Will government's 25 Year Environment Plan offer more than just promises?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Illustration by Elly Wallton

January marked a huge milestone for our wonderful little planet. Or, more precisely, the UK’s attitude towards it.

For the first time in more than 15 years, the UK’s environment agenda was given the Prime Minister’s full attention as Theresa May launched the government’s long-awaited and much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

Just over a decade after David Cameron’s husky-hugging mission to the Arctic – which arguably did more for the former PM’s bucket list than the campaign to tackle climate change – May set out the party’s green credentials in a speech that pledged to “demonstrate global leadership”. The industry watched with bated breath.

May’s efforts were immediately hounded by the press as a weak attempt to turn the blues ‘green’ in order to appease younger voters, many of whom abandoned the party in 2017’s snap election. A criticism May staunchly denied, pointing out her previous post as shadow environment minister and the fact that she and husband Philip have installed a series of bird and bat boxes in their garden.

Whatever the motivation, and perhaps the reasons are multifaceted, the environment is increasingly on the government’s agenda, but what does the new plan mean for the waste and resources industry?

The initial response appears to be refreshingly positive, congratulating government on its attempt to tackle a series of difficult conversations, from plastics and local collections to more producer responsibility and consumer taxes.


Like a large chunk of the population, May had clearly been using her Sunday evenings to tune in to BBC’s Blue Planet II, given much of her speech was dedicated to the devastating impact of plastics on the environment. Though this was already common knowledge within the industry, the general public are only just waking up to the damaging impact of our on-the-go lifestyles, so it seemed apt timing for public consciousness and policy to finally link arms.

Within the Plan is a commitment to extend the 5p plastic bag charge to smaller retailers (a move already made by Wales and Scotland), a commitment to work with retailers to create “plastic-free aisles”, and more funding for research into creating new materials that could potentially replace plastics. Which all sounds quite positive – exciting, in fact.

To back this up came talk of targets, in particular working towards a goal of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and avoidable plastic by 2042. Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, welcomed the Plan as a motivator for the industry.

He says: “The Plan provides some much-needed encouragement to our industry that the government is finally taking seriously both the challenges and opportunities in managing the UK’s resources.

“We welcome the ambitions to double resource efficiency and eliminate avoidable waste by 2050. This will require the concerted effort of the whole supply chain along with policy-makers, and the waste and recycling industry is ready to play its part.”

Although the targets reinforce May’s stance on waste, without a lack of definition of ‘avoidable’, uncertainty has already arisen. Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, says: “Many of the signals give encouragement to our industry, but our nation is and should be capable of so much more than this in terms of real-time specifics, targets and legislative underpinning.

“Ending ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 simply feels too far away and surely our industries, councils and supply chain can prove to government that we can help to make this deadline a much shorter one.”

Who foots the bill?

Many were surprised not to see a mention of a deposit return scheme (DRS) within the Plan, or the much-discussed 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups. Environment Secretary Michael Gove took to the popular 8.10am slot on Radio 4’s Today programme to defend his department’s decision. He admitted Defra was consulting on a potential DRS or latte levy but “needed to make sure it works”.

It seems as if the industry is finally being listened to on its recommendations, though a lack of recognition of a DRS has inevitably angered green lobbying groups, which have worked for months to get it on the government’s agenda.

Consumer tax in the way of a latte levy is an issue that has the potential to cause grievance, so perhaps the concept was taken out of the Plan to keep the public on side for now. However, Neil Whittall, chair of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group, argues the tax is an inevitability: “The consumer is going to need to play a part in this in some form or another. If a tax is the only option then that needs to be communicated to them properly.”

It is also worth noting that the UK contributes a proportionally small amount of the oceans’ plastic waste, so it was refreshing to see a commitment to helping overseas waste management, which demonstrates the kind of joined-up thinking that government has been criticised for lacking in the past.

Developing UK markets

Much noise has been made of the Chinese import ban on some plastics and paper, which came into force on 1 January. Those expecting to see a direct response to the ban were left somewhat disappointed, citing a missed opportunity to promote UK markets.

Alex Foreman, managing director of Total Recycling Services, says: “We have relied for too long on sending our products to China, where labour costs are low. There needs to be plans in place to deal with this in the UK, where costs are a lot higher.”

Robbie Stanforth, policy manager at Ecosurety, argues the problem can be solved by more industry involvement, rather than from the government. He says: “The real problem is getting UK businesses to invest in recycling infrastructure so we can create internal markets for its own waste. We therefore need better investment in the recycling process. Otherwise we are just a nation of collectors creating a sea of plastic somewhere in the ocean.”

And with the glare of public outcry firmly on plastics, no-one in the supply chain has escaped scrutiny, with the Plan confirming that government will be taking a closer look at producer responsibility. As well as implementing the ban on the manufacture of rinse-off products using microbeads (followed shortly by a ban prohibiting their sale in the summer), the government promised to work with industry to rationalise packaging formats and reform producer responsibility systems in order to “incentivise producers to take greater responsibility for environmental impacts”.

It also said it will consider extending producer responsibility to products not currently covered – all commitments that have been welcomed by industry leaders.

Local collections

Elsewhere, the government showed its commitment to “supporting comprehensive and frequent waste and recycling collections” and argued for more frequent food waste collections.

A clear message. Hazier were the specifics of how this would be funded. A spokesperson for the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee said this lack of description may lead to uncertainty. “LARAC believes that without a fundamental change in the funding of household collection services, these changes will be very difficult to achieve.”

Echoing this is Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin. He says: “It’s good that there now appears to be an understanding of the challenges and desire to tackle them. But having a vision will not suffice, we need real and positive momentum to drive change.”

The main issue with the Plan is its form – it is a plan, rather than actual policy. Will Defra deliver on its promise to “leave the environment to the next generation in a better state than we inherited it”? If the Plan is anything to go by, the answer points towards yes.

However, while the promises are large, the language is much less bold. There is plenty of talk about encouraging and exploring, and much fewer examples of outright commitments or legislative promises. Perhaps, then, it is best to see the Plan as simply a stepping stone for what to expect in the Resources and Waste Strategy, which offers ample opportunity to flesh out what is, on the whole, a promising set of ideas.

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