Waste and resources now ‘high risk’ policy area following Brexit, says Greener UK

The UK’s waste and resources sector has been upgraded to a ‘high risk’ environmental policy area on Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker, as Defra admits that the UK would likely be unable to meet any European recycling targets for 2030, though it expects to take on legislation decreed by the European Union's Circular Economy Package.

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, published the first assessment from its Brexit Risk Tracker, a tool set up to reflect the risks to environmental policy throughout the Brexit process, back in June 2017, with the latest update covering June to September 2017.

Previously considered a medium risk policy area, waste and resources has been upgraded to a high risk sector. Despite Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s recent announcement that his department would be working on a renewed strategy for waste and resources, the coalition says the outlook for waste and resources remains highly uncertain, contributing to its increased risk.

Factors contributing to the sector’s higher rating include Defra’s prediction that it will not reach the 60 to 70 per cent recycling targets due to be set for 2030 by the EU’s Circular Economy Package, saying they are ‘too high to be achievable’, and the fact that the UK is currently on course to miss its 2020 targets.

The department is also set to see a 15 per cent reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020, while the government still insists that the UK will be leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), an institution that provides crucial oversight for environmental protections.

Talking to Resource about the decision to upgrade the level of risk attributed to the waste and resources sector, Libby Peake, Senior Policy Advisor in Resource Stewardship at environmental think tank Green Alliance, which hosts the Greener UK unit, said: “Greener UK’s latest update of its Risk Tracker has seen the level of concern about the impact of Brexit on environmental protection increase overall due to the shortcomings of the government’s Withdrawal Bill. The reason the rating on waste policy has gone into the red zone is because there are worrying signs that Defra’s upcoming waste and resources strategy will be less ambitious than EU policy.

“Defra doesn’t believe that the headline recycling targets of the EU’s new Circular Economy Package are achievable in the UK, and this package won’t have been transposed into domestic law by the time the UK leaves the EU. This could be an opportunity for the government to reject aspects of the EU policy, like higher recycling targets.

“But these targets have proven environmental and economic benefits. Other countries are reaching them, including Wales, so they are achievable if the will is there. The government’s strategy should be to be more, not less, ambitious on this agenda.”

The waste and resources sector joins the chemicals sector and air pollution policy as the most high-risk environmental policy areas, with climate and energy also being upgraded from ‘low risk’ to ‘medium risk’ since the last update in June 2017.

Elevated risk

Greener UK was founded in 2016 and its Brexit Risk Tracker uses a traffic light rating system to evaluate risk based on analysis of the government’s actions and commitments, with secure policy areas given a green rating, those with medium risk given an amber rating and those at high risk assigned a red mark.

The overall risk mark for a particular sector is based on individual risk marks for five sub-sections: principles and strategies; legislation; capacity and funding; governance; and co-operation.

The contributing factors to the increased risk to the sector are detailed below.

Principles and strategies (high risk)

While the waste hierarchy, a fundamental principle of European environmental protection, is written into the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, the EU Withdrawal Bill, Greener UK says, fails to guarantee the extension of other principles beyond the UK’s impending withdrawal date, including sustainable development, while also disregarding the directives that create the policy frameworks for achieving policy goals.

Waste and resources now ‘high risk’ policy area following Brexit, says Green Alliance
Gove speaking at the WWF

While Michael Gove declared his department would tackle the problem of marine plastics and wanted to ‘improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters – all part of a renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU’, there has been no indication of when a new strategy will be published and what that will mean for the long-delayed 25 year plan for the environment.

Legislation (high risk)

The EU’s Circular Economy Package has been made a priority by the current Estonian presidency of the EU, with the EU’s Council, Commission and Parliament currently in discussions over the final package, with headline recycling targets set to fall between 60 and 70 per cent for 2030.

While Defra has said that it is negotiating in ‘good faith’, it has indicated that it does not expect England to reach the 2030 recycling targets, calling them ‘too high to be achievable’, despite the fact that Wales has already achieved a recycling rate of 64 per cent.

Capacity and funding (medium risk)

Defra has recently announced that it will be pushing to recruit 72 new policy advisors for the department, but none of the advertised posts are for the waste and resources field, while a 15 per cent reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020 has cast doubt over whether the department will be able to cope with the mass transposition of environmental law that Brexit will require.

Governance (high risk)

Gove has expressed the need to ‘create new institutions to demonstrate environmental leadership and even greater ambition’ to replace the role performed by the European Commission and the ECJ - but the EU Withdrawal Bill does not make any provisions for the creation of new institutions to provide the monitoring and oversight required for the implementation of UK waste and resources legislation.

Furthermore, the departure from the ECJ’s jurisdiction also means a departure from a significant body of case law that sets rules for waste treatment and compliance for product standards and waste targets - the UK’s departure from the EU could leave considerable room for divergence on waste and resources rules, hindering trade and hampering investments in UK waste treatment facilities.

Co-operation (medium risk)

At her recent speech in Florence, Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her desire to see the UK and the EU create a new economic relationship that is underpinned by the common commitment to higher environmental standards. However, Greener UK says that the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s continued engagement with the Circular Economy Package negotiations makes it difficult to ascertain future levels of collaboration between the UK and the EU.

To find out more about the outlook for UK environmental protections, visit Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker online.

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