The Resources and Waste Strategy: The Cobra Effect and Policy Making

8 October 2020

I was talking to an economist friend over a drink last weekend, and he told me about the Cobra Effect. It is based on an amusing tale from Delhi in the 19th Century.

Concerned at the huge number of venomous cobras in the city, officials sought to control and reduce the excessive population by offering a bounty to be paid for every dead cobra returned to the authorities. Locals responded with enthusiasm, so much so, that a lucrative new sector sprung up in the form of cobra farms, where cobras were bred to be killed. Not surprisingly, the scheme was quickly shut down, the cobra farms imploded, and there were even more cobras in the wild!

It’s a story that perfectly demonstrates the risk of unintended consequences in policy making, when we fail to understand the complex way systems and markets work. I doubt the officials had conducted a thorough impact assessment, carried out pilots or consulted with the public. It brings home the importance of dialogue with industry and thorough consultation, where additional evidence and legitimate expert challenge are valued. Consultation improves the making of policies and their implementation.

All of which brings me to the long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy for England which was published by Defra just before Christmas. In WRAP, we were delighted to see that the Strategy recognised the need for a range of bold, new policies to deliver their ambitions, capture the economic value, and reduce the environmental impact of wasted resources. I would say that it has been broadly welcomed by stakeholders across the board. Of course, we all have a lot of questions and want more detail. And this is why it is important for all stakeholders to stay engaged with the soon-to-be published consultations and listen carefully to what everyone is saying, including the public. Remember the 2018 Treasury consultation on taxing plastics received a record-breaking 162,000 responses.

Undoubtedly, unprecedented public support for reducing single-use plastics has kept and will keep this issue at the top of ministers’ agenda. Concerns about export markets for recycled materials and the uncertainty over how EU Exit will impact the sector will be on its mind in 2019. So, by consulting with businesses, the resources & waste sector, local authorities and citizens, everyone is given the opportunity to further shape government policy and work out how best to implement it. 

As a reminder, the UK government will soon seek to consult on:

  • weekly food waste collections;
  • free garden waste collections for households with gardens;
  • a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks packaging;
  • consistency in local authority recycling and waste collection;
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging; and
  • a tax on plastic packaging without at least 30% recycled content.

To my mind, one of the key benefits of consulting on this wide range of policy measures will be the opportunity it provides stakeholders to draw out the interactions between them – which is particularly true for EPR, DRS and the consistency agenda, where the decisions made on each will have direct implications for the others.

Such is the interest in resources and waste today, I am confident that the consultations will draw out relevant evidence, business cases, case studies, risk assessments and anecdotes from many stakeholders. It will help government officials develop the strong legislation and strategic plans that can provide a powerful framework to overhaul England’s resources & waste system in the next decade. 

WRAP intends to be fully involved in the stakeholder debate. We are partnering with Incpen, Resource Association, CIWM and ESA for the ‘Resources and Waste Strategy Unwrapped’ conference in London on 13 February. I am particularly keen to talk to local authorities and the packaging supply chain, and will be speaking at the District Councils Network event and the Easyfairs Packaging Innovations conference in February. 

With such a huge shake up to the system, it’s imperative for everyone to tell the government what impact any proposed change might have. That way, we will avoid unintended consequences like Delhi’s cobra farms!