Public Accounts Committee highlights lack of clarity stalling waste reforms
The cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has claimed that Defra’s ambitions to reduce the environmental and economic costs of waste are in jeopardy due to a lack of clarity surrounding waste reforms.
The report states that businesses and local authorities are unable to prepare for Defra’s waste reforms – which include Extended Producer Responsibility and ‘Simpler Recycling’ – due to “a lack of clarity on what form the reforms will take and the impact on council funding”.
Without certainty, the PAC claims that local authorities are unable to invest and improve their recycling services and therefore are being forced to stall procurement.
Subsequently, the PAC has cautioned that there is a “real risk” that this could lead to inadequate facilities for managing the greater volumes of recycling anticipated from the reforms. Accordingly, it has warned there is a heightened risk of increased rates of incineration, landfill disposal or export of plastics to other nations than previously experienced.
The need to provide clarity over the Government’s longer-term strategy was also cited as crucial. The Committee highlights that Defra has yet to set out how the waste system as a whole needs to change, including the anticipated level of waste infrastructure capacity required for England to achieve its ongoing ambitions.
This uncertainty is impeding the private sector's confidence in investing in new recycling facilities, which the PAC claims will only further exacerbate the growing issue of plastic waste.
The report contains a request for clarification surrounding the requirements for the collection and packaging programme’s waste infrastructure. According to the report, the absence of published requirements, a timeline for implementation, and confirmed funding prevents businesses and councils from currently making essential investments in their services.
While ‘Simpler Recycling’ is anticipated to contribute to increasing the recycling rate from 42 to 52 - 60 per cent by 2035, the PAC has cautioned that unless there are effective contributions from other projects, Defra is unlikely to achieve its 2035 goal of recycling 65 per cent of all municipal waste.
The PAC highlights that deficiencies in Defra's programme set-up, such as running it as three distinct projects and lacking adequate management capability and capacity, have contributed to delays.
Speaking on the PAC’s report, Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “Changing how we deal with waste is crucial to save the environment from further damage and meet the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. To meet its targets, it’s vital that the Government encourages a circular economy where products can be used again or for longer.
“Without a clearly communicated vision from the Government on how these crucial reforms will actually work in practice, it's unlikely that these targets are reachable. Our inquiry has found that the reforms were beset with problems from the initial set-up, with the Department lacking a clear plan on how to make their ambitions to reduce the environmental and economic costs of municipal waste feasible.
“Delays to the programme mean that businesses and consumers can’t prepare for the upcoming changes, which could mean that even more plastic is sent to landfill in the long term. With businesses and local authorities crying out for information, the Government needs to provide certainty as soon as possible to make sure the necessary investments and procurement can take place."
Reaffirming the need for certainty, Patrick Brighty, Recycling Policy Advisor at the ESA, said: “ESA welcomes the findings of the PAC Committee inquiry into the Government's programme of resources and waste reforms.
“We are encouraged to see Defra's commitment to rectifying previous weaknesses in the Collection and Packaging Reforms (CPR) and to running the reforms as a cohesive integrated programme going forward.
“We now need to take the learnings from the report and move into the implementation phase of the CPR. To deliver the programme, we need the finalised EPR regulations for packaging to come into force so that our sector can mobilise around them. Following the publication of Simpler Recycling in October, the recycling and waste sector will need time to work with our local authority partners, and business waste producers in England, to determine collection systems and make the corresponding process and infrastructure changes at sorting facilities.
“Resolving this outstanding uncertainty will unlock the £10 billion investment that our members stand ready to make in delivering on the Government's ambitious programme of waste reforms.”