‘Far-reaching’ Environment Bill reintroduced to Parliament

The government has reintroduced the Environment Bill to Parliament today (30 January), including new commitments to ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries and to review international developments in environmental legislation every two years, using the findings to inform the UK’s environmental policy-making.

The Bill returns after failing to pass through Parliament before the general election in December 2019, with its reintroduction being announced in the Queen’s Speech just before Christmas.

The new Bill gives the government the power to introduce environmental legislation following the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January and will place the policies outlined in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing.

‘Far-reaching’ Environment Bill reintroduced to Parliament In addition to the ban on plastic exports to non-OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, the Bill will enshrine environmental principles in law and introduce measures to improve air and water quality, restore habitats, tackle plastic pollution and oversee progress on climate change legislation as the government works towards its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Legally-binding environmental improvement targets will be created and an independent Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will be introduced, which will provide scrutiny of government environment policy, including climate change legislation, and have the power to take enforcement action against public authorities if necessary.

Commenting on the Bill, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “We are facing climate change and our precious natural environment is under threat. We need to take decisive action. 

“We have set out our pitch to be a world leader on the environment as we leave the EU and the Environment Bill is a crucial part of achieving this aim. It sets a gold standard for improving air quality, protecting nature, increasing recycling and cutting down on plastic waste.

“This will build on the UK’s strong track record as the first major economy to commit to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and will drive further action in this super year for the environment, culminating in the UK welcoming the world to the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in November in Glasgow.”

Resources Minister Rebecca Pow added: “This is an enormous game-changing piece of legislation in terms of transforming our approach to the environment, whether its water, air or waste and recycling. The waste and resources section of the Bill is large and there are many things in there that will help shift the dial on waste and resources in the UK, a package of measures that will help shift societal behaviour but also the whole concept of how we think about the circular economy.”

Boosting the UK’s recycling

The ban on the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries is the most significant addition to the Bill from its original iteration in October 2019, a policy that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says ‘could prevent harmful waste from being shipped out of sight whilst boosting the UK’s domestic recycling system’.

The impact of exported plastic waste has come under increased scrutiny in the past two years since China banned the import of post-consumer plastic waste in January 2018 and the environmental impact of mismanaged plastic waste on developing countries has become more apparent.

MPs called for a similar ban earlier in 2019, with the recent return of 42 containers of illegally imported plastic waste to the UK from Malaysia underlining the issues addressed by the ban.

Commenting on the ban, Rebecca Pow suggested that the types of plastic included in the ban would be decided following consultation with industry, stating: “We included a commitment in our manifesto to cut down on waste going overseas. The Bill now enables us to do that. It won’t be all waste, as there is some waste that can be exported and turned into manufactured products themselves. That’s why it’s going to be absolutely essential that as we discuss these measures we consult on them during the secondary legislation stage as there’s a lot to thrash out on how it would operate and who it would affect.”

The proposed ban has been welcomed by the waste industry, with Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), commenting: “The ESA also welcomes the introduction of rules concerning the export of mixed plastics to non-OECD countries. This must be accompanied by measures that will unlock investment in domestic markets and demand for recycled products. This is a complex issue that ESA members have been working on for some time, to ensure that good markets can continue to be found for UK recycled material and that all exports, regardless of destination, are conducted with robust due-diligence procedures in place.”

Further measures addressing waste and recycling as laid out in the government's Resources and Waste Strategy include introducing powers to make producers take more responsibility for the waste generated by the products they place on the market and to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use beverage containers. Powers to introduce charges on a range of single-use items, tackle waste crime and introduce more effective litter enforcement are also included.

Pow highlighted the extent of consultation carried out with industry, particularly on EPR, which she said the industry is "positive about". Underlining the transformational nature of such a scheme, Pow added that she expects the system to "be costed through a levy", which "will will go towards paying for the rest of the waste and recycling system. Some will go to local authorities so they can work on aligning their recycling systems, which is absolutely necessary if we’re going to be able to reduce the stuff we throw away but also to reuse recycled material effectively and efficiently."

This levy can be used by local authorities to support the introduction of schemes like separate food waste collections, though the government will support extra costs. "We've got an agreement that the Treasury will fund any additional burdens on local authorities – that's a condition we've made,: said Pow.

Environmental oversight

Environmental protection has been placed at the heart of the Bill, with the OEP set to hold the government to account over its environmental commitments. Questions have been raised numerous times by MPs regarding the independence of the new OEP and the upholding of environmental standards following Brexit.

Defra claims that ‘by freeing ourselves from future changes to EU law’ the UK can in fact ‘go beyond the EU’s level of ambition’ and ‘lead the way at home and abroad to deliver global environmental change’.

While committing the government to reviewing significant developments in international environmental legislation every two years, Defra ministers will also be required to make a statement to Parliament, identifying the environmental impacts of all new primary legislation.

Furthermore, the Bill will enshrine long-term targets on biodiversity, air quality, water and resource efficiency into law, with findings from the review of international environmental legislation being factored in to the target-setting process and Environmental Improvement Plan.

However, it has been pointed out that a commitment to review developments in environmental legislation is not the same as guaranteeing that environmental standards keep pace or do not fall. Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, Pat Jennings, said: "A biennial review of significant developments in environmental legislation is not the same as a legally binding commitment to maintain and build on current high environmental standards. Moves to dilute the UK’s commitment to ‘non-regression’ after Brexit have been the subject of concern across the environment sector and CIWM will be working with other organisations and initiatives on this and other areas of concern over the coming months.”

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