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Being a good neighbour to the new minister

The waste sector has had a few minutes in the Westminster limelight with the resource minister being questioned by MPs about the implications of the UK’s exit from the EU on the ‘natural environment’.

In the past, discussion of the natural environment has tended to be dominated by badgers, flooding and marine litter. This time the Environmental Audit Committee, led by the astute Labour MP Mary Creagh, spent some considerable time considering the future of EU-driven regulations in this sphere. But – glory be – it also spent around 10 minutes on the waste sector and the circular economy (CE).

It was about 75 minutes into the hearing before the CE subject was raised, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Defra officials had it down as being only a general topic for discussion.

Peter Aldous, the Conservative MP for Waveney in Suffolk, thought differently. He said waste management companies were working on the assumption that existing environmental regulations would largely survive Brexit but the CE proposals would not be adopted. Are they right, he asked the new resource minister Therese Coffey? Creagh followed up by wanting to know that if the EU’s CE package was adopted before the UK left the union, would they be transposed into UK law.

Nice chunky questions. It was no surprise the minister fell into line with the favoured Government response of the moment – that it is all too early to tell – but she acknowledged that businesses needed to know what was what.

“People want certainty, I recognise that. We will be seeking views on what outcomes matter so that people can invest with certainty,” Coffey said.

There was an assurance that she understood the importance of maximising resource efficiency, quoting her time working for a food manufacturer that reduced its glass packaging because it was good for the environment and good for the bottom line. And her first official visit after becoming minister was to a local recycling facility.

Coffey was more vague on the CE: “The general principles, I think, industry would get but sometimes we should concentrate on outcomes – that’s what really matters – rather than being prescriptive… On a personal level, the words circular economy to me is at risk of implying there is no growth. If we continue to grow, it doesn’t just need to be a closed loop… I am going to look into it more carefully.”

There was a question about the UK’s ability to hit a 60% recycling rate by 2030, when 50% by 2020 is already something of a challenge: “I don’t want to give a response off the top of my head,” the minister said.

I found this last response curious because the pre-hearing briefing from officials must surely have covered the often reported – and sensitive – household collection rate.

Kerry McCarthy (Labour) said the Government had a reputation in Brussels for seeing the insertion of the word ‘voluntary’ into any proposed regulation, such as on food waste, as a victory.

On this, the minister was on firmer ground, arguing that the UK’s voluntary food agreement was doing well and the results exceeded many other EU countries.

Coffey is in the enviable position of being a minister who can achieve things through her own initiative without directives “handed down” from Brussels.

Aldous has got the message from the waste sector and, as his Waveney constituency is next door that of Coffey’s in Suffolk Coastal, she does not have far to go for a briefing.

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