What does Theresa May's legacy mean for the waste and recycling sector?

Written by: Patrick Cousens | Published:
Patrick Cousens
"Leadsom’s time in the position was largely forgettable" - yes and in comparison to the multiple ...

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As Theresa May signs off her premiership PLMR’s Patrick Cousens looks back on her time in office, and analyses what her latest environmental commitment will mean for the waste and recycling sector.

Satirical magazine Private Eye greeted news of Theresa May’s resignation with a blank page entitled ‘The Prime Minister’s Legacy in Full’.

While this may be a harsh assessment, there is no doubt that May will be remembered as the PM who couldn’t deliver Brexit – complemented by occasional flashbacks of her dancing across Africa, or spluttering gamefully on against a disintegrating backdrop at the Conservative Party conference (in retrospect a fitting metaphor for her time in office).

It was notable, however, that one of her last actions as leader was to accept the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change in respect to committing the UK to a legally-binding target to remove net emissions from the economy by 2050.

Whether or not May receives much credit for this move it’s certainly highly significant. But how will her administration be remembered overall by the waste and recycling sector?

2016 – 2017: You win some you Leadsom

One of May’s first actions as PM was a major reshuffle, which saw energy and climate change minister Andrea Leadsom become secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs. Leadsom’s time in the position was (like many before her) largely forgettable. There was a sense that the former banker lacked knowledge about the issues affecting the sector, and relatively little primary legislation moved forward during her tenure. Leadsom was particularly criticised for failing to take urgent action on air quality, with the government’s strategy being repeatedly delayed and then challenged in the courts by environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

However, Leadsom’s time in the Defra hotseat did see the first of a major raft of plastics legislation – on eliminating microbeads from cosmetic products. This would set the tone for the years to come.

2017 – 2019: Gove takes his chance

Following the catastrophic general election of Summer 2017, bringing in controversial figure Michael Gove from a year on the back benches was surely one of the most important decisions of May’s premiership in respect of the environment.

At the time of his appointment Gove could charitably have been described as a ‘Marmite politician’ – a divisive figure who had caused rancour and rebellion in his time as justice and (especially) education secretaries, and whose political maneuverings had put an early end to Boris Johnson’s 2016 leadership challenge.

However, Gove was also known as an active politician who takes pride in working hard on his brief, and leaving his mark on the departments he heads up.

As it turned out Gove used his role as environment secretary to significantly rehabilitate his reputation, bring an energetic zeal to the position, and help to bring through several important pieces of legislation. These were particularly around plastics but also in relation to air quality, food waste and the all-important Environment Bill, which will establish a new regulatory regime post-Brexit.

In some ways Gove has been fortunate to head up a department whose policy remit has grown in salience over the period – with a marked rise in public interest and awareness of environmental issues. However, it seems unlikely that previous environment secretaries like Leadsom, Elizabeth Truss or Owen Paterson would have grasped the mettle and made the impact that Gove has. In that sense May has been fortunate to have him too.

In particular the past few years have seen genuine concerted effort on plastics. While much of this was EU-led the UK has gone further and faster in several policy areas, and the May administration should receive some credit for this.

Meanwhile, industry and campaigners alike will hope that Gove’s commitment to the environment is not cast aside in his next appointment (whatever that ends up being).

2019 – 2050: A new paradigm

Theresa’s May’s parting gift has been to sign off on the commitment to reduce carbon emissions to net zero – going further than the previous 2050 target of an 80% reduction against the 1990 baseline – a move that the prime minister described as “ambitious and crucial”.

On that there is little dispute. Even those pushing for an earlier realisation of the net-zero target recognise that this represents a fundamental reshaping of the economy. One of the most significant characteristics of a net-zero nation is that no industry can imagine it will be part of the 20% of remaining emission. All must prepare and innovate for radical change.

For the waste and recycling sector net zero represents a huge opportunity as well as a challenge. In particular technologies that could bring forward zero-emission energy from waste generation (with or without carbon capture and storage/utilisation) would represent an enormous leap towards helping solve fundamental challenges across heat, power, transportation and waste management.

Such innovations are not on the immediate horizon but neither are they unreachable – especially with proper government support for research and development, and the economies of scale that will be associated with the mass greening of industry and infrastructure to come.

The promise of net zero is a momentous one. May’s successors have a duty to help deliver it.

Patrick Cousens is senior account manager at PLMR


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"Leadsom’s time in the position was largely forgettable" - yes and in comparison to the multiple changes orchestrated under Gove.

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