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Rishi Sunak’s Seven Bins

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The dust from yesterday's speech by Rishi Sunak on net zero has yet to settle, but the implications could be wide ranging. This is especially true of a throwaway line about dustbins.

Sunak was clear: his government would scrap 'plans for households to have seven recycling bins’.

If this sounds like a point designed to gain headlines, it probably was. The threat of seven dustbins also led to a range of sceptical commentary from critics of the government who suggested that it was, well, rubbish. But for those working in the waste sector, Sunak’s speech has thrown the government’s entire strategy into doubt.

The seven bins claim has its roots in the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs’ 2018 strategy ‘Our Waste, Our Resources’. This document promised to turn the UK into ‘a world leader in using resources efficiently and reducing the amount of waste we create as a society’. It would do so, in part, by increasing the amount of waste recycled by households.

To increase recycling rates, DEFRA championed the idea of consistent collections. Put simply this meant that all councils would need to collect the same materials. These included glass, metal, plastic, paper and card, food waste, garden waste – as well as residual black bin waste.

This plan was put into law by the 2021 Environment Act. It says councils should collect different materials separately, unless they can show it is not ‘economically or technically possible’ or there is ‘no significant environmental benefit’.

There have attempts to move this policy away from methods of collection and towards a greater focus on the materials themselves. But it is easy to see how a law that says seven different items should ideally be collected separately can be presented as one requiring seven different bins.

The proposal to move to consistent collections was daring. Although local authorities have been legally required to collect waste since 1875, the powers included in the Environment Act were without precedent. As a historian of waste, I am confident that they went even further than rules requiring the ‘regular and dependable’ collection of recycling – then called salvage – during the Second World War. The only difference is that those rules were combined with rationing and a law making it illegal for households to throw recyclable waste in the dustbin.

It is not yet clear whether Sunak’s pledge to scrap this section of the Environment Act means that the waste strategy will be abandoned. That prospect has already led to warnings from various industry groups, including the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management which says ‘the description of proposed recycling schemes as ‘burdensome’ is the exact opposite of what the consistent collections policy is designed to achieve’.

To complicate matters further, DEFRA responded to Sunak’s speech by announcing that it intends to introduce a new plan – called ‘Simpler Recycling’ – that sounds essentially the same as the old one. It says that all homes in England will ‘recycle the same materials, ending the confusion and postcode lottery over what can and can’t be recycled’ and noted that ‘it was never the case that seven bins would be needed by households’.

Sunak’s decision to talk about rubbish assumes that having lots of bins is unpopular. History suggests this might be the case as the introduction of standardised metal dustbins and, later, of wheelie bins did lead to complaints, usually about a lack of space to store them.

But history also suggests that people adapt to new forms of collection. The expansion of recycling in the Second World War was helped by the increased use of communal bins. This was especially the case for food waste, which was used to feed livestock. Food waste collections grew from almost nothing in 1939 to around 400,000 tons a year in 1943. The provision of communal bins had a direct impact on the amount of food waste thrown into dustbins, which dropped to negligible proportions. The success of wartime food waste collections shows both a willingness for people to change their habits and that alternatives to individual bins are available.

There are risks when playing politics with waste, as one of Sunak’s predecessors found out. Harold Wilson was the ambitious young trade minister who decided to scrap the wartime rules forcing local authorities to recycle. He was convinced that the market for recyclable waste was well established and wanted to signal his intention to move away from war era restrictions. But he also withheld financial support from local authorities and many councils stopped recycling. This forced the UK to import some waste materials and encouraged the dominance of landfill from the 1950s.

Today UK households produce around 27 million tonnes of waste a year, with 15 million tonnes sent to incinerators or buried. With the recycling rate in England having been stuck near 45% for almost a decade something needs to change. Not much has since I first wrote an Opinion Piece on this topic for History and Policy in February 2018. At that point, I warned that it was difficult to see how the ambition to cut waste would be achieved without some sort of legal framework.

The move towards consistency raised its own questions, some of which are set out in this more detailed History and Policy paper from 2021. The key point is that history suggests we need to learn from past mistakes and properly engage with local councils and households to find solutions to one of the most tangible parts of the environmental crisis facing our planet. I remain convinced that this is true.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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