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Not quite in tune, perhaps, but the mood music improves

Robin Latchem

This is my final task as I head for a week’s holiday on the Kent coast – as close as you can get to the shores of ‘Europe’. It is an appropriate place to think about how the UK waste and resource management sector fits into the outside world ahead of Brexit – whatever that will bring – and China’s clampdown on secondary materials (also known as a de facto ban).

We’re still not 100% sure how fully the Chinese authorities will carry out the threat to halt imports of mixed papers, post-consumer plastics and other challenging grades because more clarification is expected from Beijing during November.

The US government and the US-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries have been working hard to reverse what is seen as an attack on free trade. While it may be over-hopeful to think that the Chinese will change tack after operations Green Fence and National Sword showed its determination to drive up the quality of imports, such pressure might complement fears from China’s domestic processors that their market will become unbalanced. There surely cannot be any harm in the UK adding its voice to what, in other spheres, would be labelled uncompetitive?

But Defra minister Therese Coffey seems unmoved. I believe she had MRW in mind when she told the CIWM presidential inauguration that she was not “surprised by trade press reports of a plea from some parts of the industry that I had to head to China to plead with the Chinese government to oppose their tightening of standards of imports”. Some of those pleas were pretty strident.

For the minister, China is an issue – but she also sees it as an opportunity for recyclers and processors to improve the quality of recycling at home and to recover and reuse those materials in the UK.

But these opportunities will take time to develop and, in the meantime, we will have the possibility (probability?) of a substantial material tonnage not leaving these shores and having nowhere to go. What’s to be done with it? We do not have the capacity in existing infrastructure so does that mean ‘more to landfill’ or do we store it somewhere – former military airfields perhaps?

In conversations with senior people in the industry in recent weeks, I have asked whether it is scaremongering to fear unwanted piles of material with greater likelihood of business failure, fires and waste crime. I’m assured it is not. The next few weeks will be key.

But on a much brighter note, I am seeing greater engagement from Defra with the sector’s travails. That CIWM speech was Coffey’s second in less than a week, following her interesting keynote speech to Larac in Nottingham.

For example, on landfill tax, Coffey told CIWM that policies which had driven huge amounts of waste into recycling and recovery “no longer seem to be driving the change needed”, and perhaps the Government should look at increasing landfill tax “and consider other fiscal measures encouraging more waste to be recycled in preference to landfill and incineration”.

Larac heard that Coffey “recognised that the secondary materials market was not working as well as it could be” and Defra and the Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy departments were working together to stimulate it.

MRW has reported previously the minister’s scepticism of the circular economy. In September 2016 she told the Environmental Audit Committee: “The words ‘circular economy’ to me are at risk of implying there is no growth. If we continue to grow, it doesn’t just need to be a closed loop… I am going to look into it more carefully.”

But now there is more encouraging mood music as she told the CIWM dinner that, while she admitted not liking the phrase, “the principles are absolutely spot-on”.

The next few months will be crucial, with development of the industrial strategy, 25-year environment plan and Defra’s own waste and resource strategy. It won’t be long before we get to 29 March 2018 and start counting down to Brexit in days.

By then, those white cliffs will seem a little further from ‘Europe’.

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