Defra has said it “cannot regulate” a shift to a more resource-efficient economy and called on businesses to take the lead.
The department said its upcoming 25-year environment plan, the green paper for which to be published “soon”, would consider incentives to promote demand for secondary materials.
Resources minister Therese Coffey was scheduled to attend a debate in London this morning but pulled out after losing her voice.
In her place at the Aldersgate Group’s event, Defra waste and recycling deputy director Chris Preston read Coffey’s planned speech verbatim.
Her speech said there was a “unique opportunity” to improve the UK’s resource productivity as it leaves the EU and suggested a desire to move away from the EU’s weight-based recycling targets.
“Up to now, much of our policy in this area has been driven by a need to meet EU waste targets, leading to a focus on recycling heavy things without actually thinking about the value or the environmental impact of those materials or the best process for maximising the benefits we get from them,” it said.
But when questioned on whether further targets to 2030 in the EU’s circular economy (CE) package would apply to the UK, Preston said Defra was unsure and repeated Coffey’s line that the UK is “negotiating in good faith” with the proposals.
Coffey’s speech included a pledge to consider policy options including extended producer responsibility (EPR), product design standards and incentives to help promote demand for recycled materials.
Preston later expanded on the department’s thoughts on EPR, saying there were two sides to the argument.
“One side says producer responsibility is brilliant, it’s the best thing, we must do it. On the producer side, quite rightly, they say it is costly and difficult.”
Sustainable resources will be a key part of the 25-year environment plan, according to Coffey’s speech, but it seemed to focus on voluntary commitments and sharing of best practice as suggested measures.
“Sometimes it does not make sense to have a circular business model until you have got a CE to support it. In responding to this challenge, business leadership is absolutely critical. Business has to take the lead.
“Government also has a key role to play. We cannot regulate and force this change but we can ensure the right policy framework is in place to support the market, businesses, local authorities and the public to make this changes that will help us transition to a resource-efficient economy.”
Coffey’s speech appeared to criticise recyclers for failing to propose ways to change their machinery to process black food trays, which have been discussed by the mainstream media in recent weeks for their lack of recyclability.
It said: “While the food manufacturers have looked for solutions, which in aggregate could be a high cost, I have not noticed the recyclers coming forward with proposals on how to adapt their machines to be able to sort the black trays.
“I thought it was only IT companies that tried to get manufacturers to change their processes to give their technology a market.”
Taking questions after his reading of the speech, Preston said Defra’s 25-year environment plan green paper would be published “soon”.
He also addressed the department’s preference for using the term ’resource efficiency’, while he said more people understood ’circular economy’.
Preston called on the industry to respond to the industrial strategy green paper and 25-year plan framework when published.
“The vision we hope to deliver cannot be driven by top-down intervention but will need collaborative effort from the whole value chain,” he said.
While there were some positive responses to the ambition Defra appears to be showing about resource efficiency, some on the Aldersgate panel were concerned about a lack of potential regulation.
Marks & Spencer sustainability manager Rowland Hill said an “interventionist approach” was needed from the Government because a restructuring of the market was needed to deliver a sustainable shift to more resource efficiency.
And Caroline May, partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, said a mixture of carrot and stick from legislation and market incentives was needed, with a renewed definition of waste suggested.