CIWM’s CEO Blog: A Sense of Direction

In his latest blog, CIWM’s CEO, Dr Colin Church, looks at the overarching policy direction for England regarding resources and waste, saying that for the first time in years, the country is at last showing a sense of direction.

Northern Ireland has “Delivering Resource Efficiency”. In the Republic of Ireland, we have “A Resource Opportunity”. Scotland is guided by “Making Things Last”. In Wales, there is “Towards Zero Waste”. But up until this autumn, the constant call of the sector in England has been “what is the overall policy direction here?”

The Waste Strategy of 2007 was more or less dismantled by the Waste Review in 2011 and since then there has been a palpable sense of drift. There was a brief moment when the EU’s Circular Economy Package seemed to offer a solution, only for the Brexit vote to turn that into even more uncertainty.

“After waiting years, a whole suite of policy-related documents have either just come out or are promised for imminent delivery, which together look like they will amount to more than just rhetoric”

The result? Six years of piecemeal progress and limited investment in England. Household recycling rates stalling below 45%. Refuse derived fuel exports up to around 3.5m tonnes a year. Yes, there have been some highlights – strengthening action to tackle waste crime, the MRF reporting regulations, the plastic bag charge. But with no idea of the end destination it is a harder slog.

So what changed this Autumn? Put simply, there is now an overarching policy direction – albeit at the high level with more detail needed – in England. After waiting years, a whole suite of policy-related documents have either just come out or are promised for imminent delivery, which together look like they will amount to more than just rhetoric:

  • The Clean Growth Strategy set out a new policy goal of zero avoidable waste[1] by 2050, alongside the existing greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
  • A few weeks later, the Industrial Strategy white paper reconfirmed this target and added a new one – doubling resource productivity[2], also by 2050.
  • And both said the long-awaited 25 year environment plan would say more and, very importantly, built on Mr Gove’s July promise of a resources and waste strategy for England, committing the Government to producing it in 2018 to give more detail.
  • The National Infrastructure Commission’s document Congestion, Capacity, Carbon set out a number of resource and waste-related issues around infrastructure and reform of the packaging producer responsibility regime.
  • The much-delayed Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s report From Waste to Resource Productivity (including a chapter from our own Steve Lee and Pat Jennings), despite its dramatic disclaimers, is another useful prompt.
  • Promise of a call for evidence on a single-use plastics tax, alongside with work on deposit return schemes under the Litter Strategy.

This is all promising stuff. And early discussions with Defra suggest officials and Ministers there are starting work on the resources and waste strategy with a radical and ambitious remit. The essence, we are told, is how to maximise the value from resources and minimise the impacts associated with end of life treatment and disposal.

This will be underpinned by a series of key outcomes across the hierarchy. These include designing products for reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling and promoting more environmentally friendly consumption.

At the bottom of the hierarchy, the strategy will seek to ensure waste is treated in the most appropriate way to ensure environmental impacts are minimised and the value extracted is maximised. Changes to producer responsibility (reform of the PRN system, extension to other products, etc) will play a significant part, as should further efforts to tackle waste crime. We would also expect the resources and waste strategy to say more about the commitment to work towards stopping food waste going to landfill by 2030.

On top of this flurry of activity by Whitehall (including in recent days Mr Gove talking about a four-point plan to tackle plastic waste), last weekend saw political agreement in the EU on the Circular Economy Package. Defra has repeatedly confirmed that it expects the post-Brexit transition/implementation period to mean the Package will be transposed into UK law, so this too is helping reduce the uncertainty and lack of clarity for the sector in England.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating (a very apposite cliché at this time of year!). And perhaps (perish the thought) over the next few years, we will come to think all this policy activism is a bit too much. But for now the sector can wind up for Christmas 2017 safe in the knowledge that, for the first time in years, English resource and waste management policy is at last showing a sense of direction.

[1] I suspect we will be arguing about the definition of these three words for some time to come – the topic perhaps of a New Year’s blog!

[2] Another to-be-defined term…


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