The question on everyone’s lips at the moment is, ‘What will waste policy look like post-Brexit?’ It’s a question that kept being asked by those who attended last month’s RWM show in Birmingham. And like most burning questions that have no immediate answer, it attracted much rumour and speculation.
The first point to note – and it’s quite an important point – is that the question really applies more to England than the rest of the UK. Waste policy is devolved across the UK – it has been since 1999 – and each of the four nations (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) has its own waste strategy and related targets.
Consequently, waste policy has developed at a different pace depending upon the geography. Scotland and Wales are legislating more heavily in terms of recycling targets and landfill restrictions, and have set ambitious goals linked to zero waste and the circular economy. Northern Ireland is also pushing through tougher legislative measures – this April saw the introduction of a food waste law for businesses.
Light touch approach
In England it’s a different story. While the Waste Review in 2011 set out some zero waste commitments, it didn’t set any new targets or legislative drivers. There has been a focus on improving MRF recycling standards, through Defra’s Waste Prevention Programme, but overall, most would agree that there has been a light-touch approach to regulation.
Importantly, since the Conservative government came to power in May last year, no ministerial announcements have been made with regards to the future direction of England’s waste policy. And so it’s little wonder that industry leaders are now seeing Brexit as perhaps their best opportunity to remedy that. But it will require a great deal of persuasive power.
Early indications from newly appointed Defra resources minister Thérèse Coffey suggest that the government is still happy to maintain the status-quo – i.e. no intervention – for now. So, should the industry look to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) instead for some reassurance?
Certainly I’m hearing more talk of linking material resources with industrial strategies. The concept was mooted in the Environmental Services Association’s (ESA) waste strategy paper, published in August, and further reinforced by another report launched at RWM by SUEZ in conjunction with Eunomia.
Could the waste industry help reinvigorate the UK’s industrial fortunes? Could it help reshore manufacturing through adopting more circular-led approaches? One thing is for sure – the boldness of such messaging will resonate with politicians, particularly post-Brexit, as anything that offers economic comfort (if not promise) will be gladly welcomed.
Another big launch at RWM was WRAP’s recycling collection consistency framework which seeks to encourage harmonisation among local authorities. It has echoes of Scotland’s Household Recycling Charter, launched last year, which – significantly – has the firm backing of the Scottish government.
Will Defra support WRAP’s code of practice to the same extent? Well, at RWM, WRAP’s chief executive Marcus Gover said that the department is “certainly behind this”, so an encouraging start, at least. Of course, like any voluntary initiative, its success will be measured by uptake. It’s worth noting that north of the border, at least half of Scotland’s 32 councils have already signed up to the charter.
A ‘hard Brexit’ route?
So, back to Brexit. I hosted an interesting panel discussion at RWM involving policy influencers and developers from the UK’s four nations. One of the key messages I took from that discussion was that those countries with more progressive strategies are already going beyond EU legislative requirements – particularly with regard to the circular economy. So, should the UK take a ‘hard Brexit’ route, that shouldn’t destabilise its direction of travel too much.
The worry with England, where waste policy has effectively stalled, is there is no clear direction of travel for the industry. This leaves the sector vulnerable should the UK leave the EU single market; the government will either adopt a voluntary approach, in keeping with the ‘templates’ of certain EU waste directives and environmental standards, or create new waste laws. And I can’t see the latter happening somehow.
Ultimately, if ministers can no longer provide the momentum then the industry must step up. It is still a sector internally conflicted by its future direction, but I’m sensing greater unity now more than ever, particularly on the big-ticket issues such as waste collections, extended producer responsibility, and waste crime.
I think the circular economy still represents the great unknown; but if the industry can reach consensus on those three issues, then its role in a more regenerative, restorative economy, not to mention Brexit, might just fall into place.