This time of year, usually brings a period of reflection and a look back on what has gone on. With the publication today of the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee (EAC) in to single use packaging it is clear to me that 2017 was the year of DRS and the time that it became an unstoppable force of nature. It is also clear that there has been a massive shift in our industry and the national media ultimately set the agenda for us.
The push for DRS has in effect come from two main standpoints, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall programmes on coffee cups and the Blue Planet series highlighting the ocean plastics. This has galvanised the public like nothing we have been able to do as an industry (well we don’t have access to the media on such a grand scale) and created a backlash against plastic and packaging.
It would be interesting to see how many of these outraged people demanding action take things to its next logical step and stop buying products in plastic bottles or paper coffee cups.
No, I don’t think they have gone or will go that far either and herein lies the problem – it is easy for an individual to blame the retailer, the brand, the producer and the council and still not see their own responsibility - As Rag'n'Bone Man so elegantly says in his excellent song 'Human' - 'Don't put the blame on me'.
Surveys show that 93% of people believe recycling is important, and there are other such stats as that, which is great and would have seemed highly improbably when I first started in my career. So, people know they should think it is important, but this feeling slips somewhat when it comes to ‘action’. We don’t change our shopping habits to minimise waste or maximise recycling and we don’t use the recycling systems we have when it comes to disposing of something. Recycling simply isn’t ‘crucial’ enough to people.
The other thing I dwell on is a fundamental shift is in the industry itself.
We have never have had true producer responsibility in the UK but that has not stopped producers becoming the dominant force when it comes to resource management. When I started my career, I worked in the waste industry and we were separate from producers and each ploughed their own path. As EU legislation gradually brought the concept of producer responsibility in though, the two areas started to meld together - to the point now where, in reality, the waste industry has become part of the producer industry.
That means we are part of a much bigger pond indeed, but, it must be said, a much less significant part.
Producers are in the business of selling things, maximising profit and shareholder returns and engaging with consumers. Most of the bits that we pick up from households are the bits that protect and deliver what they sell or are the bits they sell that are old and need replacing with new stuff.
Whilst there is lots of well-meaning talk about ‘engaging with all parts of the chain and ‘working together on resource efficiency’ it feels like ultimately it is the producers that hold the power and the waste industry will ultimately fall in line with their views.
The advent of producer responsibility legislation means that while they are not yet truly responsible they are looking at it. This is why you have producers and retailers looking at take back schemes and even considering household collections.
Which makes you wander, in another twenty years’ time what will local authority involvement in waste and recycling be?
Until we do then LARAC will continue to work hard for you our local authority members and represent you and your interests as best we can. The fact the EAC report quotes my “producer responsibility in the UK doesn’t pass the Ronseal test” shows that people are listening and that we are making a difference, however small or large that difference may turn out to be. Like Rag'n'Bone Man - we're only human after, all - but we will keep plugging away.