The year is only a few days old and already we’ve had at least two big news stories about waste.

The first concerns plastic – and the possible impact of China’s decision to no longer accept our plastic for re-processing.  Then today we’ve had news of a potential 25p Latte Levy – to “nudge” people into reducing their use of non-recyclable coffee cups.

Waste reduction is an issue that interests me a lot.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve had a bit of time over the last few months, courtesy of the social enterprise that I help to run, to explore “green” business ideas – things we could get involved in locally that would help in one way or another to tackle climate change.

We’ve been looking in particular around community energy, waste, and transport.  Waste and recycling is the one where we’ve made most progress – and I’ll be putting some more time into it over the next few weeks.

We’re interested to see what more could be done to help Leeds as a city create less waste,  and increase the amount of waste materials that gets recycled.

The context is that in Leeds, as elsewhere, recycling rates have stalled in recent years.

Up until recently,  year-on-year progress was impressive – with close to 44% of Leeds household waste recycled in 2013/14 – compared to 22% in 2006/07.  Yet this dropped to 38.5% in 2016/17.

This is pretty consistent with the national picture – as these Government statistics demonstrate.

I’m not sure why we’ve hit this plateau.  My guess would be that years of central Government cuts haven’t helped – and that the continued investment that’s needed to ensure that householders are able to recycle more just hasn’t happened.

On this, it’s interesting to compare what’s happened in Wales – where improvements in recycling rates are much more impressive.  So it would seem that it can be done, if there’s political will and investment.

Locally, Leeds City Council are currently working with WRAP – and are undertaking a review of their Waste and Recycling Strategy this year (see item 17 here).  So it seemed to us that it was timely to explore whether there were any ways we could help to work out how to waste less and recycle more.  I summarised some of the key points in the council report in this thread.

Our starting point has been to chat with the wide range of social enterprises that are active in Leeds on waste and recycling.  There’s loads going on already – with really impressive social enterprises such as SCRAP, Seagulls, and Revive doing loads of good work to make good use of stuff that other people are throwing away.  And, of course, Leeds is the birthplace of the Real Junk Food Project – who through projects including Fuel For School and the Sharehouse have saved tonnes of food from going to waste.

But could we do more?  That’s what we’ll be exploring at a meeting we’re hosting later this month.  We’ve invited the Council along too to chat about the review of their waste strategy  – and to find out more from them about the challenges the city faces around waste & recycling – alongside opportunities to do more.

One really positive thing in Leeds is that a lot of social enterprises already have a strong relationship with the Council – for example Revive has reuse shops at two of the Council’s household waste sites.  And it’s that kind of co-operation that has a big impact.

As today’s focus on coffee cups has illustrated, this is a really complex issue.  There are no easy solutions – and progress will probably come (if it does come) in a range of different ways.  Businesses have a role to play, as do all of us as consumers.  Local and national government will play their part too.

That’s why I think the coffee cup issue is such an interesting one.  I think it’s going to be a really tough one to solve.  As Jo from The Greedy Pig outlined in this Radio Leeds interview, (from 2hrs42min),  the issue of disposable coffee cups is a bit different to plastic bags.  It’s the “on-the-go” consumption that makes it such a difficult issue.

There will be solutions.   But I think we’re going to have to think really creatively.  There are plenty of interesting ideas in this post by Hubbub, who’ve been working a lot on the issue.  I think they’re right that there’s plenty of scope for city-level action – and I’m already talking with a couple of Leeds indie businesses who are up for working out how they can reduce the amount of packaging waste that they create.  Many independent businesses already take a lead on this (eg offering Vegware packaging) – and it’s great to see there’s an appetite for doing more.

There are other interesting ideas out there too – like Cup Club – and again, I’ve been in touch with them to see if there’s scope for trying something out in Leeds.

It’s a massive challenge, but I sense a change in public mood – thanks in no small part to David Attenborough.   There will be things we can do to increase recycling rates – but even more importantly there’ll be ways to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.  And the thing that interests me is that I think it’s in cities that we’ll be able to do the collaborative, joined-up work that will help us make progress on this issue.  Starting in Leeds of course….