One devolved nation’s trailblazing enterprise is another’s pilot – or so it should be
“If you really want to up your recycling rate,” suggests Lucy Siegel in her 2018 book Turning the Tide on Plastic, “move to Wales!” Indeed, it’s a pub quiz answer that might surprise a few people: Wales ranks third on the global top recyclers table.
The country’s journey to becoming a world-class recycler is impressive and demonstrates why strategic thinking is key in this area. In 1999, the year the Welsh National Assembly first convened, only 5 per cent of the country’s household waste was recycled. But by 2025, the country is set to hit its target of no more than 5 per cent going to landfill.
The odds are in Wales’s favour. There seems to be a consensus that well-set targets – long-term as well as interim short-term ones – are key to bringing about sea changes of this calibre.
In November 2020 there was cause for celebration across Wales when news of exceeding the statutory 64 per cent recycling rate by more than one per cent – and beating the UK target by 35 years – came. Especially so in the top three local authorities for recycling, which have already hit the 2025 level at more than 70 per cent, well ahead of schedule.
The country’s success is well-deserved, as it has been firing on all cylinders for the past 20 years to pull the feat off. In addition to setting targets and drawing roadmaps, the Welsh government has also invested generously in recycling facilities, circular economy initiatives and attitude-changing campaigns. So what are the key ingredients of this secret Welsh recipe?
The Welsh government’s approach is unique in that it goes “beyond recycling”, which is also the name of its new circular economy programme, launched in March 2021.
The concept that sustainable waste management is not just about increasing recycling capacity and developing revolutionary – and often energy-intensive – new technologies but also, and pre-eminently, about “keeping resources in use and avoiding waste” – more reminiscent of grassroot environmentalist thinking than the usual government schemes.
The longer household appliances and electronic products are in use, the less packaging needs to be tackled. Setting up re-use shops and repair cafes near household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) can divert a lot of items from energy-to-waste recycling by giving them an extended or a new lease of life.
The way the Welsh government has introduced a moratorium on the building of large-scale energy-for-waste plants with immediate effect is another sign that it means business.
Burning waste for energy is at least an improvement on plain incineration, but we can do far better. Here, again, the Welsh department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has embraced a cause that environmentalist groups such as Bin the Burners have already been making a case for: reduce unrecyclable waste first and then build burners only if you still need them.
Put your money where your mouth is
Working towards a circular economy doesn’t come cheap. Wales has spent £1 billion since 2000 solely on providing financial support for local authorities to improve their waste collection services.
Introducing electric waste collection vehicles or managing as many as 20 different waste streams are measures that eat into budgets. So is replacing standard 240-litre wheelie bins with considerably smaller ones, a desperate move that recycling underachiever Cardiff made in 2015 to improve residents’ waste selection habits.
The Circular Economy Fund encouraging businesses to increase their use of recycled materials in their products or packaging has been recently expanded by £3.2 million in addition to the £6.5 million granted previously.
But targets and roadmaps will go up in smoke and funds will get squandered unless the legislation underlying them is enforced. This is less of a problem in Wales, where councils are under enormous pressure to deliver – as evidenced by the above example, as Cardiff Council faces fines of up to £2 million for failing to meet statutory targets.
To shift some of this burden, councils are imposing penalties on their residents if they find their plastic collection for recycling is not up to standard due to contamination. Incurring a hefty penalty for leaving your recycling bag beside a recycling bank is not uncommon.
These sanctions might sound rather draconian and may spur the less environmentally conscious to leave Wales rather than move there. Many struggle to squeeze their non-recyclable waste into the bags provided by councils tri-weekly.
On the upside, however, those who are serious about consumer responsibility and punctilious in their shopping choices can rest assured that their efforts will eventually not be in vain.
The site myrecyclingwales, which tells visitors how much waste has been collected by a particular local council and where it ends up, is debunking the received wisdom that selective waste collection is pointless.
Those who think that the Welsh scheme entails too much citizen effort, argues Siegle – too many sticks and not enough carrots – may find inspiration in the fact that better collection means cleaner recycles, which in turn means more money for the council, which, in a good scenario, can trickle back to residents in the form of lower taxes.
The post-Brexit UK Environmental Bill 2021 sets targets and allocates funds necessary for making a greener UK a reality, which the sustainable management of post-consumer waste is an important pillar of. It also undertakes to review the developments in environmental legislation globally every two years. But taking a closer look at the regulations, best practices and mistakes of the recycling champion in its front yard could be a good example to follow.