Our waste, our resources - let's not waste the opportunity for more radical change

As we get back to work after the break, many of us will be reflecting on the fact that Christmas is often a time of excess.A time when much gets consumed – and much gets wasted: food, packaging and unwanted presents to name but a few.

At the end of December the government published its eagerly anticipated Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England – which set out how it will tackle the complex issues around resource use such as recycling and plastic pollution. With Blue Planet having put these issues firmly in the public eye, the need for a tougher and more coherent approach was widely recognised.

The strategy has much to commend it.Although much of the press coverage at the time focused on whether charges for plastic bags should be extended and / or increased, steps to encourage thinking about waste at an earlier stage in the production life cycle, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging, are particularly welcome.

A Deposit Return Scheme for single-use drinks containers, Resource Efficiency Clusters, extending product lifetimes through warranties and disclosures and steps to simplify the recycling system are also positive.The recent trial of reverse vending machines in five of the Iceland chains supermarket sites is testament to what is possible in these areas.Although much of the strategy is still subject to consultation, and some key measures are unlikely to be in place before 2023, there are many constructive developments here.In a post Brexit world, these will take on even greater significance.

Seeing the strategy in the context of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 of responsible consumption and production, however, could lead one to question whether the strategy could go further.In its July assessment of UK performance against the SDGs, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development Measuring up report concluded that the UK Government should '…state what is regarded as sustainable levels of consumption for critical natural resources such as freshwater, land, timber, fisheries and fibre in both the UK and global contexts.'Until this is done, it can be difficult to assess whether the waste and resources strategy is sufficiently ambitious – particularly given the warnings and 12 year window outlined in the recent IPCC report.

Although the strategy is relatively strong on reducing waste, it is less vocal on the need to reduce consumption itself – particularly in terms of harmful materials that might have an adverse impact on things like biodiversity but also the scarce resources that we use directly in this country and those that are embedded (such as energy, raw materials and water) in the imported goods that we consume.Concerns around the potential 'out-sourcing' of waste and emissions get little more than a passing mention. What a sustainable 'lifestyle in harmony with nature' might look like (providing information and raising awareness of which by 2030 is covered under the UN's SDG Target 12.8) is not covered.

There is no doubt that further work is needed on how the goals of the waste and resources strategy (including to 'lead the world in using resources efficiently') fit in with, and can help deliver, other key initiatives including the UK's 25 Year Environment Plan, the Clean Growth Strategy and the Industrial Strategy.

The strategy makes some good references to resource efficient business models (although the 'lean' and 'frugal' approaches as described by the UN Global Compact's Breakthrough business-models work get little coverage). The valuable work of Business in the Community with its Waste to Wealth Commitment is also rightly flagged as a leading example of what responsible businesses can do to work together – collaborating across organisations, value chains and sectors - towards doubling the nations resource productivity and eliminating avoidable waste by 2030.

If a truly circular, low impact economy is to be achieved, however, more could be said on the role of businesses in working with consumers to reduce consumption, whether this is through greater user involvement in design to ensure products and services better meet real needs and do not lead to 'planned obsolescence', facilitating changing patterns of behaviour and ownership or enabling new collaborative activity that reduces resource use.

The scope for developing products and services that are more modular, flexible, adaptable, longer-lasting and inter-operable so that they can be used in different circumstances and by people going though different life-stages also gets little coverage. Labelling may help here but on its own is unlikely to be sufficient. With our aging population, this is a missed opportunity.Resilience is discussed in terms of supply chains and resource scarcity but not in terms of how products and services could be designed to be more durable for consumers to withstand shocks - including climatic and cyber disruption.

The role of government and regulators in facilitating lifestyle changes that can enable sustainable consumption, including through (non-waste) infrastructure planning, changes to working practices and enabling 'prosumer' or DIY activity, gets little mention. To maximise its impact, the goals underpinning the strategy will clearly need to feed through and frame wider government thinking including around the National Infrastructure Assessment.

The waste and resources strategy is definitely a positive move in the right direction.It should help start to address the urgent and growing concerns around plastic pollution.However, unless the opportunities for wider resource 'reduction' and joined-up people / community centred approaches to sustainable consumption and production get as much attention as dealing with the waste from existing systems and processes - and government commits to using legislative and regulatory powers to bring about step changes - it may still feel as if we are tackling the hierarchy of 'reduce, reuse, recycle' the wrong way around.