Waste planning without force

Site waste management plans may no longer be compulsory, but a waste-aware industry may well still use them, says Peter Baber

There are not many times that you can say this, but the government seems pleased with one aspect of the construction industry’s performance at the moment, and that is its success in reducing waste to landfill.

Last year, in reviewing its funding for WRAP, the advisory agency set up to help people move towards that mythical life without waste, DEFRA announced that, from April this year, it will cease funding any activity WRAP undertakes that is focused on construction waste.

It seems that, as far as DEFRA is concerned, the Halve Your Waste to Landfill initiative WRAP ran with the industry for four years up to the end of 2012 has had an effect. Some 800 companies signed up to this initiative, which committed them to halving the amount of waste they sent to landfill by the end of 2012.

As a result, the new year has brought with it new changes in the industry, to the effect that site waste management plans (SWMPs) are no longer compulsory, except in special circumstances such as if the main client is looking to get a BREEAM rating for the development.

The change to a voluntary regime came in at the start of December, and was all part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge, its drive to cut what it sees as unnecessary regulatory burdens on industry. SWMPs were actually identified from the start of the challenge as an example of a policy that could probably be done away with. But are they really that unnecessary?

SWMPs were introduced in England in 2008, under the previous Labour government, and required contractors working on developments of over £300,000 in value to spell out exactly how they would be processing and if possible reducing the waste created throughout the lifetime of their project.

But according to the consultation document the government put out last summer when the move to a voluntary system was first mooted, the compulsory plans have failed to live up to their promise. For one thing, the document claimed, on their own they have failed to make any serious inroads into cutting the rate of flytipping. The consultation documentation produced evidence to show that, since SWMPS were introduced, the total number of local authority-reported flytipping incidents has gone down, from almost 1.19m in 2008 to 653,521 in 2012. But the proportion of construction waste included within the total fly-tipping waste collected has remained stable, or even slightly gone up – from 5.3% in 2008 to 5.8% in 2012.

This could of course be down to the £300,000 project value threshold. Many of those responding to the consultation claimed that most fly-tippers are involved in projects that fall under the £300,000 mark, and so would not have been affected by the need to have a SWMP. Maybe so, the government says, but introducing a new requirement for all construction projects to carry an SWMP would be a much heavier regulatory burden.

In any case, it says, SWMPs were introduced partly to encourage everyone involved in a construction project to look at ways of reducing waste – from the designer onwards. This is something Richard Jones, associate director at Interserve Construction with a special responsibility for sustainability, thinks is terribly important. “Any attempt to reduce waste in construction starts with design,” he says. “You have to look at the design of your project to see where the weaknesses are.”

But here again, the government says, SWMPs have fallen short. In total there were 169 responses to the consultation but, while 72 of these were from contractors, only six were from clients, and only eight were from architects and designers. This, the consultation response document says, “would seem to support industry assertions that generally the client passes the plan onto the contractor to deal with”.

There was a widely held view that duty of care documents already do what SWMPs were meant to do to a large extent, but the government also points out in its consultation response that stopping the compulsory element of SWMPs is not the same things as abolishing them. In fact, 73% of those who answered in the consultation said they would continue to use SWMPs even if they were only made voluntary.
Interserve certainly will, and Jones, who sits on the environmental sub-group of the UK Contractors’ Group, says all his groups’ members – who are predominantly larger contractors – have said they will too.

“At Interserve we have reduced our waste by 86% since the Halve Your Waste to Landfill Campaign,” he says. “We also use WRAP’s Designing Out Waste tool. We have our own Sustainable Development Plan. We have 15 goals within this plan, and one is to make waste a thing of the past.”

Nevertheless not everyone was happy to see the compulsory element of SWMPs go. According to the government’s own response documents, the number of respondents in favour of making the plans voluntary and those who wanted to keep the status quo was fairly evenly matched: 75 in favour of the repeal, 68 against.

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) in its response said that compulsory SWMPs had never been given a chance because, due to financial constraints, they had never been effectively enforced. It said the system had therefore been left to ‘self police’ – “missing those parts of the industry that were more important to reach regarding resource efficiency and compliance”.

The government does in part concede this, pointing out that in four years of operation there had never been any legal action taken against an alleged SWMP transgressor.

But the CIWM went further, by claiming that the impact assessment the government carried out- through which it established that removing the compulsory element would save English contractors £3.9m in administrative costs a year – was flawed, because it did not take into account the savings that would have been made it a properly police and managed compulsory SWMP system had been introduced. Looking forward at the time to the Welsh government’s proposed introduction of SWMPs right across the board, it said Cardiff had run a separate impact assessment on its proposal and come up with a completely opposite conclusion – a situation it said left it “perplexed”.

The trouble is that since then the Welsh government has effectively kicked its proposals into the long grass, in part after a noisy campaign against them by the Federation of Master Builders Cymru. A ministerial statement in January said more work was needed on refining the plans.
A Welsh government spokesperson insisted that it still regarded SWMPs as a valuable tool and, said: “We will be further developing our proposals to see if we can simplify the requirements of the plans and to minimise the impact on small businesses.”

But Ifan Glyn, FMB Cymru’s public affairs and services executive, described that as a “nothing statement”.

He said his organisation opposed the plans partly because he says sufficient resources to deal with every kind of waste are not universally available in Wales yet. “Our members find it very hard to get any takers for plasterboard here, and also in places like the Llyn Peninsula there just isn’t anywhere you can go to recycle our materials,” he says.

He was also concerned that, under the proposals, the system would be administered by local authorities, just at a time when they themselves are coming under pressure, in part from the Williams Commission’s recommendations to reduce their number from 22 to ten. “The fees were meant to come from companies as they delivered the waste, and to start at £50 to £100, but we were worried that with local authorities coming under pressure these fees would go up,” he adds.

But most of all he points to figures quoted in the consultation document which suggest that Welsh builders are already recycling 85% of their waste, when under targets introduced under Wales’ Towards Zero Waste plan, the sector should be recycling 90% by 2025. “Doesn’t that mean we are already ahead of schedule?” he says.

This idea that the construction industry has already taken the waste reduction medicine is one that Jones at Interserve would concur with. Asked whether this has already got to the stage where choice of materials is dictated by what can be recycled, he says: “Definitely.”

He adds: “We have a number of criteria we mark projects off against. Cost is obviously one, as is carbon capture, as is whether or not the material we are using is part of a closed loop system, where everything is recycled back into the system. This is a relatively new development, because the technology to make a closed loop system has only been around for five or six years so we still need to introduce it into our value chain. Clearly it is still not the only criteria we use, but it is one of them.”

So, with a large contractor like Interserve moving in that direction, others are surely to follow eventually. In the meantime, WRAP has developed a range of resources to help waste-conscious construction businesses, which are available on its website. And despite the end of construction funding it says it is still “talking to government and industry stakeholders about continuing our work to support resource efficiency as this presents a key opportunity for the construction sector and the UK economy”. Watch this space.

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