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Different directions on circular economy

Observations in and around this year’s RWM suggest some divergence between the UK and the European Commission ahead of the new circular economy package later this year.

The NEC event included three showings of my recorded interview with resource minister Rory Stewart, who talked about a need for consensus to improve recycling and waste reduction.

“This is about persuasion not me mandating,” he said, unsurprisingly for a Conservative minister who was also trumpeting Defra’s efforts to cut red tape.

But this approach was rebuffed by Viridor chief executive Ian McAulay - and others - at a high-powered forum of CEOs in the Circular Economy Theatre, when he observed that the sector needed more regulation, not less.

The minister’s principle of a light-touch legislative approach is backed by WRAP chief executive Liz Goodwin, who told me in an exclusive interview ahead of RWM that voluntary agreements in specific sectors of the economy, such as the Courtauld Commitment, were the best way to achieve resource goals.

This is not a direction shared by the Commission’s outgoing director-general for environment Karl Falkenberg. In a keynote address, he had questioned the UK Government’s strategy in a number of areas such as commingled collections and exports of refuse-derived fuel.

Afterwards, however, he adopted an even more definitive position in discussion with journalists, telling a questioner from ENDS that he doubted whether voluntary agreements could guarantee that targets are met. This is a fundamental difference between Brussels and HMG.

The proof of voluntary agreements must surely be how robustly they stand up to difficult times. We saw with the Dairy Roadmap that it was impossible to cajole all the supermarkets and dairies to stick by the agreement when the relative price of secondary and virgin polymers for milk bottles got out of kilter.

Goodwin argues that the original agreement itself was weak while others like Courtauld, piloted by WRAP, remain resilient. That may be, but we all need to know that we can be called to account in meaningful ways if we refuse to toe certain agreed lines.

The sector has been calling for tougher action on waste fraud, for example, so it was encouraging to hear, as MRW went to press, of the raids across Yorkshire and the north-east over alleged landfill tax fraud. If the total of the fraud is the £78m suggested, then the oper­ation has made its own case for extra enforcement funding.

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