Another opportunity for the fresh thinking

18th May 2017 Posted by

With a hard Brexit now on the cards, we seem to be veering between bravado (releasing ourselves from “EU environmental diktats”, according to one quote) and talking ourselves into a blue funk over the prospect of losing the very bedrock of our sector’s foundational policies and modus operandi.

The truth is that while the waste management sector relies overwhelmingly on regulation to conduct its business, the choice of policy levers for moving waste away from disposal and into value-added processes, be it as products or as energy, is relatively narrow. If, as our government insists, the UK wants to progress the resource agenda, then the architecture of UK diktats will very likely end up looking like the diktats from Brussels – more prevention, more recycling, less landfilling, and suchlike – with similar implications for infrastructure spend.

We may even have accepted at face value the alleged stultifying effect of EU legislation on national policy. But EU legislation gives space for independent thinking. Take the example of organic waste. The Biowaste Directive stalled years ago, the Thematic Strategy on Soil Protection is too broad to give our sector much policy direction, and the Commission appears to have all but abandoned discussions on end of waste for compost. The Landfill Directive tells Member States how much municipal biowaste must be diverted but not what to do with this diverted material – nor does it address commercial biowaste. The Commission’s focus on food waste is quite narrow. Some potent policy levers – for example, fiscal – are left to the discretion of individual Member States.

So while we may certainly have concerns over the implications of Brexit, and while EU policymaking is not exactly a sideshow, we should not downplay the latitude for national policymaking, even while respecting EU policy direction. The UK has arguably led the way with landfill tax, the quality protocols, the Climate Change Act and the fifth carbon budget, various renewable energy support schemes, the GIB’s funding of infrastructure, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, and more.

Indeed Scotland and Wales remind us that even were the UK to have remained in the EU, it by no means prevents us from thinking for ourselves. Wales has crafted an entirely new policy framework, built around ecological footprinting. Other Member States have applied Extended Producer Responsibility to a far wider range of products than required by EU Directives, and have bespoke support schemes (ORPLAST in France). The bottom line is that we should not need the EU to tell us that improving resource productivity is a good thing, nor does the excuse that EU membership has prevented the UK from developing progressive resource-based domestic policies hold water.

The UK can build on the foundation we have jointly created with our EU partners. Fine-tuning definitions, extending quality protocols to encourage wider application of waste-derived products, further developing waste-to-energy policy, changing state aid rules to better support transformational technologies to commercialisation, removing Teckal distortions, introducing fiscal measures to promote remanufacture – are but some of our options. On the ground, partnerships like Resource London and Resource Greater Manchester are a welcome sign that local government at least is not standing still.

Handled progressively and positively, Brexit presents another opportunity for the fresh thinking we should have done a while ago, to move our sector forward. Brexit appears to have sharpened the urgency for revitalising industry so we have a more balanced and self-reliant economy. Together with the 25 year Environment Plan, this is a once in a generation opportunity for our sector to be fully integrated into the fabric of the UK economy – given the political will.

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