Chancellor serves up food for thought to waste sector

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

The Budget contained new landfill tax rates, a consultation on upping fines for fly-tippers and, controversially, plans for higher statutory packaging targets. Meanwhile, an inquiry has been launched into plastic bottle and coffee cup waste, and there are calls for a post-Brexit rethink on UK recycling targets. Maxine Perella reports

Spring must be in the air, given the hive of activity taking place within policy circles. The recent Budget saw the Treasury set landfill tax rates for 2018 at £88.95 per tonne for standard-rate material and £2.80 per tonne for lower-rate material – slight rises that were largely expected – while announcing a consultation on extending the scope of fines for illegally disposed waste. This could see operators without permits, or fly-tippers, charged higher fines for dumping rubbish – a move that will be widely welcomed by those campaigning to stamp out waste crime.

Also significant was the Chancellor’s announcement to introduce new statutory packaging targets for 2018-2020 to ensure compliance with the Packaging Directive. Concerns have already been expressed by some waste experts over the new 48% recycling target for wood – given the target currently sits at 22%, it’s quite a hike and could lead to a significant cost increase by driving up packaging recovery note (PRN) prices.

Higher targets

However, the Wood Recyclers Association (WRA) has long supported higher targets for wood packaging, claiming that generation of wood PRNs in the UK is significantly higher than the recycling target of 22% and, as such, a large proportion of wood PRNs go towards general recycling targets. According to the WRA, a number of wood reprocessors are no longer operating under the PRN scheme because the prices are so low, meaning their wood packaging recycling is not officially recorded through the formal database.

“Increasing targets would increase the overall wood packaging recycling and would mean a higher proportion of existing wood PRNs would go towards the increased material-specific target, rather than towards general recycling,” the Association’s executive director Julia Turner said in a statement issued by the WRA back in January.

Significantly, the 2020 UK packaging targets – in addition to the 48% for wood, these are set at 75% for paper, 64% for aluminium, and 85% for steel – reflect a stronger level of ambition from the government than we have been accustomed to. Not everyone will agree with the targets – there are always winners and losers with any legislative change – but ministers are at least showing some leadership by going for the higher target options outlined in the prior consultation review.

Higher recycling targets have also been voted for by MEPs in the European Commission’s forthcoming Circular Economy Package. Last month, MEPs came out in support of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee and backed a 70% recycling target by 2030 – an increase on the 65% target proposed by the Commission.

MEPs have also backed an 80% target for packaging waste, plus separate targets for reuse of both waste and packaging waste.

The European Parliament has certainly raised the stakes for the circular economy – but it remains to be seen whether member states will make it happen. These amendments will need to be assessed by governments, and a common text agreed with the European Council, before the proposals become law. Expect plenty of negotiation in the coming months.

One of the more interesting developments I’ve seen meanwhile is the launch of an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee into plastic bottle and coffee cup waste. This is an issue that has received plenty of national media attention in recent times, and the investigation should throw up some interesting findings around what actions are being undertaken by the
industry to mitigate the problem.

Problematic waste

Plastic bottles and coffee cups are a particularly problematic waste stream in the UK. Only around half of the 35 million plastic bottles sold in Britain every day are collected for recycling, and only one in 400 of the seven million cardboard coffee cups thrown away is recycled. There is huge scope here for the committee to investigate potential solutions, whether that’s looking at incentives to encourage the use of reusable alternatives or imposing some kind of tax on the use of these products, through extended producer responsibility.

Last, as Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) has called for a post-Brexit rethink on national recycling targets. The EIC believes the UK should consider “setting a 2025 target that is ambitious, but realistic in a UK context”.

Perhaps not as easy as it sounds given devolved waste policy in the UK, but the EIC says it would like to encourage what it calls “regulatory commonality” between the devolved nations, even while targets may diverge.

Expect plenty more calls for suggested rethinks on UK waste policy (or at least, English national waste policy) as the process of detaching from Europe gets under way. It’s clear there is a lot to play for in the months ahead; industry leaders, to their credit, are now starting to grasp the nettle.

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