Policy should focus on societal change, not interim targets

13th May 2015 Posted by

The current pressure on recycling businesses exposed to volatility across various secondary raw material markets brings into sharp focus the disjointed strategic approach within in our industry.

In many ways, there is a temptation to think of our industry as a complex machine and politicians could, to an extent, be forgiven for struggling to identify where they could add value. However, I believe that our industry is really a simple one that we only make complicated – either through lack of consistent data, niche agendas or other factors which result in external messaging that often appears confused, disjointed or contradictory.

Take producer-responsibility for instance. The choices made in production, consumption and how the resultant waste is treated all have a major influence on waste arisings, so getting society at large to understand the impacts of the choices it makes is essential to resource-efficiency.

Once society at large understands this, demand should naturally stimulate sales of more sustainable products and materials, at least among a certain percentage of society.  If we were to then introduce simple metrics to inform consumers and purchasers about the sustainability of their products, alongside financial incentives (through VAT differentials or other), we could have a real and sustained positive impact, by creating the ‘pull’ mechanisms desperately required to match the currently unbalanced ‘push’ mechanism  of recycling and recycling targets.

Although this will never fully decouple the recycling and remanufacture market from other market influences, we can create conditions which foster and promote, and therefore provide, some insulation or moderation from global market movements.

Waste prevention should take priority above waste recycling, but while changes to product design, as well as social and cultural changes, are being introduced we will need interim solutions.

Our industry needs to have the confidence to challenge and inspire policy-makers, so that interim solutions are presented within the context of a longer term goals. It is also imperative that those interim solutions are clearly and honestly communicated. To use a deliberately provocative example to reinforce this point, one could argue that litter picking is, in effect, an interim solution while the social, cultural and structural changes are made to prevent litter in the first place.

Politicians should be considering true multi-generational and long term policy goals for social change (ultimately envisioning where we want to be as a society) and should then determine what interim stages are required to make that long-term change – communicating them as such.

Having shorter term goals is fine when set against a true long term policy, but in its absence we risk delivery in an ad hoc manner, confused communication which fails to deliver wide-scale understanding, and worse of all, trust lost through confused or misplaced short term goals.

Again, to provide a provocative argument to reinforce this point, do we really want a policy which encourages us, as a society, to recycle 70 per cent as an end goal? Would it not be more desirable, in accordance with the waste hierarchy, to limit resource wastage and adopt an interim target of, say, no more than 30 per cent resource wastage as our goal? I am not convinced that our aspiration should be to push more materials into the recycling bin, when we could avoid the waste in the first place.

Placing recycling targets, push and pull mechanisms and wider market considerations into a long term policy environment means we can all see the context of the targets and deliver accordingly.

We don’t want to build temporary markets and infrastructure to make use of the materials which would arise from having a 70 per cent recycling target, only then to be faced with a subsequent policy push designed to minimise waste arisings – that would undermine the previous markets and lead to overcapacity and, at worst, unviable businesses.

Knowing in advance that a recycling target, whether 50 per cent or 70 per cent, is actually an interim step to creating a society with less than 30 per cent wastage (and then 20 per cent etc), would inevitably have an impact on long-term business or investment decisions – i.e. investment in new facilities.

When considered against the need for a multi-generational policy environment focussed on the long-term social good, I am not convinced that current or emerging policy is actually any more than another set of interim goals.


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