Peter Jones, principal consulant for Eunomia, says a good target is simple and responsive to the efforts of those tasked with meeting it, as he asks is there a role for carbon-based targets for recycling?
As the prospect of higher weight-based recycling targets emanating from Europe has moved from a distant possibility to an imminent reality, interest in alternatives to such targets seems to have grown. Carbon based targets lead the field of proposed alternatives.
Environment minister Therese Coffey has repeatedly said that she favours “resource-efficiency” focused targets over weight-based targets. More recently the ESA has called for the adoption of a mixture of metrics, including carbon-based targets, for different waste streams. Why?
The most widely quoted rationale for a focus on carbon is to avoid perverse incentives. Weight-based targets, it is said, lead to a focus on heavy materials that, when recycled, don’t yield very large carbon benefits – garden waste and glass being prime examples.
Certainly, some authorities recycle a lot of garden waste. In 2016/17, the council with the largest share of garden waste in its household recycling was Tonbridge and Malling: 15,498 tonnes of green waste (71.6%), compared with 6,155 tonnes of dry recycling. Green waste made up 30.4 percentage points of their household recycling rate: this was exceeded by Rochford Council, (37.9 percentage points), but better dry recycling performance meant that garden waste was a smaller share of Rochford’s recycling overall.
However, these are outliers, which can similarly be found at the other end of the scale. Across England, garden waste contributes a more modest 18.5 percentage points to the household recycling rate.
It’s worth remembering that current local authority practices are not driven by weight-based targets, as no such targets have been set for councils. Rather, they mainly result from Landfill Tax pushing up the cost of disposal.
It’s worth remembering that current local authority practices are not driven by weight-based targets, as no such targets have been set for councils. Rather, they mainly result from Landfill Tax pushing up the cost of disposal. Diverting material into reuse and recycling is a response to an economic imperative – as is the growing tendency to charge for garden waste collections, which is likely to reduce yields of this material in future.
The purpose of a target is to drive behaviour, and a poorly designed target can certainly lead to perverse reactions. Would that be the effect of weight-based targets for on councils? Luckily, we can look to Wales as a case study. There, we see a lot of evidence of increases in recycling performance, and not much indication of widespread gaming of the system. So, one wonders why there are such fears that things would be different in England.
Would a carbon emissions target be better? I’m certainly a fan of carbon metrics as a means of informing policy. Eunomia publishes the annual Carbon Recycling Index, based on the Scottish Carbon Metric, which quantifies the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions benefits of local authority recycling.
In my view, a good target is simple and responsive to the efforts of those tasked with meeting it. That isn’t always the case with emissions targets…
It’s a good means of highlighting where new incentives could be developed to encourage the collection of carbon-intensive materials when this might not otherwise be economic. However, as targets to drive individual authority behaviour, carbon measures aren’t ideal.
In my view, a good target is simple and responsive to the efforts of those tasked with meeting it. That isn’t always the case with emissions targets: the carbon footprints for materials on which they rely are complex and need to be updated regularly. If the environmental benefits of recycling a particular material changes, the effect would be to alter councils’ apparent performance in a way that is beyond their control – confusing for officers and local residents alike. Further, so long as disposal remains expensive, the incentive to recycle heavy material will remain.
I suspect there is no such thing as a perfect target. However, there seems to be scope to tailor and improve weight-based targets (e.g. by combining them with residual waste reduction targets) to avoid the perverse consequences some fear, while providing a fixed goal for those tasked with meeting them.