We must not allow Defra to be distracted by Brexit

Written by: Patrick Cousens | Published:
Patrick Cousens, account manager at PLMR, specialists in political lobbying and media relations

Defra’s recent ‘WACky’ decision to continue to allow some hazardous waste to go to landfill may be a harbinger of post-Brexit reality and raises questions about the government’s commitment to the wider waste hierarchy, which means the industry needs to stay alert and keep campaigning, writes Patrick Cousens

In today’s increasingly preposterous news environment, where it seems as though only a diminishing factor of time stands between the unbelievable and the actual, the news that Defra ministers have taken the decision to continue to allow highly toxic hazardous waste to be deposited in the UK’s landfills has hardly troubled the headlines.

The decision not to remove the derogation allowing for Air Pollution Control Residue (APCr) of up to three times the European Waste Acceptance Criteria (WAC) to be deposited into the earth comes after almost seven years of consultation with industry – with many believing that an end to this environmentally regressive practice was on the horizon.

APCr is a by-product of energy from waste (EfW) facilities; a highly toxic solid substance containing noxious heavy metals such as chlorine and lead that are removed from plants’ gaseous emission streams.

EfW generation represents a vital and growing part of the UK’s march towards resource efficiency, with more than 5.5TWh of electricity produced by the country’s expanding fleet of increasingly efficient and effective facilities. However, as the industry grows, so does the amount of APCr, with the annual tonnage being produced nationally approaching 500,000 – making APCr one of the UK’s fastest-growing hazardous waste streams.

With an increasing range of technologies capable of economically processing this hazardous waste, the prevailing view was that the government’s consultation would ultimately
lead to the removal of the WAC derogation.

Instead, the government has dropped its review process entirely, and suddenly, in order to “remove the uncertainty for the hazardous waste sector”.

Yet many within that sector had been banking on a different future. With a lack of clarity on the overall approach, and the issue likely to rear its head again, long-term uncertainty increases as a result of this decision.

As such, it is no surprise that the Environmental Services Association’s executive director Jacob Hayler has expressed his disappointment, saying: “This decision won’t help investment in alternative treatment technologies for APCr which would deal with the waste further up the waste hierarchy, and potentially brings into question the government’s commitment to the waste hierarchy more generally.”

Critics will find it difficult to escape the conclusion that the all-consuming Brexit process has led to Defra ministers taking the easy option. They will speculate that the department is looking to free up short-term capacity to focus on the forthcoming European negotiations and the permutations that are associated with this – which are enormous in respect to environmental legislation –
rather than progressing with policy changes that demand administrative capacity to implement, regardless of their benefits.

In some ways it is difficult to argue with this prioritisation. Yet, with no guarantee on the length of negotiations with the European Union, it will not be acceptable to industry or the public if the government avoids making long-term policy decisions while the process is ongoing.

The job of the waste management industry must be to keep up the pressure on the issues that count. Brexit may mean Brexit, but it cannot mean a brake on addressing important matters of domestic environmental governance in the meantime.

  • Patrick Cousens is an account manager at PLMR, specialists in political lobbying and media relations

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