Wasting a chance on waste

by | 20 Feb 2023

It is precisely because I am in complete support with the Deposit Return Scheme that the wearyingly familiar warnings of chaos are a reason to make sure this policy is properly implemented

First published by Common Weal

At lunch I go out for a brisk walk (getting rid of some Christmas podge…). Which means that every day I reaffirm my belief that there should be a little corner of hell set aside for people who litter (and seriously, special measures with very hot pokers for fly tippers).

It breaks my spirit every day to see the Red Bull cans strewn all over the roadside, plastic bottles filled with truck-driver urine, broken budget vodka bottles, plastic bags filled with god-knows-what, an old CD here, a pair of manky jeans there. Who do the people throwing this stuff out their window think is picking all this up? Why on earth don’t they just take it home? They’re in a vehicle for god’s sake.

It is therefore with the opposite of ill will that I approach the Deposit Return Scheme we are assured is on track for a 15 August launch. It all makes perfect sense to me – forget my environmentalism, I’m from the generation of kids who could make decent money scouring the roadsides for Barr’s bottles and their 10p bounty.

There is therefore something grindingly depressing (but utterly predictable) about the appearances that this Scottish Government initiative is going badly. I should emphasise at this point that I have not followed the development of this policy as much as I have others. 

That means I’m not really able to take a decisive view about whether the many critics are right (and no, it’s not just the drinks or retail sector who are unhappy) or whether Lorna Slater is right that this is all game-playing and things are not only in good order but are progressing steadily and as planned.

But there are signs. The first is the fact that the course of developments up to here has been pretty shambolic, with the repeated delaying of the measures and multiple deadlines missed. It isn’t helped by the fact that there really does appear to be very little financial information available to firms who are being asked to sign up.

The fact that there seems to be a lot of confusion over even basic elements of this scheme (like the effective deadline for businesses to sign up being unclear with text on timescales changed at the last minute). And personally I have been a very long way from impressed with Lorna Slater from what I’ve seen so far and that doesn’t improve my confidence.

There should be no reason this scheme can’t work. In fact there are a number of countries in Europe who have implemented similar schemes successfully. And that is another reason I don’t have a lot of confidence in Slater’s confidence – the Scottish Government simply failed to try and learn lessons from these other countries.

It was really quite remarkable to discover that the Scottish Government had done no research at all on the implementation of the same policy in other countries. Remarkable and inexplicable. If you don’t take time to look at how others have dealt with the complex issues around a scheme like this you’re going in blind.

Every day I reaffirm my belief that there should be a little corner of hell set aside for people who litter

For those of you who don’t get involved with the way the Scottish Government (largely civil service) goes about the business of designing new schemes you may wonder why they have such a track record of going wrong. But if you have been involved it makes perfect sense.

When the Scottish Government sets up a project team it looks as if it has been created as a spoof of turn-of-the-millennium consultancy gobbledygook. There are project implementation plans which barely seem to be written in English. The maps of the project teams are labyrinthine and seem to be populated with job roles the only purpose of which is to manage the excess admin that these weird project plan diagrams generate.

The work is broken up into further inexplicable parcels and outsourced to private sector consultancies, seemingly the only other section of the population who understands what any of this stuff means. Procurement contracts go out for bits of work which appear to be never-ending trees of implementation plans for implementation plans.

It’s like a strange piece of improvisational theatre but rather than each contribution ending with ‘and then…’ to prompt the next actor to improvise, every consultancy report creates the need for a new one. It’s almost as if this is a whole process of creating lucrative work for consultancies based on never quite coming to a conclusion. It’s most certainly a lucrative business for the sprawling civil service project team, all on very generous salaries.

You could possibly justify all of this if the outcome was effective delivery – but it is anything but. This civil-service-as-designed-by-MC-Escher approach is producing a quite startling number of abject failures. Simple, basic co-design based on a careful assessment of the implementation of the scheme elsewhere doesn’t seem to be something the civil service ever considers.

So on the one hand lots of these failures seem to be to be administrative failures. Perfectly good ideas that everyone else manages to implement crumble like dust in Scotland. There is a very good reason indeed why Dominic Cummings wanted to drive private consultancy out of Whitehall – he had the confidence to realise that it’s very much the Emperor’s New Clothes of effective policy design.

But it is far from the case that this problem is only administrative; there are political failures too. One of the reasons for these top-heavy consultancy processes is that the Scottish Government has an awful tendency to announce a policy and only subsequently think through its implications.

Another is that the Scottish Government has totally absorbed the ideology of the consultancy sector. It was to a very surprised audience of circular economy experts and campaigners that Lorna Slater announced that the circular economy was a purely private sector issue to be led mainly by big corporates.

Then again, that has been Zero Waste Scotland’s approach too. Public solutions to the circular economy are not pursued if there is a corporation that they can nudge to ‘do it instead’. Communities are nowhere in this vision.

A genuine circular economy strategy would be looking at every stage in the waste process, from initial production through to the end-of-life in a landfill site

This is a fundamental mistake, a mistake that is the final reason why I do not have the confidence that this is going well. Because the Scottish Government’s approach to waste (as with a lot of the policy areas it deals with) is to avoid a systemic analysis of the problem and instead to ‘tack on’ new initiatives to compensate for systemic failures.

Returning bottles for recycling is a waste management issue. It sits inside a wider framework of waste management (and indeed resource management). It needs a systemic understanding of what it is that you want to achieve and why it is that that isn’t happening. 

A genuine circular economy strategy would be looking at every stage in the waste process – from initial production through to the end-of-life in a landfill site – and working out why the system is producing so much waste. That would give you a structural plan for addressing our relationship to waste.

Let me give you some examples – dropping most of the cost and burden of reducing waste onto the consumer (that, fundamentally, is what this scheme does) lets the producer off the hook. What about producer responsibility levies (where the producer is responsible for the lifecycle cost of the waste management related to their products)?

What about proper waste collection structures? What about tougher action on single-use items? What about seeking to impose externality costs? What about a national strategy for reuse? (Finally you have at least a fighting chance of being in a city centre and finding somewhere you can top up your own reusable bottle of water, but it’s a struggle and there is so much more scope for reuse.)

I am totally in love with environmentally-focussed vending machines because I absolutely love that we’ve not thrown out a plastic milk container in years. A brilliant local farm has a milk vending machine in town and we just take a couple of glass milk bottles and fill them up.

It is beyond urgent that we change our relationship to consumption, waste and environmental pollution. Schemes like the Deposit Return Scheme are crucial to that. But unless we start taking a more systematic approach, focus more on substance than presentation and devise these schemes in clear, deliverable and competent ways, they’ll keep failing.

Every day as I look at the horrible mess human thoughtlessness makes of our beautiful country I am sharply aware of the need to make a major change in our attitude to waste. Every time that’s attempted in a half-arsed way I worry that we may be getting further from a coherent solution, not closer.

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