The major political parties are so taken up with issues around Brexit negotiations that it is a wonder any other business gets done in Parliament at all. But this year’s party conference season revealed a lot of interest in our industry, reflecting widespread public concern about plastics pollution. Good waste management has become a vote-winning issue.
The main action took place in Birmingham and Liverpool, at the Conservative and Labour Party conferences, respectively. The Tory event saw four fringe events and a major speech from environment secretary Michael Gove.
There were two relevant fringe events at the Labour conference and the launch of an environmental policy paper, Green Transformation.
Industry representatives were present in Birmingham and Liverpool to take part in debates and hear what both back and frontbench MPs had to say.
With chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget statement due at the end of October, and the resources and waste strategy expected to be launched not long after, there is not much time left before policies are drawn up that could dramatically affect the future of waste management and recycling.
Here, MRW draws together reports from the conference floors and fringe events.
Plastics waste and extended producer responsibility (EPR) were the dominant themes of resource-related fringe events at the Conservative Party conference.
Tory Fringe Meetings
Policy Exchange and Suez: Waste or resource? Developing a whole system approach to delivering the circular economy
Speakers: Matthew Rooney, Policy Exchange energy and environment research fellow; Rebecca Pow MP; David Palmer-Jones, Suez chief executive; Paul Vanston, Incpen chief executive; Carole Taylor, Larac chair.
Turnout: Around 45 people in the room, despite clashing with Boris Johnson’s speech
What was said:
- Resources and waste strategy will be out by end of November
- UK must deliver extended producer responsibility (EPR) as producer funding will drive consistent local authority collections
- EPR and e-commerce: can they work together if goods come from China? Need a fair system
- Biowaste collections are essential to meet EU circular economy package targets – how to fund them?
- Producers need to think harder about the materials they put into developing economies
tory fringe meetings2
Bright Blue with the Environmental Services Association: Plastic fantastic? Exploring the current debate on plastic waste
Speakers: Wilf Lytton, senior researcher, Bright Blue; Therese Coffey, resources minister; Chris Lowe, senior director public affairs, Asda; Lyndsey Dodds, head of UK & EU marine policy, WWF; Paul Taylor, chief executive, FCC Environment UK; Jacob Hayler, executive director, Environmental Services Association
Turnout: Around 75 people
What Coffey said:
- We shouldn’t demonise plastic; we will reduce virgin plastic use; councils must get income from plastics collections
- Plastic tax will help deliver the shift away from single-use items
What else was discussed?
- Bans on unavoidable plastics vs voluntary agreements/financial incentives: Coffey unsure about bans
- Implementation of a deposit return scheme (DRS) – Coffey hopes for UK-wide scheme
- Concerns a DRS for materials already being captured at home was unnecessary and a huge extra cost
- Consistency is important, but it is consistency on what material is collected – not how it is collected
Conservative Friends for International Development and Conservative Environment Network with Tearfund:
Plastics in the Marine Environment – How do you solve a problem like marine plastics?
Speakers: Caroline Squire, CFID director; Joanne Green, Tearfund senior policy adviser; Sam Richards, CEN director; Vicky Ford MP; Michael Tomlinson MP; Harriett Baldwin MP
Turnout: 40 people
What was discussed?
- How can we take UK best practice overseas to help build capacity in developing economies?
- Governments globally will and have struggled to implement producer responsibility as companies lobby against it – need to focus on the businesses
- What can consumers do – reusable cups are a small step.
- Need to call out companies that are not doing enough
Resources minister Therese Coffey was giving nothing away about the forthcoming resources and waste strategy, but she indicated that the Government had been listening to the industry.
Remaining tight-lipped was understandable, given the timing of the conference which coincided with the strategy document circulating between other Whitehall departments and still subject to negotiations. Indications are that it will be out by the end of November or before Christmas at the latest.
Adam Read, Suez external affairs director, told MRW: “Coffey said the strategy would be ‘radical’ – so as far as she is concerned, it is quite a big step from where [the Government] has been historically.”
It is thought there will most likely be a tax on single-use plastics launched by the Treasury in the Budget, and the Government will define what constitutes ‘single-use’. A tax on virgin material is thought less likely. Incineration tax was a topic of discussion but there was no clarity on whether this would materialise. Gove did, however, acknowledge the need for energy from waste.
Nicholas Pollard, chief executive of Cory Riverside Energy, said it was “heartening to hear so much common sense” spoken by Gove at the party conference.
“We completely agree with Mr Gove’s preference for expanding EPR schemes so that producers pay extra to fund recycling, rather than alternative policy approaches, such as more widespread bans or taxes. If we are serious about removing unrecyclable materials from our waste stream, producers of these materials must be held to account.”
Gove emphasised that producers should be incentivised to use more recycled content and said EPR would help to drive innovation, create stronger markets for recycled content and lead to hard-to-recycle items being phased out.
He commented that there should be separate food collections nationwide, but it is thought these are unlikely to become mandatory. The Government is believed to be considering how it could divert some of the new funds raised from EPR to support food waste collections.
FCC Environment chief executive Paul Taylor and ESA executive director Jacob Hayler issued a joint statement after the Bright Blue event warning: “Our efforts will be hampered unless we tackle two issues in particular: infrastructure and residual waste.”
They said the UK would be “headed straight to a crisis” if it continued to ignore how much residual waste the country generates and how it is treated.
The word from the top
During his speech to the main conference hall, environment secretary Michael Gove announced a £15m pilot scheme to divert commercial and retail food which would otherwise be wasted to people judged in most need.
He told delegates: “Every year, millions of tonnes of good, nutritious, edible food is thrown away. This is an environmental, economic and moral folly, and we will address it.”
Some 250 million extra meals a year could “go on to the tables and plates of the most deserving in our society”, he added.
Defra later said the pilot scheme would launch in 2019-20 and specifically address surplus food from retail and manufacturing. UK food waste totalled 10.2 million tonnes a year, of which 1.8 million comes from food manufacture, one million from the hospitality sector and 260,000 from retail, with the remainder from households.
Gove referred to a forthcoming food strategy, but made no direct reference to his department’s resources and waste strategy due this autumn. He said only: “We will take steps to make recycling easier, invest in cleaner technologies and take tougher action against the fly-tippers and waste criminals who pollute our landscape and trash our blue planet.”
A Defra statement said further action to cut food waste from all sources, not just commercial or retail, was being considered as part of the waste strategy.
Gove also mentioned plastics pollution in his speech: “The equivalent of a dumper truck of plastic is dropped in the sea every minute of every day. Unless we change course, by the year 2050, the seas will contain more plastic than fish. We cannot, and we will not, allow that to happen.”
Hailing the plastic bag charge as having cut the number of bags distributed by almost 90%, he said: “We are unleashing the innovative energy of our scientists and the entrepreneurial flair of our businesses to develop greener products that are already generating new jobs.”
But the speech was criticised by Biffa head of environment and external affairs Jeff Rhodes, saying it lacked “real content on the subject of waste and recycling”.
“While plastics remain high on the Government’s agenda, in contrast to the fringe event [where Coffey previewed the resources and waste strategy], it was disappointing to see a lack of real content on the subject of waste and recycling in Mr Gove’s speech,” he said.
“Aside from a nod to the growing issue of waste crime, there was no reference to the fact that recycling rates in Britain have plateaued for years.”
Rhodes said the industry was “in the dark about our nation’s waste and resources outlook post-Brexit” until the resources and waste strategy is published.
Days before the conference, nearly 30 industry figures were invited to an hour-long private meeting with Gove at Defra’s offices. Participants said the meeting was for “information in” and that no specific details on the strategy were shared. The meeting’s agenda included ‘resource efficiency challenges’ and how the regulatory environment could be ‘changed to stimulate ambition and creativity in the private sector’.
Gove in Brief
- Environmental standards will not be driven down by Brexit
- Future Governments could undo bits of any Brexit deal signed with the EU. There would be “an opportunity to do things slightly differently” but the UK would always be “close” to the European model
- Legally binding targets should be contained in the forthcoming Environment Bill