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Can Public Sector Cope with Proposed EU Waste Targets?

Friday, October 3, 2014

The EU’s recent review of waste policy proposes more stringent curbs on landfill.  The proposals will now be debated and voted on by the European Parliament.

Within this month’s edition of Local Authority Waste and Recycling (LAWR) Magazine, Dan Botterill, CEO of Revise Ltd and Cloud Sustainability, questions whether plans for new targets will actually change anything.

When the EU put forward a legislative proposal to review waste and recycling targets it was, on the surface at least, a positive step towards accelerating the reduction in waste being disposed to landfill and promoting the idea of a circular economy.  Will any adopted proposals have legislative teeth and is the idea of a circular economy a little too abstract for our beleaguered public sector?

Undeniably the idea of a circular economy represents a significant challenge for the UK as a whole but would EU regulation actually make a difference?  Not without changing mindsets.  The public sector is no stranger to waste targets but it plays the game along lines of least resistance.  To meet the landfill diversion targets organisations simply recycle more or burn the waste to recover energy, which is all at the bottom of the Waste Hierarchy.  

The problem is a cultural one.  While attitudes to waste management have changed dramatically over the last ten years, the tendency by most organisations is to centre any waste sustainability targets on recycling rates.  The higher the recycling rate, the more successful the waste management strategy – that’s the theory at least.  It’s accepted that waste is produced and fire fighting measures are introduced to manage it.

But is this right and could public organisations really achieve zero waste to landfill targets by 2025 on a recycling policy?

Perhaps the problem we have in the UK, and other parts of Europe, is an obsession with recycling.  Shouldn’t more energy be put into reducing and re-using waste in the first place?  Isn’t this a better environmental and financial strategy for waste and the core of any circular economy framework?

The problem is magnified in public sector organisations due to financial constraints imposed primarily by economic austerity measures.  While organisations accept a responsibility for waste they need to manage it at the cheapest possible cost.  This usually means outsourcing the problem to the lowest priced waste contractors who will usually use recycling rates as their base measurement for success.

Public sector bodies – hospital trusts in particular – produce considerable waste, some of it hazardous too.  So what is the solution?

According to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health Dr Dan Poulter, the NHS spends £1.4 billion on hospital goods and services.  The NHS is a powerful buyer and must have some influence over the design and delivery of its products.  To cut down on waste is where the change is needed, at the production stage.  Packaging needs to be designed and made to be reduced and re-used, but there has to be an incentive.  Procurement is powerful leverage.

More organisations should also look to increase their self-sufficiency in terms of waste management.  Everything before the waste is generated is completely within an organisation’s control.  In some instances, even where waste does arise, there are solutions that can be deployed on-site that require minimal financial and operational expenditure.  This can in turn reduce costs and generate greater self-sufficiency.

Waste contractors too should play their part.  Rather than see the circular economy as a threat to their business models, they should be leading the change, bringing forward strategies for organisations to think longer term.  The circular economy is by no means just for the benefits of the waste producer.

For the public sector this equates to a need to change and this change has to run throughout organisations not just within waste management departments.  Focussing strategies around reduce and re-use will save organisations money, whilst also reducing environmental impact.

It demands a shift in processes and thinking, moving away from a recycling targets-driven culture towards a more intelligent circular economy culture.  Will the public sector be able to cope with this shift in thinking?  Does its culture enable a quick reaction to change?

If the public sector is to really reduce costs and meet proposed EU targets, recycling should be one component of the strategy, not the only option.

Original Opinion Article from the Local Authority Waste and Recycling (LAWR) Magazine, October 2014 Edition. 

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