EU waste diktat could cost Britain £2bn, claims think tank

Written by: Editorial staff | Published:

In a new report, Going Round in Circles, think tank Policy Exchange said that Brexit presents a huge opportunity for the UK government to develop a new approach to waste and resources policy. The report highlights "significant shortcomings in the EU's approach to waste and recycling: the objectives are increasingly unclear, the targets are badly designed, and the policies are not in the UK's interest".

"Rather than adopting the EU’s proposed Circular Economy Package, which would cost British businesses an extra £2 billion over the next 20 years, the British government should use Brexit to define our own approach to waste and resource policy," said Policy Exchange’s head of environment and energy, Richard Howard, who co-wrote the report. "This should focus on maximising the resource productivity of the UK economy, in line with the government's emerging industrial strategy. It should also seek to minimise the carbon emissions and wider environmental impacts of waste management and resource use," suggested Howard.

The head of environment and energy told RWW that the EU Commission's own analysis of the CEP showed that the EU had not chosen the best option.

"The £2 billion cost could have been avoided but at a lower cost to businesses," explained Howard who added: "We need to think about the whole waste hierarchy and the environmental case which is marginal at best. The idea of using a carbon metric is already going on in London which looks at the total greenhouse gases emitted and saved. The EU and consequently the UK is still measuring things in terms of recycling rates. As you have a recycling target, it drives people to put things into recycling rather than reuse. Reselling things doesn't count in the target and is a grey legal area. It frustrates me when I go to a household waste recycling centre and you see people throwing away items by bicycles and furniture which could be reused. It is also a matter of changing people's mindsets not to throw things away. However if you don't give them the facilities to do so, it's not going to happen."

The report makes the following recommendations:

• Household waste recycling centres should also be collection points for reusable items, which can then be sold or redistributed to local charities. This approach is, bizarrely, illegal under current waste rules.

• Local authorities should use one of three standardised systems for collecting waste and recycling – simplifying the more than 400 systems which currently operate across England.

• Government should encourage innovation in the recycling and reuse of materials, and help to develop markets for scrap materials.

• Government should also promote efficient forms of energy from waste - for example using black bag waste to create 'green gas'.

Howard added: “Since 2000, the UK has made significant progress in the way we think about waste - boosting the level of recycling and cutting greenhouse gas emissions from waste.

"But there are still significant issues. For example, households are totally confused about what they can recycle, with more than 400 different collection systems across the country. Since 2011, the UK has spent nearly £1 billion exporting our waste overseas, where it is burned to produce energy – energy we don’t benefit from.

“The EU’s proposed CEP is ill defined and poorly thought through. It focuses too much on the means rather than the ends. The UK needs to take back control of our rubbish and develop a more coherent set of waste policies which better serve UK businesses and households, as well as the environment."

When asked if the report will have an effect on the UK government's approach to the waste sector, Howard said: "In the period of time I've been doing this piece of work, which is the best part of 10 months, I sense there is a slight change in the industry in general. Everyone, including civil servants and the waste management sector, is awakening to the fact Brexit has happened. EU policies are not perfect and the industry is alive to all of this and willing to engage in it and think about it."

Kristian Dales, communications director at waste management firm FCC Environment, who part-funded the report, said: “The issues exposed by Policy Exchange in this report are all too real for us and are hampering business growth and development in the waste and resource sector.

“The fact that waste management companies are paying to export waste out of our country for incineration is simply not sustainable. It glosses over the fact that the UK urgently needs increased investment in its own waste infrastructure, which will not only enable us to better manage the waste, but will also help to safeguard the UK’s long-term energy security.”

Policy Exchange said events are being planned to take the debate forward.

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