Gove fails to deny opposition to EU recycling targets

Environment Secretary Michael Gove failed to deny that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been actively opposing a 65 per cent recycling target by 2035 set by the EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP), while responding to questioning in the House of Commons over accusations made by Greenpeace this week.

In a debate in Parliament yesterday (25 January), Gove was questioned by Labour environment spokesperson Sue Hayman MP over claims made by Greenpeace’s journalistic arm Unearthed that UK officials had been ‘quite blunt’ when they ‘had voiced opposition to the binding recycling target’, according to diplomats from three other EU nations who spoke on condition of anonymity as part of an EU delegation.

Responding to Hayman, Gove sidestepped the opportunity to confirm or deny the claims, instead saying: “We are anxious to make sure that, across the EU, we have the right targets. One of the flaws with the EU system, as I acknowledged earlier, is that because of its reliance on measuring through weight, it sometimes incentivises the wrong approaches.Gove fails to deny opposition to EU recycling targets

“I am confident that our own country has gone further than the European Union has requested or suggested on everything from banning microplastics to looking at taxes on single-use plastics and, indeed, introducing the charge on plastic bags.

“In all those areas we have shown ​that we have gone further and faster than the EU, and of course that is the Government’s ambition for a truly green Brexit.”

Defra had taken to playing its cards close to its chest regarding the claims made in Unearthed on Wednesday (24 January), with a Defra spokesperson stating that the department prefers not to speculate on the decision, saying: “The government will make a decision on its vote following close scrutiny of the proposals, which are still provisional.

“Our recycling rates are rising, less waste is now sent to landfill and separate food waste collections are increasing, but as set out in the Clean Growth Strategy and 25 Year Environment Plan, we are working with industry to improve the nation’s recycling rates further. When we leave the EU we will have the opportunity to strengthen and enhance our environmental standards even further by delivering a Green Brexit.”

Gove fielded questions on a number of issues besides the recycling target accusations in the debate yesterday, responding to Conservative MP for Angus Kristene Hair’s question on bottle deposit return schemes (DRS) that he would be “working with the devolved administrations to ensure that we have a UK-wide approach wherever possible”; he also told Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael that the government would be “bringing forward more demanding and more ambitious targets to reduce single-use plastics” in light of criticism over the lack of timeline for achieving the objectives of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

Bullish Britain

UK reticence to fully get behind the targets in the newly agreed CEP has been long-standing, a position made more understandable in the context of a flatlining UK recycling rate (44 per cent) that looks set to fall short of the EU’s legally binding recycling target of 50 per cent by 2020.

Back in October 2017, speaking at the LARAC (Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee) Conference, Resources Minister Therese Coffey warned of the potential ‘perverse outcomes’ and ‘ungreen’ practices derived from the European Union’s CEP, suggesting that governments could take detrimental steps to fulfil their legal requirement.

While Defra officials had previously informed stakeholders back in July 2017 that it expected the CEP to apply to the UK despite Brexit, bullish rhetoric asserting that the UK will be able to achieve even greater environmental standards upon its departure from the EU has ramped up in recent months, especially since the appointment of Gove - a well-known Brexiteer - as Environment Secretary after last year’s snap election.

This has been accompanied by a series of policy announcements and strategy papers, most significant of which was the government’s long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan, which charts a course for environment policy up until 2042.

Having been subject to a number of delays, the strategy was finally published earlier this month (11 January) and included commitments such as eliminating ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 and the extension of the plastic bag levy to all retailers in England. The Plan was largely welcomed by industry figures, though calls for more detail remain.