Lords question Brexit’s effect on UK waste trade

The EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has called on Resources Minister Therese Coffey to explain the potential impact of Brexit on the UK’s export of waste, seeking clarity on the future of waste policy and the protection of barrier-free trade.

China’s adoption of strict waste import measures this year has brought the UK’s trade in waste into the foreground - the country has banned 24 grades of waste including mixed paper and post-consumer plastics, and is set to cap contamination in all other waste imports at 0.5 per cent from March. While the UK before the ban exported millions of tonnes of waste to China every year, and has had to find a range of alternative destinations for recyclate, its biggest export market remains the European Union, meaning any change in trade agreement could have a significant impact on the UK recycling industry.

Lords question Brexit’s effect on UK waste trade
One of seven cross-party groups making up the larger House of Lords EU Committee, the Energy and Environment Sub-Committee scrutinises the UK’s environmental policies in respect of EU legislation and rulings. Although Coffey reassured the Sub-Committee in a meeting on 10 January that Brexit would have ‘little or no impact on the UK’s trade in waste’, the group also heard concerns from industry figures about the government’s lack of clarity on this issue, with fears that new trade barriers could increase the cost and difficulty of trading in waste.

As an EU member the UK currently has zero tariffs on trade and no border checks, but there is as yet little certainty about the post-Brexit trading landscape, and future barriers might result in storage difficulties due to border control delays, more waste sent to lower-tariff non-EU destinations with lower environmental standards, an increase in waste crime and more waste ending up in landfill. Also mentioned in a letter to Coffey from the committee are fears that Gibraltar’s waste trade, as a British Overseas Territory, could suffer as a result of Brexit.

Coffey last month expressed ‘confidence’ that there would be no significant tariffs, as EU countries also import waste to the UK and would not benefit from higher rates, but the letter seeks to underline the Sub-Committee’s recommendation that a trade deal should seek to preserve non-tariff, barrier-free trade.

With regards to hazardous waste, EU regulations stipulate that once the UK is no longer a member, it will not be able to receive imports of hazardous waste for treatment from EU countries. The letter expresses concern that because Ireland currently exports around 40 per cent of its hazardous waste to the UK, there could be a knock-on effect for UK businesses no longer able to receive this trade.

The uncertainty around freedom of movement was also a sticking point for industry representatives, who suggested that some pan-European waste companies would have difficulty conducting business in the UK if unable to easily move their staff around, while British companies reliant on labour from the EU would also suffer.

A call for clarity on these issues is the central point of the letter, relaying the concern of the industry that continued uncertainty is preventing business as usual. Chair of the Sub-Committee, Lord Teverson, commented: “We were pleased to hear the confidence that the Minister expressed to the Committee that Brexit will have little or no impact on the UK's trade in waste. The industry experts that we heard from, however, did not share that confidence.

“We would therefore urge the government to bear the industry's concerns in mind as Brexit negotiations continue, and seek to provide them with reassurance at the earliest possible opportunity."

The post-Brexit legislative landscape remains a question mark at the moment, not just on waste but around environmental policy generally. Although the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (released 11 January) promises a ‘Green Brexit’, it has been criticised for lacking a clear and solid plan for the future. Mary Creagh, Chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, said the plan “failed to provide any legal basis for its ambitions for the environment, which will be needed after we lose EU legal environmental protections after Brexit.”

Think tank Green Alliance published a report in December 2017 seeking to identify the potential risks of Brexit for UK resource strategy, with Senior Policy Advisor Libby Peake writing for Resource that action is needed to ensure the UK does not develop different environmental standards to the rest of Europe. Similarly, industry experts speaking to the Sub-Committee highlighted that divergence from EU policy could create further barriers to trade.

While policy direction will be set out in the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, promised towards the end of 2018, the Sub-Committee’s letter calls for clarity ‘at the earliest possible opportunity’ in order to instill in the industry some of Coffey’s confidence about the future of the UK’s trade in waste.

The Energy and Environment Sub-Committee’s letter to Therese Coffey can be read on the committee’s website. 

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