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Public bodies need to do more to reduce and re-use their waste

Published: 24 June 2022

Public bodies in Wales need to do more to reduce and reuse their waste, shifting their current focus on recycling and creating a more circular and healthier economy, according to a new report by Public Health Wales. 

While Wales is a global leader in recycling rates of municipal waste (64 per cent), second only to Germany (66 per cent), the total amount of municipal waste (kilogram per capita) created in Wales is currently higher than in England and Scotland. 

The report – ‘Circular Economies and Sustainable Health and Well-being: The public health impact of public bodies refocusing on waste reduction and reuse in Wales’, details how implementing policies to reduce and re-use waste, alongside recycling schemes will have possible significant positive impacts on health and well-being for the whole population of Wales. These include contributing to tackling the climate emergency and thereby reducing air pollution, reducing risk of extreme weather events, increased sustainable production of food and improved mental health and well-being. 

There are also potential negative effects, mainly in economic terms, such as potential loss of employment within areas such as recycling, incineration, and landfill sites and potential employment opportunity decline in the landfill management sector during the transition from the existing linear approach to a cyclical system focused on reduce and reuse. 

But these would be expected to be relatively short term, with more positive benefits being seen in the medium to long-term. 

Liz Green, Consultant in Public Health and Programme Director of Health Impact Assessment, Public Health Wales said: 

“Public bodies have taken big strides forward in improving their recycling capability in recent years, and this is to be commended.  But we know that the biggest action we can take to improve the way we handle waste is to reduce the volume we produce. 

“‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is the strapline for the waste hierarchy, yet some evidence suggests policies for recycling can in fact conflict with those intended to reduce waste in the first place and keep resources at their highest level of value for as long as possible. It should not be assumed policies for reduce and reuse can therefore be simply added to existing policies without the risk of unintended consequences – a systemic approach is needed. 

“Unfortunately, the immediate demands of the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in actions that have reinforced existing linear waste management approaches, e.g., incineration, and impact on recycling processes. This presents a risk to progress on circular economy approaches and realising the associated health benefits. Acute policies responding to the pandemic have also had the unintended consequence of setting back pre-pandemic responses to the climate emergency and single-use plastic pollution. These are issues that now need to be urgently addressed.” 

Welsh Government quote on zero waste 2050 

A circular economy is part of the solution to our global climate emergency - one in which products, services and systems are designed to maximise their value and minimise waste. It’s an all-encompassing approach to life and business, where everything has value and nothing is wasted. In simple terms, it can be explained as 'make, use, remake' as opposed to 'make, use, dispose'. 

The report is the product of evidence gathered from peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, third sector organisations and World Health Organization, public bodies’ websites and qualitative evidence from stakeholders and makes a series of recommendations, including that public bodies should be held to account for their consumption of resources by the Welsh Government, the Future Generations Commissioner, and their leadership 

Twenty-eight stakeholders from 15 public bodies participated in either a workshop or small group discussions.