After years of policy void, the Government has finally revealed its recycling ambitions. The UK’s 2020 targets will soon be obsolete – and just in the nick of time the resources and waste strategy has indicated where we might want to end up in 15 years’ time.
Although the strategy technically covers only England, it in effect provides a blueprint on many policies for the UK as a whole. The Welsh Government, for example, has indicated to MRW that it is happy to take on packaging targets decided by Defra.
eu packaging targets
With the EU circular economy (CE) package signed off last year, we now know the direction the continent is heading in, and the thinking from Defra at the moment is that it will follow suit, more or less. This is vital for our industry because decisions on where to invest is guided by With the EU circular economy (CE) With the EU circular economy (CE) package signed off last year, we now know the direction the continent is heading in, and the thinking from Defra at the moment is that it will follow suit, more or less. This is vital for our industry because decisions on where to invest is guided by targets and the infrastructure that will need to be built in order to meet them.is guided by targets and the infrastructure that will need to be built in order to meet them.
Here, we present an overview of new targets that have either become law or have been proposed as coming into law. These do not include voluntary commitments under, for example, WRAP’s Plastics Pact.
In theory, missing statutory targets will lay an administration open to legal challenges, as happened when the UK Government was challenged by environmental lawyers for failing to keep to air quality targets. No such action can be taken should voluntary targets be missed, and companies always have the option of opting out if they want to – or not opting in from the beginning.
As ever, there are complications. The governance of Northern Ireland (NI) has been left in limbo for a number of years now after Sinn Fein withdrew its co-operation at Stormont in the wake of an argument over former first minister Arlene Foster’s alleged mishandling of funds under the Renewable Heat Incentive.
As a result, NI currently has only EU As a result, NI currently has only EU targets to meet, and will presumably take on overarching UK targets following Brexit. This is the assumption taken here.
England has no targets separate from the UK’s. But Wales and Scotland have pressed ahead, almost in unison, with much higher targets and within a shorter time frame in a number of areas.
This leaves us with a potentially three-tier system: the EU, England with Northern Ireland, and Wales with Scotland.
There are also some differing ambitions on more specific targets covering food waste, plastics and landfill. While the resources and waste strategy indicated that the UK will take on the CE package’s recycling target of 75% of packaging waste by 2030, it does not mention sub-targets for plastics, wood and so on that are now part of EU legislation.
The final complication is that the UK’s targets are not yet fixed in legislation and are subject to consultation.
We have not included food waste here because statutory targets are not as clear as for those on recycling, landfill and packaging. EU member states have signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 target to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030. How this will translate into legislation into individual countries is not yet known.
Looking at each country’s current rate, target and date by which the target should be met, we can see that Scotland has by far the longest way to go. Scotland has matched Wales’ ambition but lags behind in terms of current performance. The country will need to decrease its household waste to landfill by nearly 7 percentage points a year – no mean feat.
We also see that England and NI are looking to almost exactly match the EU average in terms of recycling performance. But on landfill, England has gone with a We also see that England and NI are looking to almost exactly match the EU average in terms of recycling performance. But on landfill, England has gone with a target just 2.5 percentage points away within 16 years. That seems very unambitious indeed.
It is more difficult to gauge how far the UK has to go to meet its packaging targets. The UK’s current stated rate is 71.4%, which makes the 2030 target look ridiculously low. That may, of course, be an inaccurately reported rate. Parliament’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), recently criticised Defra for measuring packaging recycling in ways that fail to account for fraud.
An NAO report, Environmental Metrics, said: “On packaging recycling, we found that the methodology…was not sufficiently robust because it did not account for undetected fraud and error. There is a financial incentive for companies to over-claim, and a particular risk that some of the material exported overseas is not fully recycled.”
The conclusion was that the packaging recycling system had “evolved into a comfortable way for the Government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues”.
Defra committed to do something about improving data in the resources and waste strategy, but it is not clear what this means in practice yet in terms of packaging. The strategy admitted that data on materials “is currently patchy and unreliable”, and that its solution involves a “bold new approach”. We will have to wait and see what this means.
It is amazing just how differently nations around the world measure municipal recycling. It was brought home to me when I undertook a study comparing international recycling rates. I found that some count material when it is collected for recycling, while others do so only when it reaches the final reprocessor after most of the contamination has been removed.
Some count a substantial amount of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste in their totals, while others count none at all. Approaches also vary on incinerator metals and bottom ash, and materials such as rubble.
The EU’s decision, therefore, to try to harmonise how recycling is measured should probably be welcomed as a step towards levelling the playing field – even if its relatively stringent approach makes the high recycling rates required by the 2030s all the more challenging.
“We need to start measuring much more accurately the amount of c&i waste that is generated.”
For the UK, one of the biggest changes will be the need to start measuring much more accurately the amount of C&I waste that is generated, and its fate – not to mention putting policies in place that help to increase the proportion recycled.
Looking across Europe, other countries have different problems. Some, like the Netherlands and Sweden, have to try to boost their recycling rates when landfill has been largely eliminated. That means closing incinerators or sourcing more waste from elsewhere. Meanwhile, much of eastern Europe has a long way to go, with low recycling rates and heavy reliance on landfill.
However, with a powerful set of policy measures required by the revised Waste Framework Directive, there is potential for some of today’s poorer performers to stride forwards.
Peter Jones is a senior consultant at Eunomia
Notes and Sources
The figures for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are taken from the most recent household waste recycling figures (covering either 2017 or 2017/18) sourced from Defra, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Welsh Government and the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Landfill rates refer to household or municipal waste sent to landfill as a proportion of waste arising in that same year. The UK also measures landfill compared with a baseline set in 1995 in order to check progress to the 1999 Landfill Directive, but this will be superseded after 2020.
The targets for England and Northern Ireland are proposals at this stage and subject to certain EU environmental legislation being copied into UK law following Brexit.
The EU rate for landfilled waste, excluding major mineral wastes, is taken from 2014 figures published on Eurostat. This is the most recent available figure. EU recycling figures also come from Eurostat and cover 2016. As this is an aggregate of 28 EU members, the methodologies that make up the final figure differ. Different EU countries chose different ways of reporting their recycling rates.