Recycling: Welsh government and councils split on improvements

The Wales Audit Office says government and local councils can't agree on how best to collect waste

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The Welsh government has not convinced some local councils about its plans for collecting recycling, the public spending watchdog says.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) said there were "substantial barriers" to raising recycling rates.

In a report, it said more people were recycling but there was disagreement between government and some councils about the best way to collect it.

Councils said they would continue to work with the Welsh government.

Meanwhile, the Welsh government said Wales had the highest recycling rate in the UK.

The government wants different types of waste to be separated on the kerbside when collected.

It dislikes co-mingling waste - such as collecting bottles, cans and card in the same bags - but some councils and private sector companies disagree, saying modern machinery can sort the waste mechanically.

The report says the government "has not yet convinced all local authorities that its plans for collection of recyclable wastes are appropriate or practicable".

Some councils fear the government will cut funding or use legislation to direct them to use the methods of recycling it approves.

Waste collected by local authorities makes up about 5% of Wales' ecological footprint.

Start Quote

Councils and government must work together to build agreement around the best methods of collecting waste”

End Quote Huw Vaughan Thomas Auditor General for Wales

Improving waste management will have a "comparatively small" impact on climate change, the WAO says, but it adds that there are good reasons to manage waste more effectively. It cites encouraging the public to recycle as a way to help embed the importance of "good environmental behaviour".

Targets

The WAO says councils are "fixated on recycling targets and do not clearly recognise their role in reducing waste".

Every council has been set an annual landfill allowance for biodegradable waste and will face fines if it exceeds its limit.

In turn, the government could be penalised if the UK misses EU targets.

Under a strategy published in June 2010, councils have been set a recycling target of 70% to be met by 2024-25.

Recycling rates have risen steadily, hitting 43.6% last year.

Wales Audit Office recommendations

  • Councils and the government should work together on an independent performance assessment for kerbside recycling collection.
  • Analysis of the recycling and composting rates for councils to find out if there is a difference in the performance of urban, valley and rural authorities.
  • The government should set up a system for sharing best practice between councils.
  • Performance indicators to measure public participation in recycling.
  • The government and councils should work more closely with the private sector and steer it towards more sustainable methods of recycling.

Auditor General Huw Vaughan Thomas said: "It is clear that the public are engaging more in recycling waste, and the Welsh government and local authorities should be commended for their efforts over the last six years to encourage this.

"But the momentum will be lost unless there is significant change in some areas.

"We need to see better guidance from Welsh government. Local authorities should get smarter in the way they collect data.

"And, most importantly, councils and government must work together to build agreement around the best methods of collecting waste."

A Welsh government spokesperson said: "It is too early for the government to respond fully to this report, as it has just been issued.

"Wales leads the way with the highest recycling rate of any UK country. Latest figures show that between July and September 2011 the people of Wales recycled a record breaking 49% of their waste.

"The key thing now is that we continue to build on our recycling success so that we meet our challenging targets of 70% recycling by 2025 and zero waste by 2050. Recycling creates significantly more jobs than burying or burning waste."

Best practice

ANALYSIS by Arwyn Jones, BBC Wales political reporter

When you first read the report, it's quite a positive response, but where the auditors had spoken to councils a different picture emerges.

The councils feel the Welsh government is too prescriptive in how it communicates and that's left some local authorities confused and disengaged.

Also the councils feel national plans don't consider local circumstances enough and there's a concern that councils and government don't even agree how best to collect waste for recycling.

The report says there needs to be a lot more cooperation between councils and government - they also have to work more closely with private business who can advise them on the best way forward.

There's a recommendation that the government should look at penalising people if they don't recycle, but that should be a last resort.

The Auditor General says recycling is all well and good, but if you want to reach a 'no waste' target by 2050, much more needs to be done so that we all create less waste in the first place.

This isn't happening because he says councils are too fixated on recycling targets rather than getting us all to be a little bit more frugal.

Darren Millar, chairman of the assembly's public accounts committee, said a trend for more recycling looks set to stall.

He said: "It cannot be sensible to have 22 different schemes operating separately within Wales.

"At the moment, there is too much disagreement around what is such a fundamental key to the long term success of recycling in Wales."

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said it welcomed the report, acknowledging the progress local councils were making.

But it also insisted that councils were sharing best practice.

Tim Peppin, the WLGA's director of regeneration and sustainable development, said: "We are working very effectively with the Welsh government towards the targets.

"We're not saying that there aren't tensions and disagreements over some of the issues from time to time.

"But the Welsh government has stood back from what was starting to look like a prescriptive approach and we've worked through that together."

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