Defra’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan has finally been launched by prime minister Theresa May but most of the policies on waste and recycling have not been backed by legislative proposals.
The plan focused heavily on dealing with plastic waste. It reiterated a commitment to phase out ‘avoidable’ plastic waste where technically, environmentally and economically practicable. There are no details on how this might be achieved. And as previously announced, May said that a consul-tation on a tax on single-use plastic would be launched this year.
Firm commitments include reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system and extending producer responsibility requirements to plastic products not currently covered by existing regimes. All single-use consumer plastics will also be ‘removed’ from Government estate offices.
It also confirmed that the UK would meet existing recycling targets, and outlined further work on harmonisation of local authority collections. An aim to boost the market for secondary materials was not backed by firm action points.
A proposed extension of the the 5p plastic carrier bag charge to smaller retailers – a loophole in the rules when they came into force in 2015 – could rely on voluntary commitments rather than legislation.
The plan also made no direct reference to deposit return schemes (DRS), after environment secretary Michael Gove ran a seven-week consultation last year. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) said this was not a surprise because it was a separate strand of work.
When questioned over the lack of legal guarantees, May said the plan was “inspiring”, and pointed to the Government’s success in banning microbeads and implementing the 5p bag charge. She also defended herself against allegations that the focus on plastic waste was to attract younger voters.
May said: “This is an issue I have looked at previously. I have been a shadow environment secretary as well, so this is not something that is new to me. On the issue of plastic bottle deposits, what we’re looking at is what is the best way – is it by encouraging people to recycle more or is it to reuse more through [a DRS]?
“We want to look at the evidence.”
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There is no doubt that high-profile media campaigns on plastic waste and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series have greatly influenced the Government’s attitude to plastics and waste.
Of more than 30 action points listed in Defra’s 25-year plan, half were specifically on tackling plastic waste. By comparison, there were just three action points on food – and no new policies – with a few more on litter. Seven action points dealt with recycling in general.
Both May and environment secretary Michael Gove were grilled by journalists on the lack of measures that might spur businesses to improve resource efficiency, and both kept pointing to the 5p carrier bag levy in 2015 rather than giving assurances that the plan would have real teeth. This Government, it seems, is still wary of placing financial demands on companies to achieve policy goals.
Even so, a policy-starved industry has been somewhat cheered by the plan’s publication because it reinforces a number of resources and waste announcements made in last year’s clean growth strategy, national infrastructure assessment and industrial strategy.
ESA executive director Jacob Hayler said the plan provided “much-needed encouragement” to the industry and welcomed the reform of PRNs.
He added: “However, many of the measures it outlines are too focused on consumers. A truly circular economy will only come about when there is a strong demand for recycled materials. If the Government wants to do more than tinker at the edges of recycling policy, it must act decisively to promote UK markets for recycled materials.
“We also need to think carefully about the waste that remains once efforts to recycle have been exhausted. This will require a robust strategy for residual waste, which must send out positive signals about the role of energy from waste and the urgent need for investment in new facilities.
“We now look to Defra’s forthcoming resources and waste strategy to provide a more holistic approach.”
Chartered Institution of Wastes Management chief executive Colin Church said the plan was “light on detail about delivery”, and that the main action would be taken through the resources and waste strategy.
Julian Bell, chair of London Councils’ transport and environment committee, said: “Voluntary and unfunded schemes are unlikely to have the necessary impact.”
It looks as if the recycling industry will have to wait patiently for one final policy push before finding out the answers to questions that the ESA, CIWM and others are posing.
Estelle Brachlianoff, senior executive vice-president, Veolia UK: “The Government’s plans are a step in the right direction but we’d like to see measures focused on better recycling and use of recycled materials in manufacturing production. The intention to ban all plastics carries its own baggage. If we banned single use plastics we would need to find another solution, which would bring with it its own recycling challenges. Plastic is a vital resource but when only half the UK’s plastic bottles are recycled it tells its own story. More needs to be done to encourage recycling at home while manufacturers should be incentivised to include more recycled plastic in their production line.”
David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK: “The ambition to extend producer responsibility should look beyond plastics to develop a whole life-cycle approach, across a range of materials with good properties for reuse and recycling. Having invested heavily in new facilities to support the move away from landfill over the last decade, we are pleased that this plan recognises the important role energy recovery facilities have played in this transition and the ambition to make these facilities more efficient by identifying ways to increase the use of the heat they produce.”
David Wilson, managing director, Vanden Recycling UK: “As recently calculated by us, 350,000 tonnes of material that was once exported to China will struggle to find a home in 2018. I hope the Government’s commitment to plastic recycling will now lead to more solutions in the short-term to stimulate plastic recycling in the UK, and ensure material is of high quality for export to recycling facilities abroad. If it takes 25 years to reach some of these aims, that will be too long for the development of an economically sustainable plastics recycling sector in the UK.”
Ray Georgeson, chief executive, Resource Association: “Many of the signals give encouragement to our industry but frankly, our nation is and should be capable of so much more than this in terms of real time specifics, targets and legislative underpinning.”
Charlotte Morton, chief executive, Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association: “Despite rightly identifying recycling food waste as a ‘key priority’ in today’s plan, Defra’s failure to commit to rolling out mandatory separate food waste collections in England is a missed opportunity to reduce food waste levels and allow AD plants to produce the renewable energy, transport fuel, and biofertilisers that we as a country desperately need.”
September 2015: The Natural Capital Committee sets out recommendations for a 25-year environment plan in order to outline action on waste, resources, natural environment, wildlife and pollution.
February 2016: Defra departmental plan 2015-2020 criticised for barely mentioning waste. Defra spokesperson says the department is working on a 25-year plan to be published in 2016.
July 2016: Defra delays release of plan due to EU referendum result.
June 2017: Despite featuring in the Conservative Party manifesto, the plan does not appear in the Queen’s Speech after the Tories fail to get a majority at the General Election. Defra says there is no timeframe for its publication.
July 2017: The new environment secretary, Michael Gove, admits the plan “had been longer in gestation than a baby elephant”, and that he wants to make it as ambitious as possible.
January 2018: Plan published.