DEFRA’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England

The UK government’s last, full waste strategy was published eleven years ago, long before concern over climate change, plastic in our oceans, and unsustainable packaging reached its current level.

So the publication of DEFRA’s Waste and Resource Strategy is big news, not just for the waste industry, but for a country that’s increasingly worried about the global environment.

The government has invited business to contribute to a consultation which will shape the UK’s resource and waste strategy for the next decade or longer.  What will we be saying at Cawleys?

There is one fundamental fact which needs to inform and drive any future decisions:

For any waste collection and recycling system to work it must meet three criteria:

collectability, sortability and commerciality.

The interplay of these three factors explains the current levels of recycling and waste in the world, where less than 10% of plastic ever produced is recycled but 90% of steel is.

In our long experience, where we achieve the highest recycling rates for our customers, the key levers to change are: education, information and incentives.

“Ensure all households receive a weekly food waste collection”

We support 100% the need to collect food waste for two reasons:

  • Food waste in landfill will rot and in doing so give off methane which is a greenhouse gas ten times more powerful than CO2.
  • Food waste if mixed in with other waste streams, such as cardboard, contaminates them and makes them less commercially viable, which reduces recycling rates of other materials.

At Cawleys we were the first company in the UK to offer a commercial food waste collection service to Anaerobic Digestion (AD) in the retail sector in 2008, for Waitrose.

We were also the first company to introduce a coffee waste recycling service for businesses in south east England. It is our work that enabled the whole of the Canary Wharf Estate to be declared a #CleanCoffeeZone in February 2017.  Coffee grinds in any quantity are not suitable for AD and therefore need other disposal routes, apart from AD or landfill. We ensure they are turned in to coffee logs for solid fuel.

One of the services we offer our customers is called a collection scheme called “Infinity.” This is where customers are helped to segregate and store waste streams themselves on site, to achieve both a more competitively priced service and higher recycling levels.  Hotels, restaurants, manufacturing plants, shopping centres all use this scheme successfully.

We therefore understand very clearly the issues and advantages in collecting food waste and how to make collection schemes work well.

There are three key factors which must be addressed to ensure all households receive a weekly food waste collection:

    1. Explain the benefits of food waste segregation and collection, and how it impacts all waste streams.
    2. Supply data back to households with their council bills to show what percentage of waste has been collected and what second life use it has achieved, such as how much electricity generated; equivalent trees saved.
    1. Ensure bins are safe and secure especially from foxes and vermin in household areas.
    2. Ensure bins are collected regularly.
    1. It is not economical or environmentally sound to transport food waste long distances to AD plants.
    2. The government needs to fund more, smaller AD plants to reduce transport miles and give immediate proximity for waste. The aim would be for the local AD plant to supply electricity to the local narea.

“Introduce a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content”

We support 100% the concept of taxing plastic packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content.

We are currently running a programme with our customers called ‘Small Action Big Impact’ which is designed specifically to encourage people to cut down on their use of single-use plastic.

So far the pledges from Bedford, Cranfield and West Herts Uni, Milton Keynes and Northampton Hospital and many more organisations have meant that thousands of single use bottles and coffee cups  will not be used.

Clearly change on a large scale with the right education and incentives can be achieved.

However, there are some support systems which must be put in place on a UK-wide basis to support manufactures in sourcing recycled content:

  • Improved plastic recycling infrastructure, from the universal availability and accessibility of consumer collection points to collect and store plastic item, to the proximity of recycling plants to process the plastic products.
  • The above points cannot be achieved quickly. A long-term plan and commitment from the government needs to be given. Previous incentive schemes such as Feed In Tariff (FIT) on solar panels stimulated the market but were then dramatically reduced.  Investors will remember this change and need convincing that any investment support or incentives relating to plastic recycling are secure for decades to come,
  • Packaging needs to be as clearly labelled as the food content is at present.
  1. Describing the type of plastic and whether it can in theory be recycled is not sufficient.
  2. There needs to be clear, unequivocal signage to describe:
    1. The percentage of recycled content
    2. The country in which the recycling took place
    3. The country in which the packaging was produced
    4. The country in which the packaging was filled
  3. This would mirror the salt / fat / sugar/ calorie information to describe the content

A phased programme of change and investment spanning at least two decades needs to be developed to make this target a practical option. However, once the target is set it is sure to drive change, necessity being the mother of invention….

 “Consider banning plastic packaging where there are alternatives”

We actively encourage any research into new and more sustainable packaging solutions, but have concerns about an out-right ban on plastic packaging for certain products because it could potentially have further ramifications for the environment.

Plastic has become ubiquitous because it allows food products to travel further distances and stay on shelves longer. In this way it prevents large amounts of food from going to waste.

  • Advanced plastic packaging can provide a protective “skin” that helps keep oxygen away from food, slowing spoilage and increasing shelf life. Vacuum-packaged meat, for example, can stay on shelves from five to eight days, rather than two to four.
  • Plastic is lightweight and takes up less space than other forms of food packaging.
  • Plastic packaging ensures lighter loads for trucks and planes – meaning more products can be stored on-board, ensuring less emissions per product than a heavier, larger packaging solution.
  • It also provides a security barrier preventing theft and loss in transit.

For these reasons an outright ban could have unforeseen consequences. Developing alternatives or ensuring recycled content in the packaging would be a more viable option.

“Commit to a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans”

Incentivising the public to recycle with deposit return schemes has been extremely successful in European countries such as Germany. However, glass and metal already have high levels of recycling in the UK. The problem is specific to plastic bottles and containers and also more recent waste streams such as food pouches.

For example, more than ten billion aluminium-plastic pet food pouches are sold every year in the UK, but less than 500,000 are recycled.

The overall strategy

The proposals outlined by the government in the new Waste and Resource Strategy are positive steps towards minimising the UK’s waste output and supporting the environment.

As long as these proposals are properly funded, creating a UK-wide infrastructure for recycling, rather than ‘offshoring’ our waste, then the public sector can expand on steps already taken by companies like Cawleys to educate the public about waste and dramatically improve the UK’s recycling capabilities.

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