-council to get economies of scale for the county. Significant changes in the way we produce, package and re-use materials needs capital and certainty in the business plan. The aim is to halve food waste by 2030. In the meantime, we need to increase our recycling of materials through composting or bio-digesters. There are obviously upfront costs of separating out food waste, but industrial scale improvement of the land would make farming more sustainable too!

Local authorities do tackle manufacturers and retailers to achieve better product design and packaging that is both reduced and recyclable, albeit though influence, rather than power, it seems.  Polystyrene and single-use plastic has been the mainstay of making goods easy to display and to carry, however, easily recyclable packaging makes waste disposal easier for our residents, saves considerable amounts of money and energy, whilst protecting our environment. Can innovation make it cost-effective to recycle more of our waste? Contracts that are set narrowly to be more profitable look good at the outset. They may, however, be less good when 25 per cent of what looks recyclable to the diligent resident turns out not to be cost-effective to recycle after all. These materials count as “contaminants” and incur separate costs.

As you well know, local government is closest to the citizen, and able to focus on the small, localised innovations that together can make a big difference. Then we can encourage others to do likewise. For example, many of our members are proposing more refill points for people to top-up water bottles; banning single-use plastics from municipal buildings; promoting volunteer anti-litter and clear-up schemes. Public pressure makes a difference and some of our members have taken to leaving the plastic packaging in the shop!

“The focus of the LGA Board has been on waste minimisation for the future but also needing to take into consideration the financial impact on local authorities - both in terms of investment in future management of waste and income from recyclate,” writes Independent Group member Cllr Rachel Eburne, who runs a think tank you may like to join.

In response to a recent government consultation, our group members also supported alternatives to plastic and deposit schemes on returned packaging. (By the way, can anyone think of an alternative to marathon runners setting a good example, other than with single-use plastic bottles?)

As local authorities, we are always improving our management of waste, but there is a limit to what can be achieved at this end stage. The real need is to reduce waste, especially certain kinds of waste that are difficult to recycle. It seems to me, with spring upon us, that growing one’s own food in the garden remains the most sustainable of all!