The Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum looks like Defra is moving in the right direction

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Environment secretary Michael Gove

It was a whirlwind end to 2017, and 2018 has already started with a bang.

In October there was the new Clean Growth Strategy, followed swiftly by an Industrial Strategy in November. In January came the long-awaited (and delayed) 25 Year Environment Plan, with a clampdown on plastics (rightly or wrongly) at its heart. Soon – and perhaps even by the time you read this – a bioeconomy strategy is expected (please, pinch me if I’m dreaming).

January’s Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum on waste, recycling and the circular economy could not have been more timely.

To summarise, there was optimism in the air, but more than a whiff of frustration. Indeed, for all words – written and spoken – over the past three months, there is little to show in terms of concrete policies.

But fear not. The cherry will be placed on the cake, according to Defra, in the form of a Resources and Waste Strategy. “Hopefully the narrative – our high-level ambition – is consistent in the documents to date,” said Dr Lee Davies, head of resource efficiency and circular economy strategy at the department. “I admit there isn’t a massive amount of detail,” he added, but now he and his colleagues are looking at “how we are going to deliver [all this]”. He laughed nervously.

Davies is a man who has Michael Gove breathing down his neck demanding answers. Indeed, say what you like about the Environment Secretary, but after a decade of tumbleweed blowing around the feet of the waste and resources team at Defra, it’s hard not to admit his bluster and bombast was much-needed. He is the political punch that has long been missing.

Indeed, many who have been wooed by this smooth operator may well have been left sweating as Theresa May, the Prime Minister, tried to reshuffle her Cabinet in January. Turnover at Nobel House has been high in recent years, but Gove stayed.

Armed with his four-point plan to tackle plastic waste – 1) cut the total amount of plastic in circulation; 2) reduce the number of different plastics in use to help recycling firms; 3) improve the stagnating rate of recycling; and 4) make it easier for individuals to know what goes into which bin – he’ll be striding the corridors breathing down civil servants’ necks asking them to flesh it out.

Green Brexit

“Green Brexit” has become the government’s attempt to silver line the dark clouds looming over our divorce from the European Union. “We will use the opportunity Brexit provides to strengthen and enhance our environmental protections – not weaken them,” May said in her first big speech on the environment on 11 January. Comparing her plans with the EU’s new plastics strategy suggests she has got a long way to go.

Still, plastics is a focus for this government, of this we are now sure. There is a commitment in the environment plan to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Wrap and Incpen have apparently been touring the country speaking to a range of different organisations asking how to make plastics “work better”, and feeding the results directly back to the Environment Secretary. “The plan has already made a difference,” Marcus Gover, CEO at the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), said.

At the forum there was clearly a buzz. “It’s great to see government taking this seriously after so many years of neglect … and four of them were mine,” said CIWM chief executive and former director of waste at Defra, Dr Colin Church.

Liz Goodwin, chair at the London Waste and Recycling Board, suggested it is also a million miles from her first meetings with industry when she was in charge at WRAP. “They thought all plastics should be burned,” she said.

That, of course, is still happening to a large extent – 11.4 million tonnes of packaging are produced in the UK every year; of that 2.2 million tonnes is plastic and just 0.8 million tonnes of it is recycled, according to WRAP.

A recent investigation by The Guardian, using analysis by consultancy Eunomia, found that the top supermarkets alone created 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year.

This is a best estimate using figures offered by Aldi and Co-op – the data is not published due to apparent “commercial sensitivity”, according to the other retailers. It’s a similar story for food waste, with only Tesco having published a warts-and-all audit of its supply chain waste.

It’s not clear yet that there is the political will to change this. In July, the government said it has “no current plans to require food businesses to publicly report food waste”. They might not need to for plastic waste.

Heading towards a plastic-free world?

My inbox has been peppered in the past few days with new commitments from retailers and manufacturers to reduce plastic use or move to different materials, but there were warnings at the forum for businesses (and policymakers) not to get carried away.

When switching to different materials you have to consider the wider impacts, noted Henry le Fleming, assistant director, sustainability and climate change, at PwC. Still, there is little doubt better financial incentives are needed to keep materials in use, he added.

This chimed with proposals made by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in January. The MPs said reform of producer responsibility is “long overdue” and that designing for recyclability should be rewarded while fees for hard-to-recycle packaging should be increased. Many at the Westminster forum agreed. A latte levy of 25p on disposable cups was also on the EAC’s wish-list and, buoyed by the success of the carrier bag charge, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Neither bans are outright bans. One of the key lines in the 151-page plan is a commitment to “exploring whether we can ban other problematic materials where suitable alternatives exist”. WRAP’s Gover cited polystyrene as a prime candidate. But in focusing on plastics, has the government lost sight of the bigger picture, and arguably bigger problems?

Nadeem Arshad, a partner at law firm Bevan Brittan, noted that the plan says very little about infrastructure and “almost nothing” about food waste. (Gover raised similar concerns – see page XX). “We have to be careful to say we’ll get rid of this [plastic] and it leads to another load of issues,” said Defra’s Davies.

But reining in the Environment Secretary won’t be easy. And neither will developing the policies in the Resource and Waste Strategy – which, let’s face it, is the document that the resource sector is really waiting for. It must also be framed in the context of the circular economy, with a focus on more reuse, improved recyclability, waste reduction and better design (something the European Commission stumbled over before ripping up its Circular Economy Package and starting afresh).

It’s worth noting that the circular economy is also only mentioned once in the 20 or so pages about resources. It also remains expected rather than confirmed that the UK will adhere to the EU’s Circular Economy Package.

With England stumbling back up to 43.7% in 2016-17, the chances of meeting the EU’s 50% by 2020 household recycling target are also scant – it’s asking a lot for a resource strategy that could be published as late as 31 December 2018 to turn things around in the space of only two years.

The clock is ticking, and in more ways than one. Those I spoke to at the forum wanted to see the strategy developed, consulted on and rubber-stamped before the Prime Minister reshuffles again. Never a dull moment, and for that we should be happy.

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