David Warren, Head of Circular Economy Policy Development at the Welsh Government outlines the drivers behind the nation’s impressive waste performance and its ambitions to be a zero waste nation by 2050.
The creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 was the starting point for the move to take a Welsh specific direction in waste policy for greater environmental, economic and societal benefit.
Focussing on a long-term outlook adopted by the Welsh Government, Wales has moved from a recycling rate of around 5 per cent in 1999 to being a global leader in recycling today, with a recycling rate of 63 per cent.
“The Government of Wales Act 1998 saw Wales become one of the few countries in the World to enshrine a legal duty relating to sustainable development into its activities. The principle of sustainable development was embodied into legislation and is key to everything that we do,” says Warren.
Their legislation has been underpinned by a series of effective national strategies including: Wise About Waste in 2002; Towards Zero Waste in 2010; and a Natural Resources Policy in 2017. Furthermore, in 2015, the Government introduced the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which aimed to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.
Warren explains: “The Act outlined our overarching well-being goals, such as developing cohesive communities, creating a prosperous and equal country and moving towards a globally responsible Wales. It underpinned these actions that we have to demonstrate in the way we work such as collaboration and integrating our policies.
“One of the objectives is that we foster conditions for sustainable economic development and a low-carbon, resource efficient economy. This is a basis for our journey to be a zero-waste nation by 2050.”
As Warren states, the ability to deliver on this ambitious framework has seen Wales succeeding in a global context, with recent research placing Wales at third in the world in terms of its household waste recycling rate. Key to this achievement, he explains, is the move by Wales to be the only nation within the UK to introduce statutory local authority targets for waste recycling, ensuring it now exceeds the EU target to have a household waste recycling rate of 50 per cent by 2020.
Given Wales’ performance and ambition context, Warren says that whilst the EU Circular Economy package sets out a 65 per cent recycling target by 2035, Wales is aiming to reach 70 per cent by 2025.
The Head of Circular Economy Policy Development believes that strong government influence and control over waste has ensured a positive emphasis on translating strategy into delivery. This has seen strategy supported by strong investment in delivery, underpinned by an ambitious infrastructure investment programme established in 2008.
Pointing to the some specific examples including the introduction of a ‘trolibocs’ kerbside recycling scheme in Conwy, which was supported by investment in recovery infrastructure, he outlines that the change not only doubled the amount of recycling capacity in the area but during the trial user feedback showed 97 per cent approval.
“What I am trying to highlight is that we have integrated policy and investment. We have targeted waste collected by local authorities because we realise that that is where we possess a high level of Government leverage and so we could set targets and then put these into law. We underpinned this with an aim to improve the use of secondary materials produced as a result of recycling, moving towards a more circular economy.”
Warren explains that over £450 million of new infrastructure has been delivered as part of developing collaboration between local authorities and private companies since 2008. This has included five anaerobic digestion facilities and two energy from waste plants, for the treatment of food waste and residual waste respectively.
“Those investments have made a big contribution to the production of renewable energy in Wales, generating around 7 per cent of domestic electricity use. It’s also had the economic benefit of creating over 1,000 jobs,” he adds.
Recognising local authorities as agents for delivering change, the Government has developed a model for sustainable waste management in the form of its Collections Blueprint. Key features of the blueprint include kerbside sort recycling, the separate collection and management of food waste and use of single pass resource recovery vehicles. In supporting local authorities to develop sustainable collection methods, the Welsh Government also partners with WRAP Cymru, which provide business planning, modelling, operational management and materials marketing.
Warren highlights recent work in Merthyr Tydfil, a town in the South Wales Valleys, as a good example of how support to local authorities has had a beneficial impact. Recognising that 26 per cent of the town’s residual waste was food, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council was supported to adopt kerbside sorting and the provision of free food waste bins and liners, which previously residents were charged to access. The shift saw a 60 per cent increase in food waste collection and overall changes introduced by the Council recognised a £1 million reduction in waste collection costs in 2015.
He points to the Collaborative Change Programme as a key facet of Wales continuing to be ambitious in its waste strategy going forward. Like the previous example of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, the programme provides for strategic and technical support to local authorities.
“We have targeted waste collected by local authorities because we realise that that is where we possess a high level of Government leverage and so we could set targets and then put these into law.”
“The programme is also doing much more. While it does help local authorities achieve targets, it also supports the active sharing of good ideas and practices, which can improve efficiency in terms of cost reduction and improve performance. These relationships and innovations will help shape a new collections blueprint which we hope to consult on next year. A blueprint in which we are hoping to continue our drive towards a zero waste circular economy.”
Warren notes that the programme has also allowed for evidence gathering and the collection of valuable data which can be utilised going forward. He is quick to point out that the Government is working to guard against complacency in its performance going forward.
“A study by SUEZ found that in 2015-16, the total spent on waste services by local authorities was at its lowest level since 2009-10 but that during that same period, the recycling rate increased from 41 per cent to 60 per cent. We recognise that higher recycling can contribute to lower service costs as long as the right services are introduced. At the same time, research shows that only around 9.1 per cent of our waste goes to landfill, we should continue to invest further in reprocessing activity.”
The economic importance and further potential of better waste management was recognised by Wales’ recent Economic Action Plan, which includes the circular economy as a bedrock. For example, a core element of the plan was the inclusion of a new economic contract between government and business. Businesses seeking support from the Welsh Government will be required to agree to this contract which includes important aspects such as reducing carbon footprint and resource efficiency.
Recognising that going forward Wales is facing a number of significant challenges concerning the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics, in 2018 WRAP Cymru published ‘Towards a Route Map for Plastic Recycling: Creating Circularity for Plastics in Wales’, which sets out a plan for the forthcoming plastics route map for the country.
The roadmap will contribute to a new revised Waste Strategy and a new circular economy route map set to be consulted on in 2019.
Warren adds: “The strategy will focus on realising the benefits for Wales being a more circular economy in a higher reuse and recycling society. Next year, WRAP Cymru will launch a £6.5 million fund to support businesses in innovating and support working towards more circular plastics in Wales.
In conclusion, he says: “After 20 years, Wales is now a high-recycling society, with high-quality waste collection, well-developed reprocessing infrastructure and a worldwide reputation for achievement. We have aligned strategy and vision with significant investment and the result has been impressive.”