Government scientist says resource productivity must be at the heart of industrial strategy

The government’s Chief Scientific Advisor has urged the UK to move beyond simply managing waste and to begin exploiting opportunities to improve resource productivity.

In a report published this week by the Government Office for Science, ‘From waste to resource productivity’, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, along with Professor Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and co-author of the paper, warned about the sheer bulk of waste being produced in the UK, much of which is harmful, before emphasising the opportunities for generating value from this waste and creating a more prosperous society.

The report outlines 13 specific ‘Areas to Explore’, with the designated aim of providing a strategic direction for UK waste and resource policy and enhancing understanding of the manifold opportunities, issues and risks inherent in extracting value from waste. Government scientist says resource productivity must be at the heart of industrial strategy

It looks at the issue of waste and resource productivity through the lens of five economic sectors that produce waste - households, commercial and industrial (C&I), agriculture and food, mining and primary resource extraction and construction and demolition (C&D) - as well as from the point of view of citizens, businesses, local authorities and national government.

Prior to delving into the individual economic areas and perspectives, the report delivers a number of key messages to inform the UK’s strategic approach to waste and resources:

  • There will always be residual waste, so there must be appropriate disposal options;
  • The UK can do more to reduce waste by intensifying recycling efforts, embedding sustainable design into into the education system and manufacturing and promoting reuse;
  • A post-Brexit re-evaluation of the UK’s waste policy must include all stakeholders and the devolved UK administrations;
  • Waste policies must take into account the nature of hazards and their threat to humans and wildlife;
  • Scientists and engineers must provide policymakers with the best possible scientific advice to reduce adverse risks, ideally through state-of-the-art evidence reviews, which require funding; and
  • Greater reporting of the amount, type, quality and origin of waste, including requiring waste management operators exempt from permitting to report on the types and quantities of waste they handle and enhancing inputs to the open date store edoc (Electronic duty of care).

While the identifying where more work needs to be done, the report restates the opportunities open to the UK to improve resource productivity, especially in light of the UK’s impending departure from the EU. The vast majority of UK waste policy is underpinned by EU legislation, with Brexit providing ‘an opportunity for the UK to examine the totality of its waste policies, and consider them in the context of the government’s Industrial Strategy’, although much will depend on whether the UK adopts the EU’s Circular Economy Package before its departure from the EU is confirmed in March 2019.

National government must step up

Underpinning the report is the notion that the UK Government must place resource efficiency and productivity at the forefront of its policy agenda and Industrial Strategy, and has a crucial role to play in providing the impetus, incentives and policy framework to place resource productivity at the heart of UK economic activity.

Improving resource efficiency can have many positive impacts for the UK economy and environment, the report states, as it can ‘boost wealth generation, create new jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve our environment’, as well as promoting business profitability through ‘fine-tuning the balance of costs of materials, waste disposal and labour, and examining regulations to ensure that they encourage rather than obstruct these efforts.’

The paper calls on the UK Government to provide a fertile ground for businesses and local authorities to become more resource efficient by:

  • Producing a comprehensive Waste and Resources Strategy that includes pricing and market-based approaches, regulatory approaches (such as the Landfill Tax) and strategic approaches to provide a long-term vision and a substantial reorganisation of how materials move through the economy;
  • Preparing a roadmap of administrative and legislative action necessary to put in place a comprehensive and modern waste and resource data reporting regime in the UK;
  • Developing circular economy best practice; and
  • Rebalancing the responsibility for the waste management cost burden across householders, LAs, waste companies, reprocessors and business waste producers.

The government has already outlined some of its policy strategy for waste and resources this year, releasing its Clean Growth Strategy in October with a headline target of sending zero waste to landfill by 2050, and releasing its Industrial Strategy in November, which laid out plans to strengthen the secondary materials market and move towards a circular economy.

However, the UK waste and resources industry is still waiting for a comprehensive Waste and Resources Strategy, which has been postponed since Michael Gove’s arrival at Defra, and is now slated for a late 2018 publication date.

The full report - ‘From waste to resource productivity’ - is available on the UK Government’s website.

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