What the party manifestos promise to do with waste

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella, freelance journalist

Where do the main political parties stand on waste? In the run-up to this month’s general election, Maxine Perella took a look at the manifestos of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party in search of answers on issues from EPR to the circular economy

The UK is in the midst of snap election fever at the time of writing, so it’s perhaps apt to ask where Theresa May sits on the waste hierarchy. Well, she certainly doesn’t like to take the bins out. That revealing statement, [made by her husband Philip on the BBC One Show last month], certainly attracted headlines and is indicative of how politics and our household rubbish remain inextricably linked.

Interestingly, Defra has responded to a House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee report on Brexit and the environment, which hints that the current government administration may look to streamline waste legislation once it exits the EU. In its response, Defra states that: “In relation to waste management, leaving the EU will allow the UK to adopt policy measures on resource management that work best for the UK. We can look to simplify some of the more complex processes without changing the level of environmental protection.”

Whether this signals a green light for the creation of new waste policies remains to be seen, but certainly the Committee has suggested that there may be a need to assess whether the UK’s approach to resource management will be feasible, or fit for purpose, depending on the terms of a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK. If re-elected, the Tories should tread carefully here – the Committee believes there is a strong shared interest in maintaining cross-border trade with the EU and that a degree of alignment between the UK and EU on environmental standards will be necessary.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives haven’t given much away in their pre-election manifesto on waste issues other than promising to do more to tackle litter, through supporting “comprehensive rubbish collection and recycling” and “better packaging”.

It’s all a bit vague. The party’s appetite for end-of-life thinking has been reserved for heavy industry, notably the oil and gas sector, where it pledges to support the development of “a world-leading decommissioning industry”. Scotland should benefit there then.

Party pledges

Industry leaders – especially in England – have long called for tougher action on waste crime, extended producer responsibility (EPR), policy pull measures to stimulate greater industrial use of secondary raw materials, mandatory food waste collections and a ban on biodegradable waste to landfill. Some of these calls have been answered by the other party manifestos.

There’s a brief – but significant – nod to EPR in Labour’s manifesto, in which the party states: “We will set guiding targets for plastic bottle deposit schemes, working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce waste.”

Tougher action is also promised on air quality, with a pledge to introduce a new Clean Air Act, and a signal that ocean pollution and beach litter may also fall under the spotlight.

The Liberal Democrats have gone a lot further, dedicating a whole section to waste and resource management policy. Some of these are repeat pledges made back in 2015, the most significant to introduce a Zero Waste Act with legally binding targets – a statutory waste recycling target of 70% in England, and the extension of separate food waste collections to at least 90% of homes by 2022.

Other pledges include the introduction of a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups and a “coherent tax and regulatory framework” for landfill, incineration and waste collection. This would see the Landfill Tax escalator reinstated, and a consultation on an Incineration Tax. Significantly, the phrase “circular economy” is mentioned in the Lib Dem manifesto, as it is in the Green Party’s manifesto. The Greens pledge to end plastic waste and promote the circular economy by fostering a “culture of reusing and refilling”. Measures include introducing a bottle deposit scheme, free public water dispensers and a community refill scheme, and an end to unnecessary single-use plastics.

EPR is a definitive theme running throughout most of these manifestos, and that is encouraging. Just look what is happening in Edinburgh – the Scottish Daily Mail reported last month that the SNP is drawing up plans to trial a deposit return pilot scheme in the Scottish capital as a testbed for potentially rolling it out nationwide. The newspaper had previously revealed that a majority of MSPs had signed a motion supporting the principle of a well-designed deposit return scheme, with the Scottish Conservatives having dropped their previous opposition.

This level of cross-party political support is nothing short of impressive. It may also send a strong signal south to the newly elected government that when it comes to the greater good – whether we’re talking cleaner communities, a less wasteful society, or industrial prosperity – collaboration and consensus is not a bad route to take.

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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