Cllr Jane MacBean is a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and is a member of the Community, Assets, Recreation and Environment Committee.
Forcing residents to sort their household waste into seven different bins is generally agreed to be madness. But seizing the opportunity to increase recycling rates is not and Government policy needs to forge ahead with much-needed reform.
Recycling is an environmental goal all conservatives can agree on as the principles of cutting waste and increasing efficiencies are wholeheartedly our domain. This enthusiasm is shared by voters and my residents in Buckinghamshire recognise the benefits of recycling and wear their metaphorical badge of “recycler” with pride.
Recycling saves money and energy, cuts carbon emissions, and conserves precious resources. Increasing recycling rates reduces our need for landfill and incineration and protects our natural environment in the process.
Despite its many benefits and the public’s overwhelming enthusiasm for action, England’s recycling rates have stagnated at around 44 per cent for several years now. Our current lack of one recognised system means there are hundreds of variations in waste rules and delivery frameworks across the country.
Our goal of 65 per cent of waste being recycled by 2035 is achievable, but reform of our many and unnecessarily confusing systems is a must. A fundamental first step is deciding what materials should be collected from the kerbside by local authorities and how. Clarity for residents over what materials can be recycled, and standardisation whether you are in Buckinghamshire or Blackpool, is a vital first step.
But we do not need seven separate bins to do this. Buckinghamshire Council operates a four-bin system, two wheelies and two boxes with lids, with an optional paid-for third wheelie bin for garden waste. We began green waste collection in the Noughties as a Government-funded initiative. A decade later paper, glass, and plastic kerbside collections were rolled out by Chiltern and South Bucks District councils with the system implemented across the entire county when we became a Unitary authority in 2020. It is a practical and sensible set up that allowed us to remove messy large-scale bottle banks from public car parks that were little more than expensive fly-tipping magnets, manage clutter in front gardens and driveways, and become one of the top 100 councils in England for recycling.
What works in Buckinghamshire does not necessarily work in Bradford and local authorities are best placed to decide the optimum scheme that fits their local street scenes. Any reform should not be an opportunity for state overreach, and mountains of discarded wheelie bins through narrowly dictated Government specification would be unfortunate. What we do need is consistency across the country around what materials can be recycled, clear labelling on products, and freedom for councils to decide their optimum collection regime.
Undeniably, reform will bring major change to operational processes for some councils, and some will struggle more with change than others. Apartment blocks can pose difficulties, but nothing insurmountable, as can the challenge of more rural, geographically spread communities. However, the Government can highlight existing exemplar services and provide advice and resources to enable every council to deliver reform.
Councils now have greater ambitions in delivering their environmental objectives, but there is always the matter of cost to consider. Waste vehicle fleets need to be acquired and maintained, and established services like ours are now working to replace ageing vehicles with electric alternatives. The Government has previously promised to financially support councils to introduce new systems including weekly food waste collection, and that Government support has the potential to be transformational.
Ensuring recycling rules are the same across England is only part of the solution; we also need more packaging to be recyclable in the first place. The current system can cause unnecessary confusion for residents who want to do the right thing. Nobody is confident about what can be recycled and, as a result, no single recycling label effectively informs how or what to recycle with any clarity.
The other part of this puzzle is the Government’s extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging. By making them responsible for the waste they produce, the scheme is supposed to incentivise packaging producers to use packaging that can be recycled. This is bolstered by different fees for different levels of packaging recyclability. Hidden within the scheme is also a requirement for packaging to contain a label clearly indicating “recycle” or “do not recycle”. This will do wonders for informing consumers who often face a barrage of confusing recycling-related labels on their packaging.
However, the Government recently announced a delay to this scheme. These reforms have been in the works since 2018 and with each new delay our aim to create a more resource efficient economy moves further away. The outstanding issues need to be resolved and the Government must play the leading role. Removing these reforms from civil service control and transferring responsibility to private business has the potential to accelerate progress. And here’s a novel idea; let’s mandate business to drastically reduce and eradicate packaging altogether!
A compulsory seven bin per household policy would represent a waste of precious political capital at a time when we need to spend it wisely and is wholly unnecessary. But improvements and standardisation to our existing recycling systems are needed and wanted. With the right support and practical framework, I’m confident all councils can and will rise to this challenge.