Defra’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan has been launched by prime minister Theresa May, but the majority of policies on waste and recycling have not been backed by legislative proposals.
The plan focused heavily on dealing with plastic waste. It reiterated a commitment to phase out ‘avoidable’ plastic waste where technically, environmentally and economically practicable. There are no details on how this might be achieved.
As previously announced, May said that a consultation on a tax on single-use plastic would be launched this year.
Firm commitments include reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system and extending producer responsibility requirements to plastic products not currently covered by existing regimes.
All single-use consumer plastics will also be ‘removed’ from Government estate offices.
But a proposed extension of the the 5p plastic carrier bag charge to smaller retailers – a loophole in the rules when they came into force in 2015 – could rely on voluntary commitments rather than legislation.
The plan also made no direct reference to deposit return schemes (DRS), after environment secretary Michael Gove ran a seven-week consultation on DRS last year.
The Environmental Services Association (ESA) said this was not a surprise because it was a separate strand of work.
When questioned over the lack of legal guarantees, May said the plan was “inspiring”, and pointed to the Government’s success in banning microbeads and implementing the 5p bag charge.
She also defended herself against allegations that the focus on plastic waste was to attract younger voters.
May said: “This is an issue I have looked at previously. I have been a shadow environment secretary as well, so this is not something that is new to me.
“On the issue of plastic bottle deposits, what we’re looking at is what is the best way – is it by encouraging people to recycle more or is it to reuse more through [DRS]?
“We want to look at the evidence.”
ESA executive director Jacob Hayler said the plan provided “much-needed encouragement” to the industry and welcomed the reform of PRNs.
He added: “However, many of the measures it outlines are too focused on consumers. A truly circular economy will only come about when there is a strong demand for recycled materials.
“If the Government wants to do more than tinker at the edges of recycling policy, it must act decisively to promote UK markets for recycled materials.
“We also need to think carefully about the waste that remains once efforts to recycle have been exhausted. This will require a robust strategy for residual waste, which must send out positive signals about the role of energy from waste and the urgent need for investment in new facilities.
“We now look to Defra’s forthcoming Resource and Waste Strategy to provide a more holistic approach.”
Chartered Institution of Wastes Management chief executive Colin Church said: “This 25-year plan builds on the vision for waste and resources that began to take shape in the Clean Growth Strategy and Industrial Strategy White Paper last autumn.
”And while it may be light on detail about delivery, what we are seeing is a step change in the Government’s approach to waste and resource policy, and the CIWM welcomes the range of proposals and commitments set out in the plan.
“What the waste and resources sector now needs is more detail on how these ambitions and proposals will be translated into action through the Resource and Waste Strategy. The CIWM looks forward to working with the Government as it develops it thinking.”
Julian Bell, chair of London Councils’ Transport and Environment Committee, said: “Creating a long-term strategy for tackling the many urgent environmental challenges that our country faces is a positive move and London boroughs are already working at a local level to address these.
“However to ensure the strategy delivers meaningful change, it will need investment, legislation and robust support from all sectors. Voluntary and unfunded schemes are unlikely to have the necessary impact.”
Few legal guarantees for plastics recycling in Defra 25-year plan