With no top-level Government minister or Opposition shadow scheduled to speak at the RWM show this year, Environment Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh stole the limelight.
Through her role in grilling ministers via the EAC, she has gained valuable insights into the Government’s thinking. She shared details of the forthcoming resources and waste strategy with a packed and eager crowd at an RWM session on 13 September.
Just a day earlier, a meeting of the EAC in Westminster had heard from resources minister Therese Coffey, Defra head of resources and waste Chris Preston and Environment Agency (EA) director of regulated industry Marie Fallon. Although unwilling to give too much away, Coffey outlined some of the Strategy’s expected measures.
She said it would be published after the chancellor’s Budget statement which has been scheduled for 29 October. This is because it will contain financial measures which the chancellor will announce himself.
Sources close to Defra have said a series of consultations will be launched following the strategy’s publication, but not concurrently. Coffey said the strategy was in its final stages. It is understood that a draft will soon be distributed across Whitehall departments for comments, with the Treasury seeing it first.
A key part of the strategy will be reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system in order to boost the trade in recycled materials.
When put under pressure from Creagh over the danger that councils will lose money if a deposit return scheme diverts material from household collections, Coffey said: “At the moment, the secondary market only really works for PET. Our intention for the outcome of our policy will be that the secondary market for more materials will actually become a lot more in a council’s interest to want to do that.”
The committee heard that authorities could sell more material directly themselves and ‘cut out the middle men’, potentially leading to a more streamlined waste management sector.
Coffey also indicated that there was a “sufficient capacity” of UK energy-from-waste (EfW) facilities. She said the European Commission was concerned about too much incineration across the EU, and the UK’s approach is consistent with this view – along with a plan to remove energy recovery from inclusion in recycling targets.
In contrast, Creagh highlighted the fact that the UK has fewer incinerators than many of its neighbours, and “EfW is necessary and diverts from landfill”.
She also came down against the idea of an incineration tax, an idea currently being considered by exchequer secretary Robert Jenrick.
“I think that would be a retrograde step because it’s a tax on already hard-hit councils that have lost about 40% of their budgets from central Government in the past seven years,” she said at RWM. “We must be careful about what we do. These are long-term contracts and, from my understanding, we do not have as much incineration capacity as other countries.”
But she also recognised that incineration was an “emotive issue” for communities: “We do need to be really transparent about how it is regulated and what is coming out of the pipe at the top. It is only by being really clear with people about those emissions – particularly in cities where we have a massive air pollution problem – that we will get permission to operate.”
The EAC has been highly critical of some areas of the Government’s waste policy, notably on enforcement and non-compliance with packaging regulations. Creagh compared 2012-13, where the EA carried out 400 compliance visits at waste sites, with last year, when there were just 100 and only three unannounced visits.
At the EAC meeting, Fallon said the EA had not been able to carry out planned compliance visits due to the heat wave because officers had to deal with fish kill and river pollution.
Creagh then told the RWM crowd: “[This is] another example of the EA not having the resources it needs, and of the impacts of climate change.”
What we know so far
There will be ‘five pillars’ to the strategy, including:
- How we will become a zero avoidable waste economy by 2050
- Phase out avoidable plastic waste by 2042
- New targets for waste and recycling which, after Brexit, will be the same as the EU’s circular economy package
- Stopping food waste going to landfill by 2030
- Reforming the packaging recovery note system