‘We expect lasting, long-term change’

The government recently published its resources and waste strategy. In an exclusive interview with CIWM’s new bi-monthly magazine, Circular, Environment Secretary Michael Gove explains how the plan will be put into action.



Circular (C): What are the highlights of the new strategy, and why are they vital for the UK’s future economic success?

Michael Gove (MG): Our strategy is a blueprint for a radical overhaul of waste and recycling in England. It’s ambitious and forward-looking, and is aimed squarely at helping our society go further – and faster – to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Householders will see a less confusing approach to recycling across England, with a consistent set of materials collected for recycling.

I also want to invoke the ‘polluter pays’ principle. We’ll make sure businesses and manufacturers shoulder their responsibilities. It’s only right that they pay their fair share for the pollution caused by their products. So we’ll charge them the full cost of recycling or disposing of packaging waste.

Our goal is a more circular economy, in which resources are kept in use for longer. Our strategy will maximise the value of the resources we use, minimise the waste we create, and cut carbon emissions. This is good for the economy and good for the planet.

This overhaul of the system should help us to become a less ‘throw away’ society, and tread more lightly on the planet.

We can be proud of our progress in recent decades in tackling waste and managing resources. However, I want to cement our position as a world leader in resource efficiency.

C: How will the strategy help create a strong secondary material market and increase UK reprocessing?

MG: It’s right that we move away from being a ‘throw away’ society. A crucial part of that is making products last longer by ensuring they can be readily repaired or reused.

Our strategy sets out how we will incentivise better design to extend the lives of products through reuse and repair, to stop them becoming waste in the first place.

Our strategy will make business and manufacturers pay their fair share for the pollution that their products cause by charging them the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste, invoking the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

I want businesses and manufacturers to step up to the challenge – but, if necessary, we will consider mandatory extended warranties and clearer product labelling to increase rates of reuse, repair and remanufacture.

This will work hand in hand with our major reforms – including consistent recycling collections for all households and the Chancellor’s proposed world-leading tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30 per cent recycled content – to boost the supply and demand for secondary materials.

C: What are the main challenges for the government and the sector in implementing the strategy’s objectives?

MG: Our strategy is bold and ambitious, but it’s also broad. We need to ensure players operate holistically and don’t focus in too narrowly on just the headline grabbers.

It’s going to take a collaborative effort from businesses, manufacturers, councils, and the general public. We also need consistent leadership from government.

Since I became Environment Secretary, I’ve made it a central mission of my department to help turn the tide on waste. We’ve already taken action to help people move away from reliance on single-use plastics. The Chancellor’s proposed tax on plastic packaging that doesn’t contain recycled material will also accelerate our switch away from single-use plastics and drive further innovation.

C: To meet targets and achieve consistency across the UK, what will be the probable impact on local authorities? 

MG: Our strategy will make domestic recycling less confusing by smoothing out differences in policies between individual local councils, making sure a consistent set of recyclable materials are collected. We also want to see consistent labelling on packaging, so consumers know what they can recycle.

Industry will cover the full cost of the life-cycle of their products, through to recycling and recovery, through EPR. We will start by reforming the packaging regulations and then consider other products. Local authorities will benefit from the income from producers.

At the moment, packaging producers pay only around 10 per cent of the cost of dealing with household packaging waste.

By increasing that to 100 per cent, we will incentivise producers to think carefully about using less packaging, and to switch to using packaging that is easily recyclable. The money raised will be used to boost household recycling and make sure any packaging used is recycled and disposed of properly. This will raise between £500m and £1bn a year for recycling and disposal.

C: With local authority budgets under pressure, how can councils engage effectively with the drive for more consistency and higher recycling rates?

MG: Many households are already dedicated recyclers – but there is far too much variation and confusion in how councils collect waste. That’s why we’ll invest to make domestic recycling less confusing by smoothing out differences between the policies of individual councils, and supporting comprehensive and frequent rubbish and recycling collections.

Communication between local authorities and their residents plays an important role in reducing confusion, thereby increasing the quantity – and quality – of recycling. We will continue to work with Recycle Now and other partners to help householders recycle.

Our strategy also sets out how we want to see consistent labelling on packaging so consumers know what they can recycle to drive up recycling rates further.

C: The strategy covers food-waste collections from householders. How are you expecting food producers and retailers to be involved?

MG: Food waste is an economic, environmental and moral scandal, and we must end it. We want businesses and manufactures to step up to cut unnecessary food waste. In our strategy, we commit to end the practice of sending food waste to landfill.

The UK is a global leader in measuring food waste and supporting international prevention projects. However, millions of pounds worth of safe food is thrown away when it could be redistributed to those most in need. That is why I set up a new £15m food-waste reduction scheme to tackle food waste from retailers and food manufacturers. I have also recently appointed a Food Surplus and Waste Champion, to help promote awareness of the issue and cut food waste from all sources.

We’ll be introducing annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses. Should progress be insufficient, we’ll be consulting on introducing mandatory targets for preventing food waste.

We want to introduce weekly food-waste collections for every household across the country, harvesting the energy through anaerobic digestion instead of disposing of the waste to landfill. This will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drive up recycling levels further.

C: When it comes to businesses, the strategy commits to ensuring that separated food waste and dry recyclable materials will be collected. How will businesses need to adapt?

MG: Our strategy sets out how we will introduce a consistent set of recyclable materials collected from businesses, as well as households.

We estimate that around 35 per cent of business waste is currently recycled, but this could potentially rise to 74 per cent.

We know businesses want to do the right thing, but waste disposal is expensive. Typically, this is because they pay for the removal of their waste on a ‘per bin’ basis, and adding more recycling bins would increase their costs. Our forthcoming consultation will look at how we can reduce the cost burden for businesses while increasing the amount of recycling. We will give businesses sufficient time to adapt to any changes.

C: What will be Defra’s next steps in helping stakeholders across the resources and waste industry to implement the strategy?

MG: I have always been clear that we can’t implement our ambitious plan alone. It will take a collaborative effort – but it is one that will result in the real change that is long overdue. I’ve been pleased with the positive response from the waste industry. We know it wants to do the right thing to see a real positive change, and we will continue to work with stakeholders so we can deliver our plan.

We want to introduce weekly food-waste collections for every household across the country, harvesting the energy through anaerobic digestion instead of disposing of the waste to landfill. This will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drive up recycling levels further.

Some may argue these steps put the interests of the environment ahead of economic factors. I disagree. You can’t have a healthy economy without a sustainable environment. Using resources more wisely improves productivity, as well as the innovation we are already seeing in our waste industry.

C: What are the main funding sources and mechanisms that the government is making available to implement the strategy, and how will waste producers contribute?

MG: I have been clear to industry that we are expecting lasting, long-term change, and I have been pleased to see many businesses are already stepping up to the plate.

Our strategy will make business and manufacturers pay their fair share for the pollution that their products cause by charging them the full cost of recycling or disposing of their packaging waste, invoking the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

EPR will raise between £500m and £1bn a year for recycling and disposal.

C: The strategy states that Defra will seek to move towards recycling targets based on environmental impact rather than weight. What might this look like?

MG: There is consensus that this is a good idea, but not much consensus about how to make it work in reality.

Weight-based targets can be unhelpful, as some lightweight materials – such as plastics – have large environmental footprints, while some heavy materials have small footprints. Our long-term ambition is to move away from weight-based towards impact-based targets, and focus instead on greenhouse gas emissions.

This interview was first published in the February 2019 issue of Circular magazine.

Picture credits: main image – Leon Neal.

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