Plastic bags at dawn as waste enters the Brexit fray

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
As Defra and the European Commission have locked horns over waste policies

A war of words has broken out between Defra and the European Commission over whom is to thank for certain waste policies – the UK or the EU – and who goes further when it comes to implementing them.

It’s taken more than 18 months but finally the waste sector appears to be on the radar of Brexit negotiators. On 16 January, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s co-ordinator for this (increasingly farcical) divorce, suggested UK ministers appear a little confused from time to time. The Environment Secretary Michael Gove, for example, “doesn’t remember the action on #plasticbags stems from EU regulation”, he tweeted.

This didn’t go down well at Nobel House – officials at Defra HQ rushed to post a “correction” on the department’s blog.It was Verhofstadt who was confused. “It is not true to claim that our plastic bag charge is a result of EU regulation,” a spokesperson said. “We set out our plans before the EU and we have gone further than EU regulations require. Neh, neh, neh-neh, neh.”

OK, so I added the last bit, but the plastic (hand)bag fight had only just begun. The European Commission has also published its strategy on plastic waste and recycling. The package included €100m to develop “smarter and more recyclable materials”, new guidance on separate collection and sorting of waste that will save recycling firms €100 per tonne, and a commitment to make all packaging recyclable by 2030.

“Too often the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fails to capture the economic benefits of a more circular approach. It harms the environment.

The goal is to protect the environment while at the same time lay foundations to a new plastic economy, where the design and production fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs and more sustainable materials are developed,” the commission said. “Europe is best placed to lead this transition.”

It was a grand vision, certainly, and environmental groups seemed only too willing to take the opportunity to pat the commission’s team on the back and simultaneously have a pop at the UK’s efforts just a few days earlier.

“The European Union is always more comfortable putting in place rules and regulations that require action from businesses,” Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent. “The UK is much more inclined to ask for voluntary measures,” he continued, which is why “we have been a laggard on the environment for so many years, and why the European Union has improved our performance”.

Defra bit back – the department clearly bemused as to why everyone thought Europe’s strategy was a premium version of the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan, launched only the week before. “We don’t just want to ensure plastic packaging is recyclable, we want to eliminate avoidable plastic waste altogether,” the department’s blog read on 17 January. Also, the EU’s strategy “does not match” some of the UK’s ambitions.

War of the words

Defra also highlighted its upcoming call for evidence on changes to the tax system or charges on single-use plastics that could help cut waste. This was a subtle dig at the commission, which has backed away from the idea of a plastics tax – there had been suggestions that the funds could be used to plug the UK-sized hole left in the EU’s post-Brexit budget, but the strategy passes the buck to member states on taxation.

“I am confident that our own country has gone further than the European Union had requested or suggested on everything from banning microplastics to looking at taxes on single-use plastics and, indeed, introducing the charge on plastic bags,” said Gove during a debate in Parliament on 25 January.

So, what impact will all this political posturing have? I’d suggest it’s no bad thing: long may the one-upmanship continue if it brings more ambitious policies to drive the circular economy, both here and in Europe. It will also present more opportunities for the waste and resources sector to get involved in the Brexit debate. These opportunities need to be seized or waste and resources policies will be watered down.

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, has been tracking environmental policy since the referendum in June 2016. So far, they have produced three updates showing which policy areas are secure (that is, the environmental protections from EU law that will be safeguarded) and which are under threat. Waste and resources has moved from “medium” to “high risk”.

Despite the recent positive announcements (the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Clean Growth Strategy, consultation on plastic taxes and so on), Greener UK is concerned that Defra “lacks the capacity to deliver on the ambitions”, especially given that the Waste & Resources Action Programme could lose 10% of its staff due to budget cuts.

There is also the chance that the new Resources and Waste Strategy (due to come sometime this year) will “diverge from European policy and standards”. Indeed, the 60% by 2030 target that has been agreed in the Circular Economy Package will be a big ask.

According to documents obtained by Greenpeace, Defra has reportedly been fighting higher recycling targets tooth and nail. This isn’t the first time, either. And it made me wonder: will Europe actually produce even more ambitious environmental policies without the UK?

David Burrows is a freelance correspondent

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