HomeResourcesCircular economyWhy would England ditch its recycling targets when waste is such a problem?

Why would England ditch its recycling targets when waste is such a problem?

Back in March 2018, the government won kudos for reversing its opposition to tough recycling targets included in the EU’s Circular Economy Package. “I want the UK to lead the way in driving global resource efficiency and that’s why, as well as backing the EU’s Circular Economy Package, we have committed to publishing a new resources and waste strategy in 2018,” then Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said.

The government did duly publish its resources and waste strategy, which was widely welcomed and lauded, including by me, for its promises to bring in the fundamental reforms needed to change how we use and value resources.

The environment needs deeds not words
But this strategy is not legally binding, and little noted at the time was the fact that the ambitious headline recycling target from the EU’s Circular Economy Package – 65 per cent by 2035 – had been demoted by the UK to a ‘goal’, meaning that, as it stands, there will be no consequences for missing it.

And now, the 5 July deadline for transposing the Circular Economy Package into UK legislation has officially been and gone. It passed with little note, apart from a recent parliamentary question from Dr Matthew Offord asking what the government’s plans were to make the package law. In her response, the current environment minister Rebecca Pow did not mention any plans to bring the full package into law. In fact, although she did not highlight it in her response, the government has consulted on transposing some parts of the package, notably the packaging specific targets the country is already on course to meet. But England is way off course to meeting other aspects, for instance the EU’s stretching recycling targets which it committed to in 2018. So far, there has been no move to enshrine them in English law.

For a country that has made so much noise about being a “world leader” on the environment, including on the circular economy, this is disappointing, indicating a go slow approach on an important area of environmental policy that voters care about. It also appears to violate the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, under which the UK is obliged to comply with EU law during the transition period. This includes measures to implement or apply EU laws where necessary, as is the case here.

The UK is already letting the EU pull ahead
This will raise the alarm for environmentalists closely watching the Brexit process. It calls into question the government’s claim that it will do “better” than the EU does in this area and its promise that Brexit will not result in a lowering of environmental standards.

Even before the transition period has ended, in failing to adopt, as required, these progressive circular economy laws, the government has failed to meet its own obligations and promises, and it is letting the EU pull ahead in environmental ambition. This shows that we’ve been right to call, along with our colleagues in the Greener UK coalition, for the government to include a straightforward and substantive commitment to non-regression of environmental law in its flagship Environment Bill.

To be a world leader, the UK should address all parts of the material cycle
Now, the government could legitimately say that, through the Environment Bill, it will be bringing in different, more ambitious targets for resource use than those for recycling in the EU’s Circular Economy Package. And we would welcome attention being given to more than recycling. Green Alliance has long argued that recycling targets on their own are far from sufficient, as they address only one part of the material cycle. We’ve also argued that more needs to be done to ensure they aren’t met by simply increasing the amount of garden waste collected.

Our work for the Circular Economy Task Force has shown targets should also focus on resource efficiency at the start of the material cycle and waste reduction at the end. But that’s not to say recycling targets aren’t needed. They are, and have been highly effective at driving action in the past. The system would just work a whole lot better, for businesses, society and the environment, if it was joined up all the way from raw material extraction to disposal. The government should urgently enshrine the headline Circular Economy Package targets in law as a baseline to build upon through future processes.


UPDATE: On 30 July 2020, the government announced that it would be adopting the 65 per cent headline target from the Circular Economy Package into UK law. Regulations to confirm the move were laid before parliament on 27 August 2020 and are expected to come into force on 1 October 2020. We think it is great news that the government listened to our calls on the main target, but are concerned that they have still not adopted the full package. We are continuing to push for adoption of the interim targets on recycling (55 per cent by 2025 and 60 per cent by 2030), as well as all the other measures set out in the Circular Economy Package. These additions would help to ensure that the UK can meet the 2035 65 per cent recycling rate and begin transforming its economy to one that is truly circular.   


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Libby is head of resource policy at Green Alliance.