John F Kennedy: “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future”.
Why Environmental Protection Spending Matters
The UK has increased spending on environmental protection recently and in 2015 it was £11.7 billion, equivalent to 1.6% of total Government spending.
Environmental Protection Spending, 2010-11 to 2014-15 (£ Million)
Source: HM Treasury
UK spending on environmental protection is in line with European averages:
International Benchmarks of Public Spending on Environmental Protection, 2014 (% of GDP and % of Total Government Spend)
Spending on waste management is the most important within environmental protection:
Source: HM Treasury
It is possible to place this breakdown in an international context:
International Breakdown of Environmental Spending, 2014 (% of Total Public Spending)
Waste management costs in the UK are well above average in an EU context.
Waste collection and disposal is the third largest local Government service by spending and an essential service for local people. Council costs have been rising as they manage demand from more households, higher levels of waste, responsibility for recycling and the landfill tax.
By European standards the UK produces a low amount of domestic waste.
International Benchmarks of Municipal Waste Generated, 2014 (Kg per Capita)
Source: European Environment Agency
Under EU targets, households must recycle 50% of waste by 2020, and potentially up to 70% by 2030 (and these targets remain until the UK exits the EU). The current rate in the UK is 46%, but the UK recycling rate has stopped increasing. By international comparison the UK has a reasonably strong performance in recycling, but remains well below the levels achieved in Germany and Austria:
International Benchmarks of Municipal Waste Recycled and Compacted, 2014 (% of Waste Treated)
Source: European Environment Agency
Forward Thinking Environmental Protection Policies
The UK is better than many other European countries in creating waste and recycling. Further improvement offers benefits to the environment, economy and household budgets. Exiting the EU should not serve to lessen targets. It is often correctly said that environmental issues are international. The UK, as one of the largest economies, has a duty to be at the forefront of world standards.
Food waste, much of which is outside the scope of the statistics, can and should be cut at several levels:
An average household in the UK could save £470 a year rising to £700 for a family with children if it was taught how to stop throwing away food that it has bought. People in the UK are throwing away £12.5 billion of food every year. This is more than all public spending on environmental protection. It includes £1.1 billion or 680,000 tonnes of avoidable bakery waste according to WRAP. This needs a substantial education programme to equip people with the skills to smarter shopping and storage, and better use of leftovers. Prevention rather than cure is the best policy for food waste. The education also needs to encourage better recycling of other waste. On average, food spending could be cut by 14% just by this policy, making everyone better off.
The effect on public finances will be small, the effect on the electorate far more significant.
An even larger reduction in food waste can be achieved by tackling supply chain issues. In France measures have been announced to ban supermarkets from destroying unsold food and obligating them to give the food to charities or to put it to other uses such as animal feed. While statistics are difficult to gain, retailers and wholesalers are believed to account for an average of 5% of food waste across Europe. However, this ignores a much bigger issue: the supermarket rejection of food based on cosmetic issues. France is also tackling this issue as is Germany.
There is a need to educate the public to make ‘cosmetically challenged’ produce more acceptable. This needs to be run alongside changing retailers’ wasteful decisions. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has recently highlighted that up to 40% of farmers’ crops are rejected by supermarkets because of shape and colour. This is an unacceptable waste, and financial burden on farmers. It is not shown in statistical analysis of waste because it is not entering the food chain. It is also keeping food costs at artificially high prices. Again the effect on public finance will be small, but it will result in lower food costs and higher farm incomes.
These crops should be offered to the public at a discount because they are ‘seconds’. The public then has the chance to reduce this wastage and cut their costs.
Food processing is also a further contributor to food waste (reportedly 39% on average in Europe). The food service industry accounts for the remaining 14% of waste. Similar regulations that are being introduced for supermarkets in France need to extend to food processing and the food service industry. This will significantly reduce UK food waste.
There also needs to be wholesale changes in textile waste. It is estimated the UK consumes some 2.5-2.7 million tonnes of textiles such as clothing, linen, and carpets each year. Some 64% of these items are thrown away each year leading to disposal of 1.6 million tonnes. Estimates suggest that used clothing of a value of £140 million each year is sent to landfill. A major education and recycling initiative is needed to promote separation from other waste and consequently re-use and recycling.
Separating waste is essential for enabling the recovery of useful materials. It reduces landfill volumes and allows recyclable materials to find a new use. Companies sort and recycle them to extract value, but those in EU Member States are subject to EU rules and regulations about the environment. Even as the UK withdraws from the EU, there is no sense in changing the targets.
Priority has to be given to reducing waste; then recycling rather than landfill; and improving the purity of the recycled material. There has to be a target of zero waste to landfill. Forward Thinking would set up a waste regulator, to decide a national collection standard. This will standardise practices throughout the country. It will identify the ideal level of separation at household level.
Household waste disposal policy would have a strong emphasis on encouraging recycling and separating waste. To encourage recycling, waste that cannot be recycled would move to a pay as you throw regime. Waste collection costs are then more evenly aligned to those who create waste. Pay as you throw works in both Austria and Germany where household recycling rates are 64% and 59% respectively.
The waste regulator, with the existing waste collection and treatment companies, would also examine adopting a can and glass deposit charge, which would be refunded on return. Similar schemes run in other countries such as Germany and Norway. This would address the purity of waste glass (by separating colours) and reduce collection costs by centralising it. At the same time encouraging 100% return by the public through a financial incentive.
Responsible recycling of household waste starts with education, and this would form one part of the life skills’ curricula. Waste companies would issue each year to every household a booklet detailing which waste goes where and when collections will take place. It would detail where local public recycling points are. It would be compulsory for all supermarkets and public car parks to offer recycling points.
By EU standards, the landfill tax on commercial waste is high, but so is the amount of waste that is land filled rather than recycled. This is in contrast to municipal waste. Forward Thinking would further increase the landfill tax with a target of banning landfill at a time identified by the regulator.