Where does England go next with waste policy? It’s a question I have been asking of late. Of course, this depends very much on the appetite of the new government administration to push for more interventionist measures – if there continues to be little or no intervention, then the question will continue to hang over the industry like a dark, brooding cloud.
It is too early to judge how engaged Defra’s new waste minister Therese Coffey will be, but talking to various sources, I get the sense that she is already making an impression. “She’s getting out and about,” one observer told me, adding that her predecessor Rory Stewart took some time to do the rounds on the industry circuit.
That said, it is widely acknowledged that Stewart had a good level of understanding regarding the issues facing the industry, and was keen to explore potential solutions. I believe we have his leadership to thank for WRAP’s recent work around greater consistency of household recycling in England, and the ESA’s vision for the long-term future of the sector, which was published this summer.
Whether Coffey will demonstrate similar levels of leadership remains to be seen, but according to reports she has said that the EU’s proposed 65% recycling target under its forthcoming Circular Economy Package is too high to be achievable. Sadly, she is probably right – if we are talking about England, and if we are talking about no further legislative action.
But – if the government were minded – they could start seriously considering various levers to help stimulate demand for quality secondary materials. There is growing support across the sector for extended producer responsibility (EPR) to be applied to more waste streams, particularly household packaging waste, where the current packaging recovery note/packaging export recovery note (PRN/PERN) system is considered by some to be in need of significant reform.
What that EPR model might look like, and how it might work in practice, is still under discussion. And achieving consensus on this won’t be easy. But this is where ministers need to take an active role and show some commitment, if they wish to go down this route.
Of course, there is a big question mark over whether the EU Circular Economy Package will actually apply to the UK. But if it does, there is the small matter of a new Article 8a under the Waste Framework Directive which, if adopted by the UK, sets out a list of requirements around EPR.
One of these requirements is to “ensure that producers’ contributions cover the entire cost of managing the waste from their products” – something which does not happen under the current PRN/PERN system.
It’s quite possible, therefore, that the government will be forced to look at EPR and the implications for the existing PRN/PERN structure. But then again, maybe not – especially if we are heading for a harder Brexit than first thought. What’s interesting to my mind, given all these unknowns,
is how the Great Repeal Bill will crunch EU environmental laws into domestic environmental laws, as I’ve been told this is not a straightforward process. I suspect Defra will need quite a few more lawyers in the coming months just to untangle all of the legalities.
Scotland, meanwhile, is pushing full steam ahead on circular economy matters regardless. Recently, environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham MSP announced new funding to help enterprise development bodies north of the border accelerate towards circularity, and hinted that Scotland will pursue circular economy policies in the wake of Brexit.
This is quite significant, given the country may well be heading towards another in-out referendum with the UK.
Finally, I was encouraged to see an increase in the number of waste prosecutions in 2015, according to the latest figures from the Environment Agency. Waste crime is the one issue I think that the UK can do a lot more to clamp down on – it just needs tighter enforcement. And probably also a change in attitude.
It’s been shown, for instance, that littering or fly-tipping tends to occur more frequently in areas that are already littered or fly-tipped. Waste crime is an underrated issue, not by the industry, which has done much banging of the drum to draw attention to the problem, but by other stakeholder groups and the wider public.
Much can be done to tackle waste crime using existing legislation – a truth which shouldn’t be lost on our environmental regulators.
Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist