Green Matters: Harnessing the UK's Environmental Improvement Plan – Resources and waste

12 minute read
22 February 2023

The UK's Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 (the EIP) is central to the UK Government's climate change strategy and will create important opportunities for the commercial world. Following the first two articles in our Green Matters series, we turn to look at goals five and six in the EIP's 10-point framework: maximising our resources, minimising our waste; and using resources from nature sustainably.

Goal 5: Maximise our resources, minimise our waste

Key points

Having published the UK's Resources and Waste Strategy in 2018 (discussed in our earlier article after the release of the 2018 strategy), the EIP recognises that there is still much to do in this area. The pandemic was a setback, with a spike in single-use products (facemasks and testing kits in particular) causing residual waste to increase. The EIP therefore sets a course to redouble our resources and waste efforts.

Under the new EIP, there are a large number of waste related targets:

  • Eliminate avoidable waste by 2050.
  • Eliminate avoidable plastic waste and waste crime by 2042.
  • Half residual waste per person by 2042 (waste sent to landfill, incinerated, or used in energy recovery) to 287kg.

A number of interim targets, to be achieved in the next years (by end of January 2028):

  • Reduce residual waste produced by person by 24% (i.e. not to exceed 437kg).
  • Reduce residual waste in total by 21% (i.e. not to exceed 25.5 million tonnes).
  • Various reductions in relation to residual municipal waste – food, plastic, paper and card, metal, and glass.

Plastic waste

To achieve the goal of eliminating plastic waste by 2042, the EIP highlights recent bans on single-use plastics and the introduction of a plastic packaging tax, but also points to future steps in relation to fibre-based composite cups; coffee cups, wet wipes, cigarette filters and sachets.

Deposit return scheme

A deposit return scheme (DRS) was first announced in 2019 and the EIP confirms that it will be introduced from October 2025, giving two and half years for the scheme to be designed and implemented. A DRS scheme will aim to make significant inroads into recycling the 14 billion plastic drinks bottles and nine billion drinks cans that the UK consumes every year. Putting this in place will mean establishing new supply chains and will also present new duties and opportunities for retailers, who will most likely be administering the scheme.

Packaging extended producer responsibility – from 2024

The Government plans to reform the current packaging producer responsibility system, which is hoped will incentivise producers to make more informed choices regarding product design and packaging. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) intends to move the full costs of dealing with packaging waste to businesses that handle and use it (rather than households and local authorities) – the current cost of which is estimated to be c.£1.2 billion per year.

EPR will be introduced on a phased basis from 2024, with household packaging waste being first in line. Recycling targets for plastic, card, steel, aluminium, glass and wood will be set for every year: 2024 to 2030.

WEEE regulations and batteries

On the subject of EPR, the EIP announces further consultations (in 2023) on the operation of the takeback rules for unwanted or unusable waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). It also addresses improvements to the batteries regulations and the strengthening of producer responsibility schemes, which will likely impact the electric vehicle (EV) sector.

It is noteworthy that from January 2025, the UK will prohibit the export of WEEE, unless the destination country agrees to receive it. This reflects a more globally responsible approach to waste created on our shores.

Seven key sectors put on standby!

The EIP puts down a marker that Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will be publishing a new resources and waste programme in England that will set priorities for seven key sectors: construction; textiles; furniture; electronics; vehicles; food; and plastics, packaging and single-use items. In previous waste strategies, the UK Government has indicated that some of these sectors may be subject to new EPR schemes, however, the EIP does not go into the specific policy measures that industry may be facing – we expect more detail to come.

What does this mean for businesses?

For hundreds of years, businesses have placed their goods in packaging to preserve them, prevent damage to the goods, and to make the goods appear more attractive or desirable – and that will undoubtedly continue, but with appropriate adaptation. As society's consumption of goods has increased, so has the amount of packaging. And while some packaging is recyclable, not all is, which means recycling rates are, at best, stagnating.

Of course, it's not simply the packaging that becomes waste, but also the goods themselves once used or obsolete. As the producers of those goods are increasingly responsible for their collection and recycling (under the "polluter pays" principle), so we should expect to see producers and manufacturers redesigning their goods to further limit their environmental impact and reduce costs.

It is likely that there has never been such a new waste liability landscape for businesses who manufacture goods and packaging. Takeback responsibilities will become more onerous and will apply to many more sectors in the coming years. In addition, compliance with new regimes, such as the DRS, will require strategic thought, as well as presenting new commercial opportunities and revenue streams.

Businesses in the seven sectors noted above will be under close scrutiny going forward and will need to be mindful of both the new policy and regulation heading their way. They'll also need to be alive to the view of increasingly environmentally-conscious customers, who will expect to see best practice adopted alongside assurance of compliance with existing laws (see our Tomorrow's World report, which explores the attitudes and actions of Gen Z and how organisations can work alongside this cohort of digital natives to create authentic and meaningful ESG strategies).

Goal 6: Using resources from nature sustainably

Key points

In 2020, the UK's natural capital was estimated to be £1.8 trillion. Protecting nature has wonderful and obvious benefits for biodiversity and air quality, but it has valuable benefits that may be less obvious, for example reducing flood risk and damage, improving crop yields etc.

Sustainable supply chains

The EIP starkly observes that 95% of global deforestation is driven by agriculture, often to produce key commodities such as soy, palm oil, beef, leather, rubber, cacao and timber. Much of the deforestation is illegal (up to 90%, but on average 69%).

The Environment Act 2021 set the framework for establishing rules regarding due diligence of supply chains for "forest-risk commodities" and the EIP notes that secondary legislation (regulations to be "implemented at the earliest opportunity") is on the way in order to set the rules for businesses who use the relevant commodities that are in-scope. These businesses will be required to undertake significant levels of due diligence of their supply chains, and to publicly report on the exercise – with material fines for those business who don't comply.

Sustainable timber

DEFRA will be encouraging more tree planting to increase the supply of sustainable timber. A package of grants, guidance, funding and improved regulatory processes are referred to in the EIP as a means to boost the commercial forestry sector. This is a sector the Government sees as being a sustainable source of timber, and a source of thousands of skilled jobs.

Improving and protecting soil health

The EIP notes that approximately 70% of England's soil is in agricultural use and aims that by 2028, at least 40% will be in sustainability management (through various farming schemes designed to improve and protect soil health and structure), rising to 60% by 2030.

More than half of landfilled material in 2016 was soil. A revised code of practice for the sustainable use of soil on construction sites will be published in 2023, which is hoped will reduce landfilling, and will likely be welcomed by many developers of large development schemes where soil management is an expensive and regulation-heavy aspect of their schemes. A pilot soil re-use and storage depot will start by 2026, whereby landfill-bound soils can, instead, be remediated for reuse.

What does this mean for businesses?

Many businesses use forest-risk commodities and will need to rapidly put together robust due-diligence systems to ensure that their supply chain does not include unsustainable raw materials. Similar rules are being progressed in the EU and it is likely that there will be differences in the approach that needs to be taken. Fines and civil sanctions will be significant and we expect very close scrutiny from regulators, nature and conservation groups, and customers alike – it will not be possible to sub-contract compliance to suppliers as may have been the case previously.

What are the other key goals in the EIP's framework?

For more insight into the 10 goals of the EIP, read our earlier insights below in this five-part series and look out for our analysis of goals 7-9:

To discuss any of the points raised here about the EIP or any related issues it raises for your business or organisation, please contact sustainability partner Ben Stansfield and senior associate Emma Cartledge-Taylor.

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