Carrots, not sticks

The head of the Environment Agency favours tough action against polluters – but won’t support puniti

The Environment Agency (EA) does not set its sights low, stating that its role is “to protect or enhance the environment, taken as a whole". And waste - admittedly, not glamorous - is a fundamental part of that whole. Waste Strategy for England, published in 2007, placed rubbish - where it comes from, and what we do with it - firmly on the agenda.

I asked Chris Smith, chairman of the EA, how effective he thinks the battle against waste has been so far.

“Broadly, we're making progress, but there's still quite a way to go," he says. "The trend is absolutely in the right direction. If you look at consumers, household waste has dropped by 26 per cent since 2000, and we've reached reduction targets two years early."

But while the increase in household recycling shows an important shift among individuals, other stakeholders named in the 2007 strategy still pose a problem. What about industry - is it getting away with being wasteful? Smith, a former MP for Islington, now a member of the Lords, is diplomatic. "It varies by sector, but some are way ahead of the game on this, supermarket retailers are looking very seriously at what happens to their waste. But they still need to do some thinking about the amount of packaging that they use for their products in the first place."

He describes a programme at Sainsbury's that will be in place by the end of the year, whereby all the food that is left over and past its sell-by date is disposed of through anaerobic digestion, which bio­degrades the food and produces energy in the process. Other retailers have similar plans afoot.

So, most progress has been in the area of waste disposal - innovative ways of recycling or reusing. But what we really need is a seismic shift in industry to reduce the volume of rubbish produced in the first place. How can this be encouraged?

Smith draws attention to the Waste Protocols Project, in conjunction with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), which aims to explore whether materials stigmatised as "waste" can be turned into something useful - turning waste cooking oil into biodiesel, for example - which will eventually make it easier for industries to recycle.

Under the "polluter pays principle", though, the cost of waste disposal and reduction should become the responsibility of the company that creates it. If effectively implemented, it would mean that this cost would be incorporated from the very beginning of the production process, thus giving companies the incentive to make products that involve fewer wasteful by-products. How far has this principle been put into effect in the UK?

“It's a fundamentally correct principle. So far, it has had its greatest effect in the landfill tax, which raises money but also has an impact on behaviour," he explains. "It is currently £40 a tonne, and will rise by another £8 a tonne up to 2013. I'm very pleased that both the Conservatives and the present government have committed to continuing that progressive increase. It's had a major impact in reducing the amount of landfill waste."

But is this enough, or do we need to speed up the move towards other solutions? "Well, let's not run away with the idea that we've filled the entire country up. We still have capacity," he says. "It's much more important to start with reducing waste in the first place. And energy recovery, by means such as anaerobic digestion, is fast coming up as a real alternative to landfill or incineration. It could eventually provide heat and power for whole local areas."

If punitive taxes on businesses dumping landfill have been effective, what about a per-household waste tax? The idea was considered, but rejected, by the government in 2007. Smith agrees with that decision. "I prefer carrots to sticks - incentivising right behaviour rather than taxing wrong."

He draws attention to voucher schemes in some local authorities, which have the potential to be extended. With industry, however, it seems that more often than not, taxing wrong behaviour is a necessity. As it becomes more expensive to dump landfill in the UK, there is the problem of illegal waste exports, which can have a pernicious impact on the developing world. "We've been really tightening up what we do on that," says Smith. "In the first six months of last year we carried out 166 unannounced inspections and placed stop notices on 53 shipments. We're making it much tougher for people who think all they need to do is hide their waste and send it to Nigeria."

Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go. Moves such as this send the right message to unscrupulous businesses. But until industry - the biggest producer of rubbish - really takes responsibility, the efforts of consumers and local authorities could end up a bit of a waste.

Samira Shackle is at Newstatesman.com

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times