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Nick Herbert: We must build a more resource efficient economy

We should be in no doubt that becoming more resource efficient matters to us all. 

First, we need to consider the pressure on our planet's finite resources.  With the world's population predicted to rise from 6 to 9 billion by 2050, this pressure will grow.  The age of blind exploitation of resources must be brought to an end, and their sustainable use will become an imperative.

Second, resource efficiency can play an important role in helping the UK to meet our climate change targets.  WRAP published a study before Christmas that showed that by pursing policies such as reducing food waste and building sustainably with recovered materials, resource efficiency could contribute up to 10 per cent of the reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions we need to make in the UK by 2020.

Third, as resources become more scarce, it will make increasing economic sense to conserve them.  Using our resources more efficiently can bring significant financial benefits to businesses, local authorities and consumers. 

This is something that has always been understood by good businesses, with those who use their resources efficiently proving more successful than those who are wasteful, but research has showed that UK companies could save over £6 billion a year by making better use of their resources.  Similarly, 8.3 million tonnes of food is currently being thrown away by households in the UK every year, costing the average family with children £680 a year.

So the case for resource efficiency is not just an environmental one, important thought that is; it is economic, too - and with the economy still yet to emerge out of recession, this has clear and present benefits for businesses and consumers.

But if the case for making Britain more resource efficient is strong, as a nation we have been slow to see it.

We send more waste to landfill than any other EU country, dumping nearly 20 million tonnes of rubbish in the ground.  Germany, by comparison, landfills less than half a million tonnes - an extraordinary difference in scale.
 
As many of us work off our Christmas credit card bills and weight gains, we could reflect that, with half of all municipal waste still ending up in landfill, around the equivalent of 8 million Christmas meals will have been dumped in landfill sites over the festive period. 

We are increasingly aware of the environmental damage which landfill causes due to the production of methane, which is about 20 times more damaging to the planet than CO2.  Yet we are still dependent on this careless form of waste disposal.   And this begs the question: why aren't we performing better?  Why are we still wasting waste?

<h3>Why aren't we performing better?</h3>

First, for too long, landfill was simply the easy and the cheap option, meaning that we literally buried the problem, rather than acting to use our resources more sustainably.  In the year 2000, our municipal recycling rate was only just above 10 per cent; a decade later it's now at 37 per cent - a welcome increase, but still far below other nations such as Austria who manage to recycle almost 60 per cent of their waste.

Second, Government was slow to respond.  Defra has been taken to task for failing to act swiftly to the challenges presented by the 1999 Landfill Directive.  In 2007, the Public Accounts Committee charged the Department with taking no "effective action" before 2003.  Last year the National Audit Office said that prior to 2003 Defra did not have "practical plans" to reduce the nation's reliance on landfill.  This failure meant that the market for alternative waste infrastructure was slow to develop.  Of course, the failure of Government to set a clear lead means that we could miss our Landfill Directive targets.  And this would result in a large fine from Brussels and higher council tax rates for taxpayers.

Third, we have tended to rely on an approach where the consumer sees too little of the benefit of better waste disposal and too much of the cost.  Whereas communities should be seeing the value of reducing dependency on landfill, they can see new facilities as a threat.  And an approach which appears to be going down the route of penalising households who have already been clobbered with higher council tax bills is bound to fail.  Here in this conference, we all see a huge up-side in changing the way we dispose of waste.  But often we've failed to translate that vision or offer a share of that up-side to local people.

Fourth, we face institutional barriers to easy delivery of improved performance.   Multiple local authorities have differing approaches to waste collection and disposal.  The commercial and municipal waste streams are separate.  I know that many waste companies find dealing with this reality testing.

But perhaps most importantly, the main reason as to why our performance still lags behind our EU peers is the fact that as a country we've simply lacked the necessary ambition and political will to do better.  I appreciate that the Government has recently echoed our call to aspire to zero waste, and this is welcome.  But this has to be backed up with strong leadership and clear and ambitious plans on how we're going to get there. 

Currently, the Government still plans to send a quarter of our household waste to landfill in 10 years' time.   As the Efra Committee report says today, the targets for recycling are insufficiently ambitious, and the Government's waste strategy focuses disproportionately on domestic waste, which is a relatively small portion of the waste stream.  If we truly want to green our economy, and make the most efficient use of our resources, we need to recognise that the current rate of progress is too slow.

So how do we move forward towards turning Britain into a resource efficient economy by 2020?

<h3>1.  A greater government ambition</h3>

First, we need a signal of intent from the top.  Government must show a far greater ambition to deal with our waste in a more sustainable way and drive change harder. 

Other places around the world are showing what's possible when politicians exhibit leadership.  Kamikatsu in Japan has a Zero Waste Declaration: and they have already achieved household recycling rates of around 80 per cent.  San Francisco is another good example.  The city intends to have three quarters of its waste diverted from landfill by 2010 and zero waste to landfill by 2020.  Currently, they have a recycling rate of 67 per cent of all wastes, which includes commercial and industrial waste.

So that's why I announced last year that we needed to have a higher ambition: with the exception of residual, inert waste from which materials and energy cannot be recovered, we should eliminate landfill altogether. 

<h3>2.  Setting the right fiscal framework</h3>

This is certainly a challenging goal, but we can meet it.  So, second, government must match the ambition with a strong signal that fiscal and other policy instruments will be deployed to achieve it.  We need a fiscal regime that encourages the most environmentally friendly methods of waste disposal - in accordance with the waste hierarchy.  That's why I've already made the commitment that a future Conservative Government will put a floor under the 2013 level of landfill tax at £72 per tonne until 2020.  I'm pleased that the Efra Committee has recommended this in its report today.   And let me say that our commitment is for a floor under the tax, not a ceiling.

This approach will give businesses certainty for the next decade, as well as sending a strong message to companies that they can invest in new forms of waste disposal - using technology that we know already exists - with confidence.

<h3>3.  Following the waste hierarchy </h3>

Third, this framework should also guarantee that waste is driven as far up the waste hierarchy as possible.  We cannot simply focus upon increasing recycling without seeking to cut waste production in the first place.  We must not lose sight of the importance of reducing waste and re-using materials as far as possible.  Indeed, I think we hear too little about waste minimisation.

But waste cannot be regulated out of existence.  Instead we believe that we need to pursue an innovative approach that doesn't rely on the blunt instrument of regulation alone - although of course some regulation has a place - and moves towards the greater use of more voluntary agreements of the kind which can be seen in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. 

Here in the UK, most of the large retailers signed up to the Courtauld Commitment in 2005.  Encouragingly by 2008, it produced zero growth in packaging, despite a rise in sale volumes.  With the first Courtauld agreement due to expire this year, it's important that the positive progress of the first Commitment is built upon with its successor agreement, which needs to focus higher up the packaging supply chain.

<h3>4.  Driving up recycling</h3>

Fourth, we need to drive up rates of recycling.  I believe that will mean strengthening  the incentives to ensure that we are taking the public with us rather than turning them off from going green. 

Many people want to recycle.  Over 90 per cent of people say recycling is very or fairly important to them and nearly two thirds say they recycle even if it requires additional effort.  And yet still our recycling rates are too low, and performance varies considerably between local authorities.  So we need to find ways to encourage others to become committed recyclers, too.

Last September I visited the Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to see the Recyclebank trial - where the public is being paid to recycle - at first hand.  The results have been just as impressive as those achieved by the scheme in the United States.  Recycling rates in the Borough have risen by 30 per cent and the average household is set to be given £130 in vouchers.

I believe that we need to think far more creatively about how to reward consumers for doing the right thing and enable them to share in the value of the materials and energy which we can unlock from waste.

<h3>5.  Generating energy from waste</h3>

Fifth, for materials that cannot be recycled or re-used we need to do far more to capture the benefits of energy from waste through technologies such as Anaerobic Digestion (AD).  AD has huge potential: National Grid has predicted that biogas production could meet almost half of residential demand.  As we face challenging renewable energy targets, this is an attractive proposal.

Our Low Carbon Economy paper has shown how we would enable biogas produced from farm and food wastes to replace up to half of residential gas heating by changing the regulatory regime for the gas grid and introducing 'feed-in tariffs'.  But while Germany already has over AD 2,500 plants we have fewer than 30.  More are now coming on stream, but we need to move faster to harness this beneficial technology.

It's important, as the Efra Committee says today, that "waste should only be used for energy recovery if it is not possible to re-use recycle or compost it."  So we need to ensure that policy instruments, and the fiscal framework, reflect the waste hierarchy.   But it's also important to appreciate that re-use or recycling is only practical if there is a market for the materials.  Recycling is a near-religion to many of us, but we need to ensure that what we are doing makes environmental and economic sense, and isn't just an article of faith.

<h3>6.  Acting on commercial and industrial waste</h3>

Sixth, we need to address commercial and industrial waste (C&I) to ensure that it is not neglected at the expense of municipal waste.

Currently, local authorities have a duty to provide a trade waste collection.  This does not extend to the provision of a recycling service.  Yet a lot of this waste is similar to municipal and could be recycled or have energy recovered from it. 

C&I waste forms a quarter of all waste compared to municipal's 9 per cent.  Yet as the Efra Committee report notes, there is an absence of firm targets on C&I.

We need to think holistically about how we address both sources of waste.  We can't uninvent local government structures, and the reality is that there are separate waste streams.  So the challenge is to find new and effective forms of local partnership and facilitate the market in alternative forms of waste disposal.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

Delivering better performance on waste should not be hard.  The technology is there.  But it requires Ministers to set the right fiscal framework, make policy decisions in accordance with the waste hierarchy, act on C&I waste, get the incentives right, and above all make sure that government has the ambition to do better. 

The Mayor of London's vision for the capital's waste, published yesterday, calls for "London to become a world leader in waste management, utilising innovative techniques and technologies to minimise the impact of waste on our environment and to fully exploit its massive economic value".

We need government to have the same vision:

To set the nation's sights on achieving zero waste ...

Minimise the waste we produce ...

Reuse and recycle what we can ...

Generate energy from what we cannot reclaim ...

And end our reliance on landfill altogether.

Sometimes we've seen waste as a problem and a cost.

Instead we should see waste as a potential resource, and resource efficiency as making economic good sense.

Fulfilling the ambition of zero waste will see a flourishing of new technology ...

And help towards our goals of de-carbonising the economy and generating more energy from renewable sources.

This is a vision of a good future for our country ...

Living within our environmental means ...

Building a more resource efficient economy ...

Transforming the elusive principle of sustainability into reality ...

And creating a cleaner, greener society for us all.

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