Resources and Waste Strategy outlines government’s circular ambitions

Plans to introduce separate food waste collections to every household in England by 2023 and ensure producers pay for the costs of managing their waste packaging have been included in the long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy, released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) this morning (18 December).

In the first significant government policy document in the sector since the 2011 Waste Review and the 2013 Waste Prevention Programme for England, the strategy, entitled ‘Our waste, our resources: A strategy for England’, outlines how the government aims to make the UK more resource efficient and reduce the amount of waste produced in the country, while moving the economy away from a linear economic model towards a more circular one that keeps materials in the system for as long as possible.

Beyond the introduction of separate food waste collections – which are subject to consultation – the strategy also outlines the government’s intention to invoke the ‘polluter pays’ principle and extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging to ensure producers pay the full net costs of managing packaging waste at the end of its life, bringing the UK in line with the approach taken already by many European countries including France and Germany.

Resources and Waste Strategy outlines government’s circular ambitions
Environment Secretary Michael Gove at Veolia's Southwark recycling facility.

Plans to roll out a deposit return scheme (DRS) for disposable beverage containers by 2023, setting a consistent set of dry recyclables to be collected by all councils and waste operators and introducing the electronic tracking of waste movements are also key policy announcements contained in the document.

Commenting on the launch of the strategy at Veolia’s materials recycling facility in Southwark, London, Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “Our strategy sets out how we will go further and faster, to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Together we can move away from being a ‘throw-away’ society, to one that looks at waste as a valuable resource.

“We will cut our reliance on single-use plastics, end confusion over household recycling, tackle the problem of packaging by making polluters pay, and end the economic, environmental and moral scandal that is food waste. Through this plan we will cement our place as a world leader in resource efficiency, leaving our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

The strategy, which has been delayed several times since its announcement last year, will be seen as a shot in the arm for England’s resources and waste sector, with England’s recycling rate continuing to flatline – the most recent Defra statistics reveal that the English ‘waste from households’ recycling rate has fallen once again, down 0.3 per cent to 44.8 per cent in 2017/18 – while export markets for recyclable waste saturate and even close in the wake of China’s decision to ban 24 grades of solid waste at the start of 2018, leaving a sizeable proportion of the UK’s recyclable waste with nowhere to go.

Key actions

In order to plot a course toward a more resource-efficient future, the strategy sets out five strategic ambitions:

  1. To work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025;
  2. To work towards eliminating food waste to landfill by 2030;
  3. To eliminate avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Environment Plan
  4. To double resource productivity by 2050; and
  5. To eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050.

These strategic ambitions complement those stated in other government publications in which resources and waste have been afforded significant consideration, including the Litter Strategy, the Clean Growth Strategy, the Industrial Strategy and the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Key actions in the strategy include:

  • A new EPR framework for packaging, which would invoke the ’polluter pays’ principle and seek full net cost recovery from producers for the waste generated by their products at the end of their lives. Currently, producers contribute around 10 per cent of the costs of managing packaging waste through the Packaging Recovery Note system (PRN), while local authorities pick up the rest of the tab, contributing between £600-700 million a year managing this waste – Defra estimates producers will contribute between £500 million and £1 billion under the new regime. Under the new proposals, which aim to be introduced in 2023 and are subject to consultation, a system of modulated fees would also be in place, incentivising better product design by charging lower fees for packaging that is easier to recycle.
  • Reviewing producer responsibility for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), batteries and end-of-life vehicles, as well as looking into extending producer responsibility to material streams such as textiles, vehicle tyres and bulky waste such as mattresses and furniture by 2025.
  • Introducing a plastics tax for all packaging that contains less than 30 per cent recycled content from 2022 subject to consultation, as announced in the Autumn Statement, in order to stimulate demand for recycled materials in the UK.
  • Banning problematic plastic products where alternatives exist. The government has already imposed a ban on the sale of microbeads and is consulting on banning plastic drinking straws, stirrers and cotton buds, though it insists that its focus remains on helping consumers and companies make the right choice rather than banning products.
  • Increasing opportunities for reuse and repair through the extension of product lifetimes, supporting consumer campaigns for reusable alternatives, setting reuse targets for local authorities and developing quality assurance schemes to boost consumer confidence in repaired and remanufactured products.
  • Introducing a DRS for single-use drinks containers in England to capture a significantly higher proportion of the 14 billion single-use plastic drinks bottles used every year in the UK by 2023, subject to consultation. Defra will continue discussions with the devolved governments to introduce a UK-wide system.
  • Setting a core set of recyclable materials to be collected by local authorities and waste management companies, subject to consultation, and exploring whether to introduce performance indicators for the quantity of materials collected for recycling and minimum service standards.
  • Introducing mandatory separate food waste collections by 2023 to capture the seven million tonnes of food waste thrown out by UK households every year. This will be subject to a consultation that will also explore whether to mandate for free garden waste collections.
  • Transposing the EU Circular Economy Package (CEP) and associated recycling targets into UK law. The Package includes commitments to increase municipal waste recycling targets to 65 per cent and limit waste to landfill to 10 per cent by 2035.
  • Increasing efficiency of UK energy-from-waste (EfW) plants through making better use of the heat produced by these plants. An incineration tax will be considered if the government’s long-term waste ambitions to maximise the amount of waste sent for recycling are not being met.
  • Introducing the electronic tracking of waste movements in order to better tackle waste crime, as well as creating a Joint Unit for Waste Crime and increasing powers available to the Environment Agency (EA) to regulate the waste industry.
  • Consulting on the mandatory reporting of food waste for businesses of a certain size and publishing a new food surplus and waste hierarchy, as well as reducing food waste through a £15-million pilot fund.
  • Moving from weight-based targets and reporting towards target-based measures that focus on carbon and natural capital impacts.

Questions of funding

The strategy represents the latest intervention from the government as it works to get a handle on the UK’s waste problem and steer the country towards a more resource-efficient future. Actions taken in 2018 range from policy announcements on plastic waste, such as the commitment to eliminate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 in the 25 Year Environment Plan and the launch of a £20-million fund for plastics research and innovation, to the introduction of new powers to tackle waste crime.

The strategy document also serves to provide a measure of clarity for the resources and waste industry with regard to policy as Brexit continues to be the great known unknown in the immediate future of the sector. However, despite committing to transposing the CEP into UK law in full, the strategy does state when referring to barriers to increasing the uptake of recycled materials that ‘leaving the EU provides us with an opportunity to review and streamline the regulatory environment to overcome these barriers’. This could be interpreted as paving the way for a revision of the separate collection requirements of dry recyclables as mandated by the 2011 Waste regulations.

A significant issue that increases risk and uncertainty in this area is the question of funding for Defra and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), given the budgetary constraints on Defra – from 2018/19 to 2020/21, Defra will see no additional funding, with its capital budget frozen at £600 million for each financial year. In fact, Defra’s departmental resource budget will be reduced from £1.6 billion to £1.5 billion between 2018/19 and 2019/20.

This is concerning, given Defra has already accommodated £147 million of budget cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19. It is also the department with the most Brexit work streams – around 70 – and is still looking to take on 1,400 new staff by the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019. WRAP is also under increasing budgetary pressure seeing its funding from Defra fall from £56 million in 2009/10 down to £15.5 million in 2015/16, a decrease of 72 per cent, while the Resources and Waste Strategy only commits £9.35 million to supporting WRAP’s work in 2018/19.

You can read ‘Our waste, our resources: A strategy for England’ in full on the Defra website.

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