Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), launched the committee’s new inquiry into WEEE and the circular economy to coincide with her appearance at the daytime conference of MRW’s National Recycling Awards – and told delegates “we did it for you”.
A popular figure with the industry, she described it as “a real honour and a privilege to be asked to speak” and that she felt “amongst my tribe”.
To set the scene for the inquiry, Creagh showed delegates a shocking video of Agbogbloshie, a scrap yard and slum in Ghana, where residents largely subsist by retrieving metals from WEEE. The video included footage of people burning the plastic off cables, with black smoke filling the air. Creagh said: “It’s going to be my mission for every millennial who wants a new iPhone to see that [video].”
“When you are thinking about the workers in your industries, people working late at night to pick up our waste to recycle it and sort it, we have to think ‘these people are our earth doctors’ – they are clearing up the symptoms of our sickness, our over-consumption, our over-production. Those people are my heroes and I think they should be your heroes too.”
She flagged that the UK produces 25kg of WEEE a year per person, around 50% higher than the EU average, and said the UK missed its WEEE collection target by 45,000 tonnes in 2018: “We are not good at processing stuff and keeping it here.”
John Redmayne, managing director at WEEE compliance scheme European Recycling Platform (ERP), said he looked forward to submitting evidence to the inquiry. But he sounded a note of caution at “the suggestion that [the Ghana slum] is where all of the material collected for recycling ends up”. He feared a public backlash towards WEEE recycling if citizens thought it would end up at such destinations.
He said: “I know that you have a track record of raising issues, but also not downplaying the significant work that already goes on to actually correctly collect, process and recycle material in the UK, by people, who I agree with you, are heroes.”
In response, Creagh said: “I am not suggesting that is where everything ends up. I have no idea where everything ends up, that is why I am doing the inquiry. It would be great to talk to you.”
She added: “It’s not the people who are being audited who are the problem, it is the waste criminals, the illegal exporters. But the other problem is that everyone wants a new phone every year, everyone is trained to use and chuck.”
Susanne Baker, head of environment and compliance at techUK, urged the committee to look at enforcement: “Producers have noted, with concern, recent reports highlighting illegal activity in the UK, and look forward to working with the committee to consider what additional steps can be taken to stamp out this activity.”
The EAC hopes the inquiry will feed into the Government’s consultation on WEEE planned for next year. Creagh urged the industry to submit evidence until 5pm on Friday 16 August via: https://bit.ly/2YeBOgc.
Net zero will be vital
Creagh had her reusable water bottle in hand, having cycled to the venue. She was full of praise for the industry but clear that Government must do more. She certainly did not beat around the bush: “I really hate voluntary measures.”
She praised the plastics tax as being “genuinely novel” and predicted the “possible end of the plastics era” as well as sounding support for a deposit return scheme.
Creagh said the big challenge now was to get a blueprint for all industries to get to net zero emissions: “Net zero by 2050 is not enough, but it is the beginning.” She hoped the target might move to 2040 or 2045 when reviewed, and added: “This is going to accelerate, this is going to be the most important thing that our country and the world does over the next 10 years.”
She urged the industry to educate others about the connection between resource efficiency and net zero: “You are a Cinderella industry, but now you are going to go to the ball, everyone is going to want to dance with you and put the slipper on your foot and ask your knowledge about how to get there. Because if we don’t have resource efficiency, we won’t have net zero, and that is the single most important message that you need to get out.”