The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its strategy for waste and resources in England earlier today. Part of the Government's ambition to move towards a circular economy, the strategy offers solutions to problems such as single use plastics, recycling confusion, excessive packaging and waste crime. The key to the Government's solution will follow the polluter pays principle, making manufacturers and producers financially responsible for the waste they ultimately create.
At a time when the Government appears to be focused on making arrangements for the UK's departure from the European Union, it is refreshing to see such well developed and considered policy being published by Whitehall.
It is important to note that the new strategy does not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but is sure to be closely watched and may form the basis for future strategies in those countries.
In many respects, the aims of the new waste strategy will play well to its audience - the Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP, has tweeted in the past about plastics in the ocean and there will be few who believe that the status quo was sufficient. However, given the global impacts that waste and pollution have, it will be interesting to see how the strategy fares when the UK has left the EU.
The key highlights of the comprehensive strategy are as follows:
Resource Efficient Product Design
The Government wants to reduce the number of items which are discarded before their useful life is over. It will do this by encouraging products to be better designed, to use fewer raw materials; and will stimulate more resource efficient business models (REBM).
As streaming film and music services reduce consumer appetite for compact discs and DVDs, the Government hopes that REBM can reduce demands for raw materials and resources. In years to come, car club membership may mean that we don't need to own cars; ever more of our 'old' IT equipment will be recycled; and we will be able to 'print' our own spare parts for equipment that we currently throw away when parts break.
To achieve its aims, the Government will review current producer-responsibility regimes and develop new schemes, paid for by business. Four waste streams are currently subject to producer-responsibility (PR) rules: packaging; end-of-life vehicles; batteries; and waste electronic and electrical equipment.
We expect public consultations to start from 2019 and reformed schemes to be in force thereafter. The Government currently has the following in mind for future PR schemes and there will be significant commercial advantages for all those businesses which engage early on these issues:
- Textiles (in particular clothing, which accounted for 300,000 tonnes of landfilled or incinerated waste in 2015);
- Bulky waste (such as mattresses, furniture and carpets);
- Construction and demolition waste;
- Vehicle tyres; and
- Fishing gear.
Sustainable Material Choices
Using virgin raw materials in products has obvious consequences for the environment and the Government is keen to encourage producers to adapt design and processes to avoid harm to habitats and landscapes. So how will the Government set about encouraging producers to choose sustainable materials in products and services?
One option is likely to be the introduction of a tax on plastic packaging which contains less than 30% recycled plastic. Businesses should expect the tax to be introduced in April 2022, so there is time to work on supply chain issues and source and design alternative packaging. Whether or not revenues will be ring-fenced to be used on measures to tackle the rise of single-use plastics and litter (as Defra suggest) remains to be seen.
Consumer Focused Nudges
When consumers demand change, successful businesses will adapt quickly. As a result, the Government has included a number of measures designed to nudge consumers to behave in a green and sustainable manner.
We can expect increases in plastic bag charges from 5p to 10p and for other everyday items such as plastic straws, cotton buds and drink stirrers to be charged for or even banned.
There will likely be improvements in product labelling too. We are used to seeing energy efficiency information when we buy white goods and in all likelihood we choose the most energy efficient product that our budget permits. The Government will look at widening 'ecolabelling' so that more products are included and more useful information (on sustainability) is provided.
The Government will also look at establishing a "deposit return scheme" (DRS) for single-use drinks containers. It is estimated that 4 billion plastic bottles, 2.7 billion cans and 1.5 billion glass bottles are not recycled in the UK every year - a DRS would result in recycling rates rising from 70% to 95-98%.
Better Waste Collection and Recycling
Overall waste recycling is approximately 45% but progress is slowing. The Government may legislate to make recycling compulsory for business and provide clearer and consistent rules on recycling for consumers. The Government has compulsory weekly food collections in its radar which could result in a mini-boom for small scale anaerobic digestion (AD) plant operators who use the food waste to generate low carbon energy as well as fertiliser and compost. The number of AD plants has risen from 63 in 2011 to 420 in 2017 - the trend looks set to continue.
Waste Heat from Energy from Waste (EfW) Plants
The Government wants to drive greater efficiency from EfW plants by encouraging greater use of waste heat. The Government has tried to push for greater use of waste heat but developers and operators struggle to find suitable heat offtakers who will compensate them from the inefficiency of producing useable heat. It will be interesting to see if the Government can design policy initiatives that succeed in future.
Fly-tipping and poorly managed waste sites cost over £600m a year (according to the Government) and the effects go beyond the simply economic - sites are polluted, and communities face odour and visual harm. The Government intends to tackle waste crime through a range of measures, including improving and reforming duty-of-care regulations, strengthening intelligence sharing; and increasing the Environment Agency's powers to pursue and disrupt organised crime. Additionally, we can expect tougher penalties for waste criminals and the introduction of financial provisions for permitted waste sites.
The waste strategy dedicates a chapter to measures designed to reduce food waste through reallocation of surplus food to charities. The strategy notes that over ten million tonnes of food was wasted in the UK in 2015, which the Government has committed to reducing by 20% by 2025.
Measures may include obligations on food businesses to report annually on their food surpluses and potentially the introduction of mandatory food waste prevention targets and food redistribution targets for certain businesses.
Global Britain and R&D
Conscious of the decision to leave the EU, the Government is keen to establish itself as a global leader in relation to waste; and the strategy is quick to recognise the need for coordinated international action.
In the recently published strategy, the Government has committed to a number of financial aid packages aimed at reducing marine pollution and have underlined the need for further investment and innovation in resource efficiency and the production of transport fuels through waste treatment technologies.
The strategy is comprehensive and likely to attract support from business, consumers and regulators - there is something in it for everyone, although some may want more action (for example in relation to global marine pollution). The strategy serves as an early warning light for business, particularly those who operate in sectors likely to fall into future PR rules; however all businesses will be required to change their operations, for example in relation to the packaging they use, and for many business there are some interesting business opportunities presented and the old adage still rings true "where there's muck there's brass".