This past year has been one of huge political drama and change. It is with a real sense of anticipation that I am taking on the chairmanship of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) during a time when the opportunity for us to shape the future for our sector feels greater than it has for a generation.
These are exciting times, but they are also daunting ones because we are faced with unprecedented political uncertainty, leading to diverse future scenarios on trade, regulation and the context for critically needed investment in infrastructure.
It seems highly likely that the EU’s circular economy (CE) package will be agreed before Brexit takes place, but will not have been transposed into UK law. What does that mean in practice? Will the new package’s requirements be included in the law that is frozen under the proposed Great Repeal Act? Or will it be omitted? Clarity on this point would be an extremely useful starting point for the Government to give us.
If, under the final Brexit terms, the UK leaves the single market, then our waste and recycling industry could find itself with a vacuum in long-term strategic direction. To prevent this, we would need the Government to introduce a framework to replace the CE package. And there are two prime upcoming opportunities for it to do so.
The first is Defra’s 25-year Environment Plan. This needs to address the fundamental blockages holding back investment and consolidation in our industry: fragmented supply chains and waste crime. The former prevents us from realising economies of scale, while the latter leads to two million tonnes of household and commercial waste leaking away every year from the legitimate, regulated industry and into the hands of criminals.
This year the ESA has identified four main areas for reform which would help to address the UK’s problems and provide the underpinning framework to move the waste and recycling sector forward.
The first is doing more to combat waste crime. The Government has poured more resources into this in recent years, with some clear successes, but the problem remains widespread. We need fundamentally to examine what is driving crime in our sector and then make carefully targeted interventions to stop it.
The second is to promote end markets for recycled materials, to create a stronger ‘pull-factor’ in the recycling market. We need substantial changes to encourage manufacturers to use recycled materials in their products if we are to achieve a more circular economy.
The third area is to realise economies of scale. There is huge scope to reduce duplication and realise greater efficiencies, both in the household and commercial waste streams.
The fourth area for reform is to increase the role of extended producer responsibility. We need the producers of products and packaging to be truly responsible for their goods at the end of life. In the short term this has the potential to ease financial burdens on our cash-strapped councils and, in the longer term, it has the potential to drive resource efficiency throughout the value chain and realise outcomes which are better for the UK’s economy and the environment.
The ESA believes the 25-year Environment Plan is a timely and effective way to address all these areas. Only then would we have well-designed policy and regulations which are fit for purpose and also enforced across the sector. But there is another opportunity for the Government to bring in the long-term strategic thinking that we need: clear prioritising of industrial strategy.
It is our view that the best way for UK industry to compete in the future is by using resource efficiency to help drive productivity. A highly resource-efficient industry, with products designed for recoverable material streams, using waste as a feedstock for its advanced manufacturing and chemicals sectors, and where energy-from-waste facilities are co-located to provide heat and power, gives the UK a clear way to future success.
Herein lie the elements of an industrial strategy for a productive resource economy in which waste and resource management contribute more fully and provides the framework for us to build a better future for our sector. Let’s seize the opportunities afforded by these ‘interesting times’ to make it happen.
Stewart Davies is the chairman of the Environmental Services Association