As a lecturer in wastes, I have often bemoaned the fact that our sector changes so much and so quickly, with new legislation and targets requiring us to update material and make sure students are kept up to date. I look at my geology colleagues, where the timescales are legendarily slow, with something approaching envy – but then I have no interest in rocks.
But nothing prepared me for the level of change and uncertainty that we are currently experiencing. Like many people, I did not expect the referendum to result in us deciding to leave the EU. Even when the result was announced, I perhaps naively expected the politicians who had got us into the situation to have the courage to help us make the best of the situation.
But, just on the heels of Brexit, we get a major change in the structure of our political leadership.
I hope that the abolition of the Department for Energy and Climate Change is an indication the Government believes that climate change is too important to just be in one department and should be integrated into all government policy.
The establishment of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is interesting, particularly because of the inclusion of energy and strategy, which some might think is where waste and resources might sit. A resource strategy would sit nicely alongside those for energy and industry, and would bring together the key components of a circular economy and present a clear road map. Our sector relies on legislation – to stop dumping, to ensure that we have the materials to collect and process, and to create a level playing field.
A lot of our legislation comes from the EU, which also provides strategic direction for our sector, while the Government in England appears content with a policy void. But it is important to remember that the UK has also influenced Europe, and that the content of some EU directives has had little impact on the sector because it reflected the best practice that we were already doing.
So what will our legislation look like into the future? When we leave the EU, all rules and regulations will not disappear if covered by secondary legislation. But we will not be bound by targets and commitments that went with our membership of the EU.
I recently heard that Defra thinks it could take around 12 years to rewrite all our EU-based legislation, and most of us think that waste and resources regulation will not be prioritised. We therefore have a unique opportunity to influence and assist the Government in getting the right legislation to challenge and support the UK’s waste sector.
We need to act quickly to ensure our place in the discussions; civil servants are likely to be overwhelmed with the tasks facing them and grateful for any help and expertise.
A review of current legislation would establish what we can all agree on and where change would be beneficial – for example, many would welcome relaxing the end-of-waste criteria for some materials.
For many years people in the sector have been discussing whether weight-based recycling targets are the way forward or whether they simply encourage the collection of more poor-quality material that nobody wants. We have the opportunity while rewriting our environmental laws to set sensible targets that the whole value chain can agree on, which provide material that reprocessors and manufacturers want.
When this is finished, I don’t think the laws will be, or should be, very different from the current EU directives and transpositions. It is not a coincidence that EU laws form the model for many countries – just look at the developing world and you will see more than a passing similarity with the original.
But we need to ensure that the Government does not take this as an opportunity to reduce regulation and thereby the standards and aspirations of the sector. Instead, the sector should help to ensure that the UK has a reputation as pioneers and innovators in waste and resource management, leading the way to a true circular economy.
Margaret Bates Professor of sustainable wastes management at the University of Northampton