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Government Waste Policy Is Half-Baked

Rufus Hirsch | 17.11.2014 11:42 | Climate Chaos | Ecology | Energy Crisis

The Waste Hierarchy needs enforcement or incentivisation if it’s ever really going to make a difference. Rufus Hirsch, from London-based Clearance Solutions (, talks about government policy surrounding The Waste Hierarchy, and the need for changing perspectives around its enforcement.

In my experience, the regulations ( surrounding adherence to the Waste Hierarchy are regarded as little more than a box ticking exercise.

Before I get into why this is, I should clarify that I don’t mean this as a criticism of the regulations as such. The regulations are sound; a solid first step in reducing Britain’s over dependence on landfill, but without enforcement, they lack teeth.

As Dominic Hogg points out in this earlier article (, many companies are “stating in waste transfer notes that they have fulfilled a duty which they are obviously not fulfilling”.

I agree with Hogg’s conclusions that a campaign aimed at greater clarification of a business’ duties to adhere to the Waste Hierarchy is necessary, though in my view, more needs to be done.

Enforcement Of The Waste Hierarchy Amounts To Little More Than A Promise, And Is Largely Ignored

Officially, a company is required to “take all such measures as are reasonable in the circumstances” to apply the Waste Hierarchy.

Waste must be prevented where possible either through reduction or reuse, and unavoidable waste should be preferentially recycled, or failing that, utilised as fuel for a waste-to-energy programme. Only once these options have been exhausted can disposal options be considered.

Failure to comply with these regulations can lead to prosecution and a fine.

In practice, however, these regulations have had little effect on how most businesses handle their waste.

All a company must do is obtain a waste transfer notice (whilst disposing of their rubbish as inefficiently as before) on which they state that they’ve done everything in their power to adhere to the Waste Hierarchy.

The regulations aren’t enforced by anything other than an honour system, so any dishonesty about the extent to which a business has fulfilled its duty is going to go unpunished.

Besides which, the language of the regulations is largely malleable. The “reasonable measures” required of companies is open to interpretation, and there’s an inherent problem in trying to police how hard people have tried.

As highlighted by the CBI in a 2011 report (, “waste policy… does not always enable the best environmental and economic outcome”, arguing that “an independent retailer will pay for waste disposal via business rates, with little incentive to pay additional costs to use recycle facilities”.

It goes on to point out that businesses that don’t produce particularly large amounts of recyclable materials at once would need to stockpile their recyclable waste for quite a period of time before recycling becomes the more economically viable route.

It’s not particularly difficult to argue that, for a profit-driven business, anything other than the most immediately cheap and convenient option goes beyond what constitutes “reasonable”.

Consequently, if a business doesn’t want to adhere to the Waste Hierarchy, there are plenty of ways in which it can argue that it doesn’t have to. Signing a waste transfer notice is, for many, the start and end of their efforts to comply with regulations.

But Forcing People To Obey The Regulations Is Practically Impossible; Incentives Will Have A Real Impact

Having said all this, I believe that tougher enforcement of the regulations is entirely the wrong approach.

The costly practice of funding inspections and ecological audits of companies would be a nanny-state nightmare. In all likelihood, policing would prove ineffective, and the efforts companies would go to in order to get around the regulations would only foster resentment and do little to encourage good waste management.

Even if the regulations were policed in such a way as to have limited success, enforcement of a regulation only ever encourages companies to do the bare minimum. And because of the vastly different nature of businesses, in the interest of fairness it is likely that this minimum would have to be set rather low.

For those companies that would potentially go the extra mile with a little encouragement, enforcement offers nothing.

This is why a good level of adherence to the Waste Hierarchy requires incentives, and a unified approach to incentives at that.

Voluntary schemes aimed at incentivising good waste management have a proven track record. In the report, the CBI highlights the Courtauld Commitment and the Ashdown Agreement as examples of highly successful government led, voluntary schemes.

There simply needs to be more of this happening, and for a wider variety of businesses. If there were a universal incentive to stick closer to the Waste Hierarchy, perhaps a system by which a company could earn carbon credits proportional to the emissions they’ve prevented by improving their waste management, then this would cause an immediate shift in the perception of the waste regulations. What were previously tedious fragments of bureaucracy would become targets that companies were keen to hit.

Rufus Hirsch
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