Resource Use

Frictionless trade of waste materials essential post-Brexit, says ESA

Frictionless trade of waste materials with Europe is essential for a post-Brexit world, says a joint statement from the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the Dutch Waste Management Association (DWMA), released yesterday (19 April).

The two trade associations have joined together to call on UK and EU authorities to ensure that ‘unnecessary’ trade barriers and tariffs on the trade of waste materials, such as refuse derived fuel (RDF), are avoided.

The UK currently exports around three million tonnes of recyclable material at a value of £900 million to other EU member states, in addition to 3.5 million tonnes of RDF for energy recovery, to the tune of £320 million.


The joint statement details the ‘significant economic and environmental advantages’ that free trade of waste materials provides for the UK and the European countries with which it trades, above all in that the possibility of exporting waste materials provides an outlet for material that cannot be treated in the UK.

According to the statement, ‘the UK does not have enough domestic capacity to reprocess all of the recyclable materials it collects into new products and materials’, nor does the UK ‘have enough facilities in place for recovering energy from its non-recyclable waste and recycling residues, while UK landfill capacity is rapidly falling and landfill tax rightly makes this a costly option.’ Until such time as that capacity is available in the UK, the export market provides flexibility when it comes to meeting the UK’s waste needs.

Both associations stress the need for the UK and the EU to ‘capitalise on the potential for neighbouring countries to continue to work closely together towards a low carbon circular economy’, while highlighting the potential adverse economic and environmental effects trade barriers would cause, including a reduction in UK treatment capacity, falling recycling rates and the prospect of reopening decommissioned landfill sites.

From the perspective of mainland energy recovery operators, it is stated that ‘Brexit could lead to a reduction in waste streams in their installations and therefore a decrease in the production of sustainable raw materials and renewable energy.’

The ESA and DWMA state that the resource and waste management sectors that they represent ‘want to be able to continue to innovate and invest in new capacities and technologies which contribute towards the UK’s and the EU’s climate change targets, clean growth and resource productivity, and strongly believe that stable and resilient markets for recyclable and recoverable waste materials are essential to meeting that objective’. The statement also expresses a desire to see the continuation of such initiatives as the North Sea Resource Roundabout, a project that seeks to ease regulatory barriers to the trade of recycled materials.

The importance of exports to the UK’s waste management and recycling system has become all the more evident in recent months with the Chinese Government implementing a ban on the import of 24 types of solid waste and strict contamination limits of 0.5 per cent on all other waste materials at the start of the year, sending shockwaves through the UK recycling industry, which used to send about 494,000 tonnes of plastics and 1.4 million tonnes of recovered paper to China every year.

Commenting on the statement, ESA Executive Director Jacob Hayler said: “ESA sees Brexit as an opportunity for the UK to further develop its domestic treatment capacity for both recyclable and residual waste, and we hope that Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy will contain concrete measures for making this a reality. But at the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that – for recyclable material in particular – self-sufficiency is a long way off.

“This means it is absolutely vital that when the UK leaves the EU, trade in recyclable and recoverable waste should continue to be as frictionless as possible. We are therefore pleased to be making a joint statement with our Dutch colleagues on this important topic today.”

Dick Hoogendoorn, Director of the Dutch Waste Management Association, added: “The baseline for the circular economy to start and grow is stopping large scale landfilling across Europe. Our waste sector is willing to lend other member states a helping hand. Dutch waste companies can help with the treatment of waste for recycling and recovery from other European countries until they have developed sufficient capacity. Nations are becoming increasingly interdependent concerning the sound treatment of waste. This counts for almost all countries within Europe.”

The joint statement also drew praise from the RDF Industry Group, established by Eunomia Research and Consulting in 2015 to explore the opportunities and issues relating to RDF export. The Group's Chair, Robert Corijn from Attero, commented: “The RDF Industry Group welcomes the call for frictionless waste trade post-Brexit. The export of RDF from the UK provides a vital, flexible treatment route for residual waste that would otherwise go to landfill, providing environmental and economic benefits. The UK Government and EU must act without delay to provide clarity to the industry that exports can continue withouthindrance or additional cost, and ensure that any new customs process does not impede the export of RDF. The RDF Industry Group is developing further evidence of the quantifiable and tangible environmental and economic benefits that RDF export brings, and will publish a paper next month.”

You can read the full statement on the ESA website.

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