Policy vacuum frustrates as industry seeks guidance

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

As if the uncertainty caused by Brexit wasn’t enough, the UK’s waste management industry still has no clear national policy guidance from Defra, leaving big question marks hanging over issues from RDF exports to the future of landfill.

Last month I had the fortunate opportunity of chairing a couple of the seminar theatres at the annual RWM event in Birmingham. There was a real buzz and sense of engagement inside the theatres, especially for the more policy-orientated sessions.

This is hardly surprising given the uncertainty around Brexit – the industry is currently operating in a “policy vacuum”, as Suez’s UK CEO David Palmer-Jones so aptly put it, and it’s creating much frustration.

Perhaps predictably, no Defra minister turned up to speak at RWM despite being invited, and the one minister who did accept the invitation – Minister of State for Trade Policy, Greg Hands – pulled out at short notice a week before the show. This is lamentable, given there is much at stake here. How the UK deals with its future waste arisings once it detaches itself from the EU being of particular concern.

Many delegates I spoke to at RWM felt an urgent need for some government clarity on this, given that Brexit could unsettle the current economics of domestic waste treatment and disposal.

There is a real question mark hanging over refuse-derived fuel (RDF) exports, partly due to the fall in sterling, but also the prospect of potential trading tariffs. Any future trade deal with the EU may also come with onerous requirements in terms of quality standards, not just for RDF, but also recyclate.

Interestingly, one RWM speaker, Roy Hathaway, Europe policy advisor for the Environmental Services Association (many of you may remember Hathaway in his former role at Defra, where he was responsible for waste regulation and policy), spoke of how the terms of any future trade deal could in fact limit the UK’s ability to deviate too much from EU legislation on waste and resources. From his perspective, the terms of the trade deal will be crucial.

There are of course also more energy-from-waste (EfW) plants coming on-stream in the UK, and strong calls from the industry to build more to plug the nation’s residual waste infrastructure capacity gap. Both Suez and Biffa launched reports at RWM highlighting an urgent need for this – Biffa went so far as to argue the case for safeguarding existing landfill sites and possibly opening up new ones.

There does seem to me to be a growing sense of pragmatism in relation to the waste hierarchy – which is all the more interesting given the amount of airtime the circular economy has had in recent years. Many industry leaders I spoke to at RWM told me that recycling gains will become more difficult.

The reverberations from China’s National Sword initiative continue to be felt, and fears that the UK will be overwhelmed with its own waste unless more is done to address this are becoming very real concerns.

But much rests on the will of our political leaders. The absence of any long-term policy framework from Defra is making it difficult for the industry to determine what it is they need to be aiming for. Is it higher recycling rates, or more EfW? Is it circular material flows, underpinned by green incentives for procurement, or a return to landfill? That was the main message I took from RWM – that the industry is ready to deliver, but the Government must specify exactly what it wants.

Hopefully by the time this column is published, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser’s report on waste and resources will have surfaced, though this seems doubtful given the current adviser Mark Walport left his role last month.

Of course, there is Defra’s 25 Year Plan still waiting in the wings (this apparently will be released before the end of the year), and the renewed strategy on waste and resources that Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced back in July.

So far, I’ve been quite impressed with Gove – he’s very good on rhetoric, but has quickly grasped some of the key challenges confronting the industry and is demonstrating a deep understanding of the issues at play.

According to reports, he is keen on moving the circular economy forward, and also waste prevention, so it will be interesting to see if any of this thinking is reflected in the 25 Year Plan or forthcoming strategy.

Significantly, Gove has yet to give his opinion on the bottom end of the waste hierarchy – most notably, that of incineration and landfill. I have a hunch he’ll examine what’s in the interest of the UK economy first, and look to see what policy levers and treatment solutions can align with that.

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