The Sustainable Development Goals impact on the resources and waste management sector

28th May 2020 Posted by

You would have thought that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were a perfect fit for a waste sector that is going through its own rapid evolution, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit us. By 2024, expected policy reforms around consistent collections, deposit return schemes and an overhaul of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are all due to be operational. Though I would argue that they aren’t as effectively aligned with the SDGs as they could be, nor that they should be, but more of that later.

The English government launched its revised Resources and Waste Strategy back in December 2018 . This was hailed as the first of its kind for more than a decade, with a raft of long-term policy agendas and revised targets. This strategy would take us beyond BREXIT and put ‘green at the heart of the economy’, in line with the UK Industrial Strategy and DEFRA’s own Green Growth Strategy.

The initial waste sector consultations were complete by June 2019, on the fundamental elements of a new uniform recycling service provision, including mandatory food waste collections from all households and businesses. The consultations also examined how a plastic tax would work to drive more recycled content in plastic bottles, and how packaging fees would be used to drive greater ‘eco-design’. This was to promote reuse and recycling, plus encourage enhanced levels of investment in necessary infrastructure, much of which would be in the UK, by 2024.

There is so much happening in the sector, all of which has been commended as being progressive, somewhat aggressive but absolutely necessary. However, if we are to move beyond a partial recycling and ultimately, a disposal based linear system, to one where materials are circulated endlessly, packaging is returned and the true value of environmental damage is recognised in the costs of products and packaging alike, why am I suggesting that this doesn’t fit well with the SDGs?

Let me explain ….

The SDGs provide a global platform for addressing and discussing the big issues facing society around the world, from hunger and poverty alleviation, to gender equality and well-being. Though it is the environment space where the alignment of our sector should work best.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Just consider how waste prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery sit against goals like [6] clean water and sanitation, [7] affordable and clean energy, [9] industry, innovation and infrastructure, [11] sustainable cities and communities, [12] responsible consumption and production, and of course [13] climate action. It doesn’t take long to make the obvious links, so why am I questioning the role of the SDGs right now?

Firstly, the current platform of UK environmental policy in a post BREXIT world, has failed to link closely to the SDGs, even if there are progress reports on the SDGs being produced and shared. Therefore, if the UK’s policy makers aren’t openly joining the dots then should we? For some large brands and corporates, the SDGs have become a central part of company’s vision and sustainable planning. However, many organisations, public and private sector alike, are not doing anywhere near enough to promote the goals or to use the language of the goals to help contextualise their ongoing policy and delivery programmes. If consumers aren’t seeing the language and iconography of the goals in the government agenda, or in the household brand activities and commercials, then are they really aware of the role SDGs could play in making things better? I fear not.

Rather than looking to link the SDGs to existing policy initiatives, let’s use the COVID-19 pandemic, and the huge swell of community positivity and open support as the launch pad for a campaign. This campaign could address any number of the SDG goals head on but perhaps as issues with solutions rather than as actions delivering against one or more of the SDGs. Recycling levels are up as the sector has responded positively to social distancing and staff absence levels to keep front line refuse and recycling collections operational. Even after a few weeks where garden waste, food waste and bulky waste collections were put on hold, the sector has bounced back and service levels are now almost back to normal. Furthermore, the household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), 99% of which were closed in week one of lockdown, have seen widespread reopening under new ‘normal’ conditions with social distancing, restricted materials, and new traffic management systems being implemented. If our sector can be this resilient, and the public can adapt during difficult circumstances, then could the new norm deliver the environmental benefit that we have seen in recent months such as reduced car journeys and emissions, local shopping and food waste reduction, among others.

If COVID-19 has done anything it has brought the waste sector to the fore as a critical service, protecting public health and the environment, whilst ensuring that communities up and down the country thank the front line staff each week with a clap, a picture, a poem. If we can maintain this heightened relationship and help consumers to transition from lockdown mentality to the new norm, where we don’t rebound to unnecessary car journeys, excessive consumerism, and a general disengagement with our local environment, then we could make huge strides towards the targets which underpin the SDGs. Who’d have thought that might be the conclusion of my post, having read the opening paragraph.

We must embrace the opportunity that this pandemic is affording us to connect the solutions the SDGs provide for many of the global challenges we face. Though not because we need the SDGs, but because their intentions remain critical to the development of today’s modern and more sustainable world.

We must make progress on many fronts, and that means ensuring we use the right terminology and language that the public, our friends and family can all get onboard with and embrace the new norms associated with these changes. Now is not the time to try and communicate issues that don’t resonate and aren’t easily comprehended. To deliver on climate change we need people to do many of the things they have been doing these last few months out of choice, rather than necessity, and that is the communication challenge facing us in the near future.

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