Public Services Management: Recycling strategy needed: The Government's targets have been set without adequate national planning, says Rebecca Renner

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The Independent Online
OVER the past five years recycling and waste reduction has grown from a low-key, local issue to one of national importance. In the mid-1980s it would have been difficult to imagine that people would seek out products made from recycled materials or worry about over-packaging, but so deep-seated has the desire to reduce waste and recycle become that such behaviour is now common.

The increase in bottle, can and paper banks reinforces awareness of recycling activity, but it was the Environmental Protection Act and the Government's target of recycling 25 per cent of household waste by the year 2000 that really brought recycling into the national spotlight.

In addition to setting that target, the Government asked the local authorities, responsible for collecting waste, to devise individual strategies for meeting the goal, and to submit these draft recycling plans to the Department of the Environment by 1 August this year. So far the DoE has received 272 plans, roughly 75 per cent of the total required. It expects the rest by the end of September, but it will be disappointed. One local authority, Great Yarmouth district council, has refused, on a point of principle, to submit a recycling plan.

Its refusal is based on the grounds that such a plan would be impossible to implement without financial support or at least a national recycling strategy and that therefore money and time spent on such a plan would be wasted.

Barbara Baughan, who chairs the council's environmental health committee, said: 'If we did prepare a plan in the cheapest way possible it would cost pounds 10,000 - this council has better things to spend that money on.

'Our rough calculations suggest that a comprehensive recycling package capable of meeting the Government's target would cost about pounds 500,000 a year - a sum we have no hope of raising, so why should we pretend?' She is quick to add that the council is by no means against recycling.

There is a recycling sub-committee and the council maintains a drop-off system for collecting paper, bottles and cans. The DoE has responded to the council's decision with a torrent of phone calls, letters and faxes encouraging Great Yarmouth to comply - if not with the spirit of the regulation, then at least with the letter of it, according to Ms Baughan.

'Their latest request was that we should just send them a description of what we are doing now. We have been told that that would suffice. The department's attitude is that it doesn't really matter what we submit so long as we send them something.'

The council, however, is sticking with its principles and refusing to go along with this suggestion. The DoE would only say that correspondence over the dispute was continuing and that the Secretary of State could issue a directive requiring Great Yarmouth to submit a recycling plan if necessary.

Section 49 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 directs local authorities that are responsible for waste collection in England and Wales to produce plans for disposing of household and commercial waste. The councils must estimate the kinds and quantities of waste they expect to collect and recycle, and specify the plant and equipment they will use to implement the recycling scheme which they devise. The cost of the proposals must also be calculated.

Great Yarmouth's action may appear extreme and many argue that without the kind of strategy produced in the draft plan it is impossible to monitor progress and react to change.

However, a recent Friends of the Earth survey revealed that many of the local authorities that have produced draft recycling plans have similar reservations about what they can achieve in the existing commercial and legislative environment.

Cambridge city council's draft recycling plan for the city makes this clear: 'If the government policy does not change, and if markets for recycled goods do not expand so that a better price for the material is collected, Cambridge city council will only be able to continue funding its existing recycling scheme and nothing else for the foreseeable future and the recycling rate in Cambridge is unlikely to exceed 10 per cent by the year 2000.'

Indeed, the flavour of comments made by regional DoE offices on plans already submitted suggests that they are evaluating the plans according to the letter of the regulations and playing down the broader issues. This, coupled with the Great Yarmouth experience, may suggest that the department currently lacks a vigorous commitment to achieving the 25 per cent target.

Whether the target is achieved or not, however, years of recycling experience and experimentation are starting to provide insights into matching the recycling options with local circumstances.

One option with great potential for almost every part of the country is composting. Some councils are already encouraging people to compost their own organic waste by providing education, discount compost containers, or even composting worms. Other authorities are exploring ways of turning household organic waste into a peat substitute. Local authority landscape departments use about a third of the three million cubic metres of horticultural peat used in the UK each year, so parks departments are obvious customers for compost-derived peat substitutes.

The North London Waste Authority, for example, has started by composting garden wastes from the parks departments of London boroughs. This has been supplemented with commercial and industrial waste, such as orange peel from the makers of fresh orange juice, and coffee grounds.

It is important, however, to control the materials that are composted. Experience has taught recycling officers that they must exclude items that could contaminate the compost. Waste from vacuum cleaners, for instance, may contain high levels of lead.

Drop-off banks are also expanding and becoming more effective as councils better appreciate the importance of a good location. Money from the Government's new recycling credits scheme should also lead to more drop-off banks.

Kerbside collection schemes to pick up separated waste from people's houses preserve the hope of a dramatic increase in the volume of waste that can be recycled, but such large-scale projects have comparatively high start-up costs. Pilot projects in Cardiff, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Sheffield have all used different collection schemes and the experience suggests that schemes which use the existing refuse collection network and avoid extra costs for vehicles, labour or energy are the most efficient and effective.

Achieving the Government's 25 per cent target and promoting other means of waste reduction urgently requires a national recycling strategy, devised with input from central and local government, environmental groups, waste producers and the recycling industry. Without such a strategy, progress on recycling and waste minimisation will have to depend on experience and ingenuity.

(Photograph omitted)