A huge time for the UK- and it's not just Brexit

Written by: Patrick Cousens | Published:
Patrick Cousens

Will 2019 be remembered – at least by those in the waste industry – for the UK’s new stance on plastic, packaging and other recycling issues?

Our regular ‘Inside Westminster’ feature is under strict instructions from your good editor to veer away from Brexit. Very sensible too, given the palpable fatigue felt by many.

As a public affairs agency based in the heart of Westminster, we work on Brexit matters with a range of clients – and are deeply involved in the debate.

Quite apart from its ubiquity in political life, it is very clear to us, as it is to many others, that public pronouncements from some of our nation’s more colourful Brexiteers are frequently at odds with how negotiations – and matters affecting various sectors – are perceived by businesses on the ground.

I start this month’s column with this, not to subvert our instructions to turn our gaze from the Brexit maelstrom, but rather to draw a comparison between this state of affairs and a similar pattern that is observable in the waste and recycling sector.

Remarkably, given the lack of historical precedent (and neverending stream of Brexit news), waste policy is enjoying a period of major salience in politics and the media. This is especially true of plastic waste, with Sir David Attenborough having added to his immense legacy by helping shake the country out of its stupor with regards to the destination of so much global plastic.

Blue Planet IIkick-started a virtuous circle of media coverage and government policy, which continues to gather momentum. The government is now on the verge of banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and by the time you read this the Chancellor will have announced proposals for a plastics tax, which is expected to target single-use plastics and encourage manufacturers to develop more environmentally friendly packaging solutions.

And while plastics may be grabbing the headlines, it is not the only policy area to have received active attention and focus from Defra. Various policies to improve air quality are moving through the Westminster machine (albeit not without dissent over their speed and ambition), while food waste continues to rise up the political agenda, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently committing £15m of additional funding to support new pilot initiatives to increase redistribution.

Big talk, big problems

Even five years ago it would have been inconceivable that a Conservative government, usually associated with laissez-faire economics, would take so many interventionist steps in the market – particularly as they have done and plan to on plastics.

Yet, through a cynical lens, all of this rosy ambition can look a little like “£350m for the NHS” in light of the pernicious ‘Irish border’ reality of what happens to so much UK waste presently.

As reported by The Guardian,a significant industry-wide investigation is under way into deliberate misreporting of exported plastic waste figures, with increasing evidence of wilful abuse and fraud in the system, both in respect to the amount being shipped and the nature of the content, with much of it turning out to be contaminated.

At home, waste crime is rising, with more than 800 illegal waste sites shut down by the Environment Agency last year, and a record £25.5m of fines being issued for breaches of environmental permits.

And even when UK recyclates do make it legitimately abroad (and are reported as having been recycled), it is increasingly clear that much of it is sent away in hope rather than expectation, to countries with retrograde processing technologies and inadequate reporting requirements.

We need more than legislation

The government’s headline-grabbing announcements represent genuinely positive progress. Firm bans on straws and stirrers largely kill that particular problem dead, and the focus on encouraging producer innovation using both carrots and sticks, as expected in the Budget and Resources and Waste Strategy, is the right way to tackle the problem.

However, there is little end benefit in increasing recyclable packaging content unless we are simultaneously ensuring that this actually is being processed in the manner that is expected. “Recycled means recycled”, to borrow a turn of phrase.

This means investing in the infrastructure and facilities to do more of this at home, and not relying on insufficient arrangements abroad – especially with a growing number of countries saying no to waste imports.

It also means doing more to change retailer and consumer expectations, so that we create new and larger markets for recycled goods. A record 162,000 people responded to the government’s recent consultation on single-use plastics, so there is clearly a desire for change, but consumers need to know how this might affect, for example, the feel or appearance of some familiar products such as water bottles or plastic food trays.

Thankfully, public and political sentiment is increasingly catching up with long-standing concerns of environmentalists and many in the waste and recycling sector. We are a long way from where we need to be, but things are moving in the right direction.

Whatever happens, the next few months will be looked back on as a historic time for the UK, as a result of our changing relationship with Europe. Whether it will also be seen as a momentous period for resource management depends greatly on the extent to which action follows ambition.

Patrick Cousens is senior account manager at PLMR

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