Round table discussion: The future of waste management in the UK

Written by: B P Collins’ environment team | Published:

A number of waste management, recycling and corporate social responsibility (CSR) specialists were recently invited by B P Collins’ team of environmental lawyers to discuss the future of waste and recycling in the UK particularly with Brexit on the horizon. Topics of interest included who should take the lead to drive the waste agenda; the merits of setting recycling targets; engaging SMEs and how waste should be perceived.

The round table comprised:

Chair: Matthew Farrow, Environmental Industries Commission sector

B P Collins’ environment team

  • Alison Taylor, partner, Property and Environment
  • Alex Zachary, partner, Corporate and Commercial and Environment
  • David Smellie, partner, Corporate and commercial and Environment
  • Craig Williams, Dispute Resolution and Environment

Jeff Rhodes, Environmental and External affairs, Biffa

Graham Flynn, Anenta

Matthew Ball, Green Redeem

Peter Charlesworth, Carbon Statement

Richard Collins, Ecobrand

Sam Pentony, British Metals Recycling Association

This is what they had to say:


Matthew Farrow: Over the past 10 years there’s been a big shift in environmental policy. Towards the start of this time recycling rates were increasing quickly, there was cross party support and it was well funded. Households recognised that recycling was important and people were doing their bit for the environment. Mediterranean countries wanted to know what Britain’s secret was back then. However, things started to go wrong around 2010 for a few reasons.

We picked the easier things to recycle first, for example, paper, glass, plastic bottles and we were able to meet our tonnage weight targets, particularly through glass and garden waste. Austerity then hit post-recession and organisations like WRAP had to cut back on public funding and local authorities didn’t have the money to run awareness campaigns anymore. Commodity prices went down, so a lot of recycling and waste management companies’ profit margins decreased. Several environment ministers lost their jobs, so waste and recycling didn’t garner much attention.

Brexit could bring both risks and opportunities. A report written by the EIC and B P Collins entitled Brexit: Implications for Waste and Resources Legislation, recommends that much EU waste law should be retained long-term, but that in areas such as future recycling targets we should look to set policies in line with UK experience and aspirations. But who should take control of this?

Government’s role

Matthew Ball: Recycling and waste management is not regarded as a vote winner, it’s not high enough on the government’s agenda, so aside from the Green Party, no one else seems to be interested in Defra’s 25-year-plan. We do need some direction, otherwise with a dwindling budget the issue will fall further down the agenda.

Alex Zachary: I don’t think direction will come from government as it’s very difficult to regulate. I also think that other environmental priorities are higher on the agenda, such as air quality. It’s possible that Whitehall is looking to the business sector to drive it – particularly when they are delaying the progress of their policy plans.

Jeff Rhodes: I agree. Defra seems more occupied with reporting statistics to the EU for compliance purposes than providing useful data and policies for UK waste producers and managers.

Matthew Farrow: Post-Brexit, perhaps Defra can use this time to focus on the UK, including what we want to do here and what the UK targets should be.


Matthew Ball: The 2020 targets have undoubtedly failed. Although most people are aware of these targets, people are not mindful of the repercussions if they are not met. And I think if the consequences were known, then the money originally set to meet those targets, might not have been diverted to other sectors deemed more important.

Craig Williams: But the government does know what they’ll get in landfill tax – so they’re banking on that.

Matthew Ball: Yes, but with landfill tax and the way the pound has fallen, it’s still cheaper to export waste than to landfill in the UK. When you look at the half a billion pounds being shipped out to Europe, wouldn't it be radical of the UK government to suggest that we’ll reduce landfill tax by £10 per tonne but only on the basis that those who benefit, will use that opportunity from the additional revenue, to look at alternative and new technologies to invest here in the future? It just means that we secure the landfill tax here rather than exporting it to Europe.

David Smellie: The problem is that guidance is needed. Industry is not going to spend money going down a particular route unless it has got certainty as to what the end goal is and it has support from the government for 25 years.

Matthew Farrow: Regardless of whether you agree with EU policies and laws, a framework was in place and everyone knew what they had to work towards.

Jeff Rhodes: Targets create public interest and are useful in getting the message out. But even with those EU countries where landfill diversion targets were missed, no action was taken against them, which makes the targets seem rather hollow and undermines public confidence.

When it comes to recycling, you could almost argue that you don’t need any back-end targets. If measures at the front-end created stronger demand and value for secondary materials compared to virgin materials, back end performance would naturally follow. That’s one of the challenges that the waste industry has to face. We are the middle man. We do not produce the waste, nor do we use the end-product, we are the middleman undertaking the collection and processing, but we are often expected to bear a lot of the risk on commodity prices, especially by local authorities. Big companies can manage it, but the smaller ones are finding it difficult.

Matthew Ball: The bottom has dropped out because the quality of the recycling has dropped as it is contaminated and comingled.

Jeff Rhodes: From our point of view in terms of trading those commodities, we don’t see the quality of the recycling as the main issue because we’re already producing good quality material. However, some manufacturers always want high grade raw material because of the nature of their product and it’s difficult to compete with that. If you can’t differentiate your product on a price basis against that raw material then you’ve got a challenge.

Matthew Farrow: Bringing it back to targets again, they can be useful, but the problem is that they can be arbitrary. It’s difficult to set a single target for so many countries when you have Austria with 63% recycling while Cyprus has 12%. Brexit is an opportunity to take a step back and invest the time and effort to set an ambitious but credible target for the UK that gives people something to aim for, that isn’t so unrealistic people believe it will never be met.

But as we set new targets, we need to think about how we are going to meet these and it will need some form of intervention whether that is through tax, regulation, circulating examples of best practice or businesses taking the lead.

What form should leadership or intervention take?

Taking the lead

Peter Charlesworth: With Brexit, the environment message is likely to be overlooked for at least the next six to nine months. So there is a significant opportunity for businesses to drive things.

But the government still has to work all the way down the chain to ensure things are working properly.

Richard Collins: I've seen a huge change over the past 20 years in how businesses approach waste management and recycling. It does save them money, makes commercial sense and generates a great reputation. Big businesses are setting the agenda as they realise the benefits of being committed to CSR and recycling. And if this is promoted, the government will follow. The Green Apple Awards, which I’ve co-run for 20 years, is evidence of that.

Engaging SMEs

Graham Flynn: We’ve spoken about large corporates and the work they’re doing. But there are thousands of small businesses which don’t know about legislation targets or the segregation of waste required. All they care about is what they are being charged and when it is being taken away. All they see is an increase in price for collection, but don’t understand the benefits to their company. They don’t have a sustainability CSR manager – they just want the waste taken away.

If there was some commitment to raising awareness among SMEs, around the benefits and incentives of being committed to recycling, waste collectors would see the quality of the product they’re receiving increase.

There also needs to be a focus on the bottom-end and how we get the producers - who are ultimately giving you the material that waste collectors generate profit on - to make that change? This is something that we need to tackle, particularly in the NHS – the sector that Anenta works in.

Ian Binns: It’s the practical aspects that need to be considered with SMEs too. In the absence of a sustainability manager, whose responsibility is it to ensure that proper recycling practices are put in place? That’s difficult to ascertain and implement when companies have other focuses.

Matthew Farrow: Peter, have you worked with a lot of SMEs in the hospitality sector?

Peter Charlesworth: Yes, and there are a few things that could be done. The government could introduce financial incentives for commodities. We talk about the commodity prices varying and this has had an impact on the hospitality sector and there’s a debate about what’s valuable and what’s not, or what makes sense to separate out.

The other is to mandate these things happening, which has happened in Scotland where waste has to be separated out.

The other thing they could do is standardise packaging, which could help reduce the need to sort out composite materials. But top-level guidance is needed from the government.

Old school recycling incentives are also required, just like in the past when everyone put out their milk bottles to be collected and refilled. Breweries are offering 10% off when you send your glassware back. The government should encourage that.

Matthew Farrow: What about engaging the employees?

Matthew Ball: Employee engagement schemes can be successful. We are working with employees in the energy sector making them more aware of the energy savings that can be achieved. Employers can make huge financial savings and employees can have a share of those savings to achieve buy in. This is also supported by interactive and engaging content on the important of managing waste correctly.

Jeff Rhodes: But whatever approach is taken, there are constraints that people need to be realistic about. If you take a city like London where they have a relatively low recycling target of 25%, that is the average for a comparable European city. They have a lot of flats and transient residents, and from a political and tourism perspective, they have to have clean streets. They cannot have waste lying around and they can’t have large bins all over the place. From the regulatory end you could have targets similar to Scotland where businesses rather than waste collectors have to separate waste, but you have to build in the fact that not everyone can physically do that and there are also different logistics issues when comparing sparsely populated rural areas to densely populated cities.

Peter Charlesworth: What might help SMEs to recycle more, is to leverage off larger producers and their businesses’ recycling capabilities.

Richard Collins: I agree. We work with a lot of shopping centres which can typically make a saving of £160,000 in a year by installing biodigesters, putting beehives on the roofs, implementing recycling and zero to waste schemes and, most importantly, educating all the microbusinesses, or rather the shop tenants, about the recycling they can do. The savings made from recycling result in a rent reduction so the shops can see an immediate benefit to them. It’s a great model, with schools coming in to see how it works so children are being educated too.

If that system could be transferred to the high street or NHS, then a small business could feel supported and encouraged to recycle more.

Matthew Farrow: And there are also business improvement districts (BIDs) which have a combination of large companies and smaller businesses or cafes which monitor things like air quality which is a big political issue in London. It is a community of businesses in the same area working in collaboration and I have heard of some BIDs trying to negotiate joint waste contracts.

Ultimately in my experience a lot of it comes down to the personalities of the owner, and if they’re interested in recycling and they care about it.

Supply chains and considering waste as a resource

Matthew Farrow: I tend to hear from large corporates like M&S, Unilever, Ikea and Boots about the work they do with their supply chains. But is the industry overall changing?

Peter Charlesworth: Yes, it’s starting to. For example, Costa now have an initiative where they are happy to take not just their own coffee cups but other brands too. They’ve taken a competitive issue and assumed a proactive position on it. Now they are leading commercially, politically and can see the marketing benefits too.

Sam Pentony: I think there needs to be responsibility across the supply chain. The producers need to play a significant role and in certain markets, the government has already taken responsibility such as creating legislation around vehicle disposal and WEEE.

But we have come a long way and we are no longer considered the dirty man of Europe. The metals recycling industry, for example, is a success story as they are now regarded as a permanent material. But if we look at Scotland, they are pushing very hard towards shifting the paradigm of recycling and waste. We should be looking at them and to other countries as to how to do things better.

I think it is also about shifting the language of waste and changing its definition. We should regard it as a resource.

Jeff Rhodes: In addition to considering and valuing waste as a resource, we also need to recognise from a UK industrial and economic strategy perspective that we need the infrastructure in place to manage whatever waste we produce. As well as facilities to process recyclable materials and plants to generate energy from combustible waste, we are still going to need some landfill disposal facilities to deal with treatment capacity shortfalls and specialist wastes like asbestos or industrial sludges that have to landfilled. The whole infrastructure jigsaw needs to be in place for the economy to function properly.

Matthew Farrow: Brexit may perhaps be an opportunity to think about that. Particularly since the EU was very taken up with the circular economy but there are a few cases where recycling may not be the best environmental option and it might be easier to recognise that post-Brexit.

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