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12 Jan 2021

Brexit… how does the new deal impact the recycling and waste management sector?

Hannah Carter
Landfill Plastic Waste EU Brexit Export Trade deal

Plastic export disruption, environmental permits and legislation change. The Environment Agency (EA) announced new regulations regarding plastic exports that came into effect on the 1st January 2021. This article will be looking at the impacts that the UK/EU trade deal could have on the waste management sector in the UK.

Impacts on Exports and Energy from Waste 

Currently each year the UK exports around 15 million tonnes of recycled materials overseas. Of this, around 3-4 million tonnes cross the Channel to Europe. We also additionally send 3.5 million tonnes of waste to countries in the EU which gets processed into green energy. It is expected that the availability and costs of some waste disposal and recovery activities will change as a consequence of the new barriers to trade with the EU. 

“The UK gains almost £1 billion in value from the sales of our recyclables to the EU. For our waste-derived fuels the dynamic is a bit different: we actually pay around £400 million to Dutch, German, and Scandinavian energy-from-waste plants to receive the material which would otherwise end up in domestic landfills.” - UKANDEU

There is concern in the waste industry and among local authorities that barriers to trade with the EU will mean a decline in exports of waste, and as a result an increase in landfill use. This is something that we were already starting to see last year as a result of Brexit. On January 1st, 2020 the Dutch government imposed an import tax on all refuse-derived fuel (RDF) coming in from countries outside the EU. The UK have been faced with paying an extra £35 per tonne of RDF waste exported there for incineration to become fuel. According to the Environment Agency statistics published on April 7th, 2020 the UK exported 128,255 tonnes of RDF to the Netherlands in the first two months of 2020, as opposed to 240,433 tonnes the year before. This new tax has seen the UK pay an annual estimated £27 million extra to turn our waste into fuel. This has resulted in the UK exporting 47% less RDF to the Netherlands.

Landfill Site Waste Exported PlasticWe are currently reliant on European treatment facilities as the UK have not yet developed the treatment capacity we need. We continue to landfill millions of tonnes of waste that is potentially suitable to be recycled or be used as a fuel. However, a disruption in exports may incentivise the UK government to develop the technology to generate our own energy from waste as opposed to exporting it.

Impacts on legislation 

Another result of leaving the EU is a change to environmental legislation. EU restrictions have recently come into force banning non-recyclable plastics to non-OECD countries. These new restrictions have been described as “an important milestone in fighting plastic pollution, transitioning to a circular economy, and achieving the aims of the European Green Deal.” - Resource

The new restrictions mean that countries in the EU must take responsibility for their waste. They can still export clean, recyclable plastics to non-OECD countries. This ban has been put in place to limit the amount of plastic ending up in the ocean, landfill and incineration. The current countries taking the non-recyclable plastics do not have the infrastructure to recycle and dispose of the waste properly and has had environmental consequences.

However, since the UK has now left the EU these restrictions will not apply to us. It is the responsibility of the secretary of state, Priti Patel to decide what the UK will do with our non-recyclable plastics. EU waste legislation has been key in shifting UK policy from landfill disposal to increased recycling and tighter environmental protections. This opens possibilities for the UK to shape their own environmental policies and regulations.  

We have investigated several impacts as a result of the new UK/EU trade deal. We can see that waste exports are significantly affected, impacting the recycling and waste management sector and local authorities. What the UK decides to do as a result of these changes are currently unclear. However, we are remaining hopeful of exciting opportunities to come for sustainable development within the recycling and waste management sector in the UK. 

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