National debate needed over UK recycling targets

The UK needs to have a national debate on future recycling targets to establish a framework for the resource sector post-Brexit, says the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC).

National debate needed over UK recycling targets
The call comes in a briefing paper, ‘Brexit: Implications for the Waste and Resources Sector’, released yesterday (21 February), laying out recommendations for waste and recycling policy following the UK’s departure from the European Union. However, some commentators have pointed out that such a debate might be redundant, if the remaining EU member states determine the UK must remain bound by EU laws to establish a trade agreement post-Brexit (see below).

The paper, which the EIC’s Waste and Resource Management Working Group has developed in partnership with law firm B P Collins LLP, summarises the impact of EU legislation on the waste sector, and identifies areas that could be affected if EU waste law no longer applies to the UK.

The EIC was founded to represent businesses that provide technology and services that deliver environmental performance. The body says it works to promote high environmental standards in the UK, while maintaining cost-effectiveness by influencing environmental policy, providing guidance on regulatory changes and connecting organisations working across the sector.

In its briefing paper, the commission urges the government to consult on setting new ‘ambitious but realistic’ recycling targets for 2025, which will supersede existing European targets for 2020.

The current EU recycling target is 50 per cent by 2020, with a potential goal of 65 or 70 per cent by 2030, depending on the final outcomes of discussions around the EU’s Circular Economy Package. However, in a move criticised by some as reducing ambition, the EIC report suggests that this target may not be achievable, and instead recommends a debate in parliament to set new targets to fit within a UK context.  

One example of how detachment from EU targets could be used to guide UK recycling, the EIC suggests, is by changing the focus from tonnage targets to incorporate more ‘nuanced’ measures on wider environmental goals like CO2 impacts.

EIC Executive Director Matthew Farrow said: “The complex layers of EU waste law established over 40 years have transformed waste management and recycling in the UK, helping us get from bottom of the league to mid-table. Post-Brexit the government must resist making significant changes to regulations as this will undermine what has been achieved.

“But there are areas where new thinking is required. It is not clear that the UK will meet the EU 2020 50 per cent recycling target and the European Commission will no longer be able to sanction the UK for not achieving it. 

“While the EU is considering a one-size-fits-all target for the remaining EU countries for 2030, the UK should consider setting a 2025 target that is ambitious but realistic in a UK context. Such a target, if set with industry and cross-party support, would provide an investment framework for the industry to drive UK progress towards a circular economy.”

The EU’s Circular Economy Package was first published in December 2015, with a range of actions and legislative proposals, including targets for recycling rates.  Before the Circular Economy Package is passed into law, all three European institutions (Council, Parliament and Commission) must agree a stance through a series of trilogues. This means that a final package will likely not be established until the second half of 2017. Indications from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), suggest the government is expecting the package to apply to the UK as it is likely to come into force before the anticipated Brexit negotiation deadline in March 2019.

National debate needed over UK recycling targets
The front page of the Environmental Industries Commission's report
Many environmental groups and members of the resource industry support such ambitious targets, and indeed have already expressed disappointment in the EIC  for suggesting a scaling back of ambition post-Brexit.

Others, meanwhile, believe they are too unrealistic. Resources Minister Therese Coffey, speaking to the Environmental Audit Committee in September last year, said that certain elements of the Circular Economy Package could end in “perverse” results.

As Brexit negotiations continue, there is considerable need for a debate to clear some of the uncertainty that has arisen around the future of the waste industry. The EIC’s report highlights the need to determine how the UK will move forward with waste policy in a post-Brexit future.

Separate collections review

Amongst the other recommendations presented in the report is a review of the separate collection provisions of the revised Waste Framework Directive. The current wording says that councils must collect paper, metal, plastic and glass separately where technically, environmentally and economically practicable (TEEP).

The EIC says that the wording ‘has led to too much ambiguity’ and should be made more clear to enable high-quality recyclate to be delivered.

In another move that will doubtless lead to the desired debate, as it could be interpreted as reducing ambition for high-quality recyclate, it claims that the government should replace separate collection provisions to allow co-mingling with glass excluded.

Other recommendations in the briefing paper include:

  • Copy EU Ecodesign regulations that emerge from the Circular Economy Package;
  • Incorporate circular economy approaches in the sector plans to be developed under the new Industrial Strategy;
  • Encourage regulatory commonality between the devolved nations even while targets and initiatives may diverge;
  • Recognise the need for best overall environmental option (BOEO) to be considered alongside the waste hierarchy; and
  • Retention of the EU definition of waste to avoid prolonged uncertainty

David Smellie, a partner at BP Collins LLP said of the paper: “This report acts as a real voice for the industry. Any indication on the future of environmental policy and indeed legislation in the waste management sector has been largely absent from any recent government announcements or in the Brexit white paper. So this is a real opportunity for the industry to help influence the next steps that the government should take on developing and facilitating the future growth of this sector.”

­Brexit implications down to negotiation, with the EU holding the more powerful hand

The decision for the UK to supersede European targets and redefine separate collection regulations might not be down to the UK itself, however, as Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of the CHEM Trust and former head of Friends of the Earth Europe, explained to Resource: “Too many stakeholders in the UK are viewing the Brexit process as something that the UK decides on, and then the EU will agree to this. The reality is that it will be a negotiation, with the EU27 side having a more powerful hand. It’s therefore important to consider what is likely to be the EU27 response, by considering what is in their self interest, and what decision makers and stakeholders are saying.

“In the case of EU environmental policy, European green NGOs have already said that the EU should ensure that the UK remains bound by all EU environmental law if the UK wishes to have a trade agreement with the EU. There is a strong logic for the EU27 to do this, both to avoid trans-boundary effects and to ensure a level playing field.

“The EIC position takes the approach that the UK will be able to ‘cherry pick’ EU environmental laws, just taking those that a particular stakeholder likes. This cherry-picking approach is generally unlikely to be acceptable to the EU27, as there is no benefit for them and it will often lead to greater complexity. There might be some areas of compromise, but this will very much depend on the EU27’s overall line on the environmental acquis, and on what’s happening in other parts of the negotiations.

“The EU does, in general, have the most sophisticated environmental regulations in the world, and [these] regulations are based on solid science and real experience. If the UK does remain within the acquis, it will be able to benefit from this system, and contribute new science and experience into it – it will just lose the right to a vote.”

The EIC’s ‘Brexit: Implications for the Waste and Resources Sector’ briefing paper can be read on the organisation’s website.