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Regulation must not stifle ambition

The end of 2014 was punctuated with the disappointing move by the European Commission to withdraw its circular economy package, which had proposed far-reaching targets for resource efficiency and recycling, including:

  • an increase in the recycling and preparing for reuse of municipal waste to 70% by 2030
  • an increase in the recycling and preparing for reuse of packaging waste to 80% by 2030
  • landfill bans for recyclable materials by 2025, including plastic, paper, metals, glass and biowaste

When it was first published in July 2014, the package had appeared to signal a significant shift in emphasis based on retention of value within the economy, driven by the increasing cost and scarcity of key raw materials. But fast-forward five months and it was on the chopping board, axed as part of a ‘better regulation’ drive, with the promise of a new and more ambitious policy to be produced in 2015.  

The move was seen by many within the recycling sector as a missed opportunity to drive the move towards a resource-efficient economy and to bolster investment in waste management facilities.  

So I welcome Defra’s recent report, Resource Management: a catalyst for growth and productivity, as shining a light on the current and potential value of the waste and resource management sector at a time when ambition could be seen as lacking.  

The report put the value of the waste sector at around £6.8bn in 2013, providing 100,000 jobs. This did not include repair, reuse and leasing, which should be seen as central to a successful opinion Value from resources: the C&D sector has made significant savings from recycling circular economy. If figures for these areas had been included, the value of the sector was estimated to be around £41bn, supporting 672,000 jobs.

In particular, Defra noted the expected value of commercial and industrial, and construction and demolition, waste in the UK, which it considered likely to be worth billions in its own right. It is no secret that the construction industry has woken up in recent years to the significant savings to be made from maximising the use of what would be considered wastes.

In terms of realising value, the quality of recycling is critical and this is noted in the report. The recent requirement for separate collections of paper, glass, metal and plastic should help to drive up the quality of materials, but in some cases this may also be subject to local authority funding and so performance is likely to be patchy.  

The report stated that investment in new waste infrastructure would be vital to ensure the success of the sector. This brings us full circle: to the need for drivers for change and a regulatory climate that actively supports and encourages this type of investment.  

In a hearing in late January, the Commission’s new director general for environment, Karl Falkenberg, gave a hint at the direction of the new “more ambitious” package we have been told to expect. He indicated that product design would take a greater role, and this would be welcomed as long as it did not replace the emphasis on changing the way we deal with waste and end-of life products.  

Increased product design for recycling will not be effective without the necessary infrastructure for recycling and a society engaged in utilising it.  

Falkenberg also indicated that the Commission was looking at the ability of member states to implement proposals, and was keen to ensure that whatever was proposed could be implemented by all of them.  

It clearly makes sense to ensure that proposals are capable of implementation. But this should not have to stifle ambition, particularly noting that the policy is intended to drive economic activity in areas where it did not previously exist.      

Fiona Ross is associate at Pinsent Masons

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