Pay By Wait A Minute!

CIWM Fellow and deputy chief executive, Chris Murphy, looks at the issue of pay-by-weight waste and recycling collections and the confusion that has been generated through poorly communicated messages

The primary legislation for mandatory pay-by-weight (PBW) pricing for household waste collection in Ireland was passed in July 2015 and was due to be introduced in mid-2016. However, a second set of regulations in June 2016 removed the requirement to charge on a pay-by-weight basis.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment (DCCAE) undertook to review the obstacles that hindered the planned introduction of PBW charging and the resultant referral. The final report of that review was published earlier this year and included interesting results, some particular to circumstances in Ireland and others more salutary lessons that should be applied when introducing any new scheme or policy.

Make the system as simple to understand and explain as possible; don’t change track late in the day; and, most importantly, get the right positive messages out there early and consistently.

The factors that hindered the planned introduction of the policy measure fell into three categories: the “adverse external environment”, which included the political landscape, the media and the public mood; the design of the pricing measure and how that was interpreted; and finally the (in)adequacy of the national programme of communications.

The majority of those stakeholders that responded to the question of “why was PBW not introduced as planned?” blamed the political situation in Ireland at the time; the consultants even stated that the Government is considered unstable and the politicians nervous of a volatile electorate.

There is much in the report about political expediency, negative populism and a cynical media, which paid little or no attention to the desirability of the objective of the reducing residual waste and more fairly charging waste producers, rather than them being subsidised.

These political issues are viewed as a recognition of a deeper malaise, but they are not being swept under the carpet as such, and there is a parallel recognition that policy measures should be as logical and robust as possible… and that they do not provide platforms for opposition.

Local markets also had a part to play in that some smaller operators in the Dublin area used the introduction of PBW to increase prices for those previously paying below the cost of managing the waste. This opportunism unsurprisingly resulted in vocal opposition.

This situation came about because of aggressive price competition and, despite wanting to raise prices to a sustainable level, the market worked against these operators. What added to the problem was the complexity of the policy measure.

Greater Opposition

The removal of the proposal to introduce a mandatory charge for the recycling bin added to the opposition voices. There are two schools of thought on whether to, in effect, charge for recycling.

On the one hand, a zero charge creates the impression that managing the recycling bin incurs no cost and could encourage the householder to put as much material as possible into it, whether recyclable or not. By contrast, by placing a charge on the recycling bin ensures a price differential and may increase the incentive to segregate materials better.

The report states that the media coverage almost universally concentrated on potential negative impacts, and particularly that it could result in increased costs for householders, rather than by doing the right thing (reduce waste and recycle more) householders’ could see the charge reduced.

Could this have been improved had a more positive communications programme been introduced? There are a number of reasons given for the failure of the communications including the public sector underestimating the need for education about good waste management practices; changes to the policy at a late stage; and complex design issues… they all contributed, but there was no contingency strategy that foresaw the sources of opposition and planned to counter them.

Leaving aside the circumstance peculiar to Ireland around the political situation and the confusion resulting from associating this charging measure with the ongoing furore over water charges, the report identified some lessons for us all.

Make the system as simple to understand and explain as possible; don’t change track late in the day; and, most importantly, get the right positive messages out there early and consistently.

If the communications message that PBW was aimed at achieving a desirable social aim, and that consumers could contribute to the social good while realising private gains through changing their behaviour, then maybe the outcome might have been different.

 

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