The promise of new resources and waste strategy for England should give the first indication of how Defra intends to handle autonomous policy-making in a post-Brexit world.
Will the Government still look to Europe as a guiding framework for its own domestic directives, or will it seek greater harmonisation with the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Westminster is keeping a keen eye on what’s going on in the rest of the UK – and little wonder, because England has a lot of catching up to do.
Welsh recycling target by 2035
At this year’s RWM, the Welsh Government’s head of waste strategy Andy Rees told delegates that with Wales having met its recycling targets three years early, the country will soon be consulting on a 80% recycling target by 2035, and a target to halve food waste by 2025.
Scotland, which has set a goal to reduce food waste by 33% by 2025, is also striding ahead. The Government intends to push through a Circular Economy & Zero Waste Bill before the end of this parliamentary term, and is examining how best to introduce a national deposit return scheme under devolved powers. Ministers are also considering a levy on single use cups.
Northern Ireland in front of England
Even Northern Ireland (NI), which currently lacks a government, considers itself “a little bit in front of England” according to John Quinn, CEO at Arc21. Quinn told RWM delegates that the country has set up a circular economy working group: “A circular economy strategy for Northern Ireland is there as a commitment if we can get the Government to engage on it and take forward.”
In England there is still a policy vacuum – and contradictory signals are not helping. Defra is reportedly preparing to adopt the EU Circular Economy package – while still opposing the higher recycling targets contained within it.
In England there is still a policy vacuum...
This letter by Environment Secretary Michael Gove reveals the enormity of the Brexit task at hand for his department. So while the much-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan presents an “historic opportunity” to review waste policies as Gove puts it, hopes may be dashed given other competing priorities.
Interestingly it is BEIS, not Defra, that has given the first real signal on future direction of travel with its Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) pledging zero avoidable waste by 2050. But what does ‘avoidable’ waste mean? According to the CGS, it will involve “eliminating all waste where it is technologically, environmentally and economically practicable to do so”. Some have questioned whether this is a throwback to TEEP regulation – given that TEEP led to little change in waste collections in England, bolder guidance will undoubtedly be called for.
The CGS also commits to phasing out landfilled food waste by 2030 and gives a nod to producer responsibility as a way of incentivising producers to manage resources more efficiently. What’s lacking of course is the finer detail, and that may not surface until next year when the new resources and waste strategy is expected to be published.
The UKs future trading relationship with the EU
However domestic policy shapes up, the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU – and other nations – will be critical, especially given the industry’s reliance on refuse-derived fuel (RDF) exports and China’s crackdown on imported secondary materials through its National Sword programme. “We can’t escape European rules if we want to trade with Europe,” Rees pointed out at RWM.
In many respects, the UK now has a clear domestic opportunity to utilise waste materials for its own gain, but post-Brexit policy must support this by making clear linkages between green manufacture and the wider decarbonisation agenda. This means incentivising greater use of recycled materials in products whilst enabling more energy-from-waste facilities to offer combined heat and power through offtake agreements. The thinking is already there from ministers, and that’s a promising start.
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