Has the UK really been held back by the EU on waste and resources?

colourful recycling binsLast week’s anniversary of the triggering of Article 50 was marked, as you’d expect, by many column inches and much airtime, including a BBC Radio 4 programme that caught our attention here at Green Alliance.

In The Brexit lab the journalist Iain Martin explored “the opportunities for policy experimentation post-Brexit” and asked “how we could do things differently once the UK is no longer bound by EU rules”.

There were a number of holes in Martin’s narrative, but we’ll focus on an area close to our hearts: waste, which was the initial focus of the show. “One area of policy where we may have the potential of implementing dramatic change is in waste and recycling,” Martin began. “The European Union sets the rules here.”

Here, immediately, is a matter which needs clarifying. The EU issues two different types of legal acts: regulations and directives. Regulations are immediately enforceable laws that apply to all member states. Directives, though, must be transposed into domestic law, meaning that member states are free to achieve the desired result as they see fit.

Most EU legislation related to waste and recycling falls into the latter category, including the upcoming Circular Economy Package (CEP), which Martin went on to disparage. The EU, then, sets the direction of travel and some minimum aims. In the case of the CEP, which will amend six EU directives on resources, the headline target will be 65 per cent recycling by 2030, but the member states will decide their own particular rules and regulations to achieve it (or to exceed it, if they so choose).

The UK has set its own laws on waste
Previous UK governments have not always chosen what experts believe would be the best rules in this area, to put it mildly. Policies were so bad in the 80s that Britain was commonly maligned as “The Dirty Man of Europe”, in part because of our heavy reliance on landfill. As recently as 2013, the coalition government decided the best approach would be “stepping back” from waste policy altogether, specifically dropping its policy work on commercial and industrial waste and construction and demolition waste (the vast majority of waste created in the country), and scaling back work on anaerobic digestion and food waste, which has since increased.

The coalition also dropped “proactive energy from waste policy development” of its own accord, which makes it odd that Iain Martin explained in the programme that leaving the EU will leave us free to burn waste in a way that we aren’t able to now.

Green Alliance argues (in line with government and scientific evidence) that increasing incineration is not what resource policies should promote, and that it would be far better to focus on waste reduction and design for recycling than to  prematurely maximise contributions from energy from waste.

In relation to Martin’s point that we could burn more waste, though, nothing in EU law has stopped us. We also haven’t been prevented from doing it more efficiently. Most incinerators run by our European neighbours are hooked up to district heating schemes, unlike those here, which usually only produce electricity, at efficiencies of just 15-27 per cent.

Similarly, nothing in EU law has stopped the UK from focusing on waste reduction or improving resource productivity (Germany, for instance, has an extensive efficiency programme which aims to double resource productivity by 2020, 30 years ahead of the UK’s new target, introduced in last year’s industrial strategy).

The UK also hasn’t been stopped in the past from implementing consistent recycling collections, maximising our recycling rates, introducing a carbon based metric to complement weight based targets (as Scotland has done), or creating markets for the materials we collect for recycling. UK governments have neglected all of these potential improvements of their own accord.

Big net benefits of the Circular Economy Package
In the programme, Martin interviewed Policy Exchange, whose report last year argued against adopting the EU’s CEP on the grounds that the UK should be considering its own circumstances. The headline figure Policy Exchange promoted from that report was that the CEP would impose direct costs on UK businesses of £1.9 billion between 2015 and 2035. However, figures included in the same report show that the net effect of the package would be overwhelmingly positive for the UK: implementing the CEP, Policy Exchange shows, would result in external benefits to the UK of more than £4 billion and social benefits greater than £2 billion. (The report also shows that scenarios encouraging 70 per cent recycling – which we could still aim for – would costs businesses less and result in bigger savings.)

As we have noted, Defra’s own modelling suggests the savings could be even greater than this. According to the department, higher recycling and lower landfilling, instead of incineration, make both economic and environmental sense in the UK’s specific circumstances. Achieving 65 per cent recycling would result in £2.5 billion in waste sector savings, £4.9 billion in social savings and £2.4 billion (and 44 MtCO2e) in greenhouse gas emission savings by 2030. It is for these reasons that it is particularly welcome that UK ministers recently announced that they would be dropping their opposition to the CEP and backing its ambitious targets.

Waste less, reuse more
But back to The Brexit lab, where Policy Exchange’s Joshua Burke told Martin that their report was trying to show that “placing more emphasis on reducing waste and reusing waste was perhaps a more suitable way to go”. This is undoubtedly true. We would point out that there was nothing stopping previous administrations from seeing that particular light, but we are certainly pleased that the current government says it has taken this message to heart and will be publishing a resources and waste strategy this year with the aim of “lead[ing] the way in driving global resource efficiency”.

This sort of leadership, recognising that we should go further, faster, is particularly welcome now, and it is likely that Brexit is helping to focus minds. As Labour MP Caroline Flint rightly noted at the end of the show: “One thing’s for sure, as we leave the European Union, we can’t blame them anymore.”

2 comments

  • As some one who worked on a waste incinerator. The UK was keen to promote incineration, as a means to divert waste from landfill. In doing so, it weakened EU directives on emissions control, whilst the Environment Agency, turned a blind eye to environmental infringements by those operating waste incinerators.
    Basically, in this country, things are built as cheaply as possible, at times avoiding Best Available Technology, using the minimum of poorly trained staff, whilst blaming the EU for the poor outcomes.

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