Carrots and Sticks – Business vs Legislative Waste Drivers
By Accounting for Energy – (5 min read)
Carrot? Or stick? The argument over which method is the most effective probably started when the first donkey was yoked to a plough, but it may have gone on longer still in the recycling industry.
Ten years ago, the discussion was focused on Pay as You Throw; today, we are wrangling over extended producer responsibility and landfill bans. Whatever the topic area, the argument for legislative intervention is based on the fact that businesses and individuals are self-serving and will not act for the greater good if it conflicts with personal profit. But is this true, or do we live in a world where many companies are driving sustainable business at a faster rate than government intervention?
In the waste and recycling sector, there was definitely a time when legislation was key in changing attitudes and ensuring that the logistics were in place to help the UK meet the first EU recycling targets. Regulations such as the WEEE Directive, which governs producer responsibility and the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), have proved a challenge for business to meet, and have undoubtedly brought change faster than would otherwise have been achieved.
Westminster and the devolved administrations also have their own ideas. Scotland and Wales have made enormous strides. Wales cementing its position as the second-best household waste recycler in the world and in September Conwy Borough Council became the first to switch to four-weekly residual collections, a move which will save the council £390,000 each year, and expects to save materials going to landfill to a value of £1.6 million.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government has taken the view that robust legislation is needed to create sustainable growth and the health and well-being benefits that go with it. As part of this move, it has set ambitious climate change targets that aim to push Earth Overshoot Day back.
Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for a zero waste society. The plan describes a country which views all waste as a useful resource. With this concept in place, waste is minimised, valuable resources are kept out of landfill, and residual waste becomes just a small fraction of previous volumes. The commitment does not just apply to more lucrative, easy-to-process materials – in 2021, the government has pledged to introduce a ban on biodegradable waste to landfill, which means extra reprocessing capacity needs to be found. In 2016, more than 2 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste was sent to landfill.
Without legislation, some might say that times ahead look uncertain. The World Bank predicts that global waste will double by 2025, to 6.5 million tonnes a day. However, business is not standing still as more and more become aware either of their responsibilities or of the harsh fact that without greater care, businesses will have no resources to access in the future.
The World Economic Forum has created Project Mainstream, which aims to bring companies together to propel the Circular Economy away from small-scale experimental projects and into the mainstream. A number of companies have already agreed, including names such as Kingfisher, Veolia and Philips.
In the UK, businesses have been flocking to sign up to voluntary agreements such as Plastics Pact, or the Courtauld Commitment – a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector.
Iceland has pledged to eliminate palm oil and plastic from its supply chain entirely by 2023, and others are also taking action on plastics. For example, under the voluntary Plastics Pact agreement, businesses are pledging to make 100% of packaging recyclable, actually recycle a minimum of 70%, and to introduce a minimum of 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.
Whether voluntary targets will prove a great enough incentive remains to be seen, but it’s worth also factoring in the importance of professional reputation. Where one leads, others will follow. As we, hopefully, move into an age of more joined up thinking between business and government, we may all be set to benefit from the £1 trillion in annual savings expected by 2025 if circular economy thinking takes off.
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