Three ways that Wales is totally winning at sustainability

Since moving to Wales I have been impressed with how much further ahead a lot of things seem in terms of sustainability compared to Australia. I previously posted about how the UK is actually making serious progress towards their decarbonisation goals, whereas Australia is still mucking about and has gone backwards in recent years. Even within the UK, Wales is doing some pretty cool things and this post highlights a few of them – (1) waste management, (2) housing energy performance, and (3) my favourite piece of legislation ever!

1. Household waste to landfill is minimised with very little effort

In a recent report on recycling rates of household waste in different countries, Wales was ranked second worldwide with a reported rate of 63.8% (there were then some adjustments made to the rates, but Wales is still up there in the top performers). Australia was number 21, with a recycling rate of just 41.6% (although I feel like I should point out that if South Australia was its own country, it would totally win with a recycling rate of 81.5%). Wales has also had a 5p charge on plastic checkout bags since 2011, while it doesn’t go as far as the bag ban in Kenya, it is still years ahead of Australia where my home state, Victoria, is just getting around to implementing one later this year.

In Cardiff and many other areas, food waste is collected from households. In Cardiff, it feeds an anaerobic digestion plant which supplies energy to a wastewater treatment plant. Residual waste (what might be called ‘landfill waste’ if it went to landfill) is collected fortnightly instead of weekly, and households are only provided with a limited number of bags to use. (When I first heard about this I imagined a scenario where there would be a black market for bin bags, and we could sell our bags at an outrageous profit because we use one every few months or so. In reality the Council provides households with enough bags to use 3 per collection, which is really quite generous given that food waste is collected separately. I guess that the number of bags provided could be ramped down over time as people got used to it.) Rather than go to landfill, the residual waste feeds an Energy Recovery Facility which generates enough electricity to power 50,000 households while diverting 350,000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year, as I mentioned in a previous post.  (Of course, even with all these systems in place, it is best to avoid waste altogether.)

All this makes it much easier as a resident to reduce the impact of my waste – compared to Melbourne where the landfill waste (that did just go to landfill) was collected weekly, recyclable waste was collected fortnightly and I had to take the initiative to collect my own food waste and traipse it down to the local community garden. On the upside, many Councils in Victoria have recently implemented (or are planning to implement) a food waste collection service. Some have also started collecting soft plastics as part of the kerbside collection of recyclable waste.

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The Cardiff waste collection gang – featuring the food waste bin, kitchen caddy for food waste, red and white bags for residual waste, green plastic bags for recyclables and green compostable bags to line the food waste caddy

2. Energy performance of housing is transparent and considered in loans

There are several very cool things tied up in this one! First of all, all homes have an energy performance certificate rating. When you look at renting (and I imagine buying) a home, there is a little information box at the bottom that tells you how efficient the property is in terms of energy consumption (the Energy Efficiency Rating) and greenhouse gas emissions (the Environmental Impact Rating) – see examples below. Of course, the actual energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the home depends on how the home is used, but it is still a handy indicator.

Understanding home energy ratings in Australia is confusing, even as a sustainability professional! The Victorian Government is starting to roll out a scheme where residents can have an energy assessment completed on their home to understand its performance and how to improve it. This is a great step in the right direction, but I imagine it will be a while before enough homes have completed assessments that they can be fairly used for comparison when people are thinking about renting or buying.

The second (and possibly even cooler part of this point), is that the Welsh Government recently announced that energy efficiency is going to be a consideration in loan affordability calculations for the Help to Buy-Wales shared equity loan scheme. This recognises that people living in a more energy efficient home will be spending less on utility bills, so will be able to afford to spend more on mortgage repayments. This article from the Fifth Estate explains it all very clearly (and yes – I have been reading about how excellent Wales is in an Australian news outlet).

(Side note – when looking into this I became super jealous of all the different options there are to support home buyers in Wales. Sometimes I really think it would be much easier to stay here than eventually go back and face the insane Melbourne housing market.)

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Example Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) graphs

3. Public bodies have to consider sustainability in everything they do

The Well-being of Future Generations Act (a.k.a my favourite piece of legislation ever, because I am a nerd like that) is a piece of Welsh legislation that places a duty on public bodies to undertake sustainable development. In addition to the three commonly understood pillars of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) the Act also considers cultural sustainability. It is a very readable piece of legislation, you can check it out here if interested. ​The Act defines sustainable development and the sustainable development principle as follows…

2 In this Act, “sustainable development” means the process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales by taking action, in accordance with the sustainable development principle, aimed at achieving the well-being goals.

5 (1) In this Act, any reference to a public body doing something “in accordance with the sustainable development principle” means that the body must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It has only been around since 2015, so to a certain extent everyone is still working through what such an ambitious piece of legislation means in practice. The Act itself establishes seven well-being goals for Wales as a whole, and five ways of working that will enable public bodies to work in a coordinated way towards achieving the goals (see pictures below). In turn, the public bodies must establish their own well-being objectives, based on their local needs and context. At work I have been grappling with how it applies at a project scale for infrastructure in the built environment, which is particularly challenging when there are numerous public bodies involved (some of which are and aren’t subject to the Act).

Naturally, I think it is amazing to have a piece of legislation like this, and there are several really clear benefits that I see from it:

  • It puts sustainability high on the agenda. Nobody here is pretending that climate change isn’t an issue, or that opening a new coal mine is a good idea. I was amazed when I went to a presentation by the Committee on Climate Change about Welsh carbon targets, at just how keen everyone seemed to be to just get on with decarbonisation – including representatives from Welsh Government. The entire national planning policy is currently being revised to align with the Act, which will then trickle down into local planning policies and decisions.
  • It establishes a common understanding of what sustainable development means. As I wrote in my very first post, there are many misconceptions about what sustainability is, and it is often applied in contexts that don’t quite make sense to me. However, the definition of the sustainable development principle for Wales is very clearly defined in legislation. Not only that, but it is framed in a positive way – as contributing to a Wales that future generations will want to live in. (I also find it very helpful to take a step back and consider this from time to time, it is easy to get caught up in the detail of doing things on projects every day, but considering the bigger picture makes it feel all the more worthwhile!).
  • The influence of the Act reaches beyond the organisations that have a legislative duty under it. In some instances, organisations that are not covered by the Act are explicitly stating their intention to align with its principles, for example Welsh Water has established their vision to 2050 in line with the well-being goals. Less directly, the Act influences the organisations within the supply chains of public bodies, as those public bodies will consider their well-being duties when making procurement decisions.
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The seven well-being goals
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The five ways of working (images from www.wcva.org.uk)
So there we go – three excellent ways that Wales in leading in terms of sustainability (take note, Australia!). Any other favourites? Let me know in the comments or tweet me @karabrussen!
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