Politicians are finally taking the climate agenda seriously

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

It’s election fever at the time of writing this column and there’s plenty to munch on for this sector.

With the climate agenda now centre stage in the wider news agenda, politicians are being forced to take the issue of sustainability more seriously and that – as Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association aptly puts it – could mean “radical changes” are in store for the industry regardless of who is voted into power.

Significantly, looking at the main manifestos published so far, there appears to be cross-party support for full-cost extended producer responsibility.

This is aligned with the current direction of travel – the Government’s recent Environment Bill confirmed that producers will be required to pay the full net costs of their packaging waste – which provides some level of certainty (I hope) for the industry, even if it means quite fundamental change.

The real surprise for me though were those paltry three paragraphs towards the end of the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ chapter in Labour’s manifesto. After all Jeremy Corbyn’s talk of free broadband, this was something of an anti-climax.

The party talks of backing bottle-return schemes and investing in steel recycling, but it’s actual plan for waste and recycling is remarkably brief. Elsewhere, the manifesto talks of investing in a new plastics remanufacturing industry and ending exports of plastic waste. But that’s about it.

The Liberal Democrats meanwhile demonstrate clear, solid support for a circular economy. Its manifesto states that the “successful economies of the future will be those which adopt ‘circular economy’ techniques, cutting resource use, waste and pollution by maximising recovery, reuse, recycling and remanufacturing”. The language, I feel, is way more encouraging than that of Labour and the level of detail superior.

The Lib Dems pledge to introduce a ‘Zero-Waste and Resource Efficiency Act’ to ensure that circular shift, and have thrown in a few targets too. Ending plastic waste exports by 2030, introducing a statutory waste recycling target of 70% in England and extending separate food waste collections to at least 90% of homes by 2024. There is a mooted ban on non-recyclable single-use plastics, and an intention to extend forthcoming EU ‘right to repair’ legislation for consumer goods.

Some of these circular ambitions are reflected in the Green Party manifesto, with its ‘Green New Deal for Industry’ emphasis that targets, among other things, product design standards as well as greater durability and repairability.

The Greens also want to encourage a shift “from models of ownership to usership”, citing examples like car-sharing platforms and neighbourhood tool libraries. However there is little detail of how this might be achieved, either through policy intervention or other means.

At the time of writing this column, the Conservatives haven’t released their manifesto, but I’m assuming any green pledges won’t stray too far from what’s already been set out in both the Resources & Waste Strategy and the Environment Bill.

Although the Lib Dems are undergoing a slight resurgence, I feel that the election is pretty much a two-horse race. If the Conservatives win, many will hope Boris Johnson will not just get “Brexit done” but ensure that the party’s much-anticipated waste reforms are implemented sooner rather than later. If Labour wins, then it could be back to the drawing board.

One thing I am sure of is that north of the border, the Scottish National Party (SNP) will be re-elected and that should pave the way for the introduction of the Scottish Government’s Circular Economy Bill, which is currently out for consultation.

Key proposals under the Bill include increasing the carrier bag charge from 5p to 10p, putting a levy on disposable drinks cups, food waste reporting, plus possibly mandating how local authorities target and/or collect waste materials.

Interestingly, the Bill is somewhat silent when it comes to dealing with residual waste. Given that quite a few Energy from Waste (EfW) plants are coming on-stream in Scotland, I’m surprised this area hasn’t been given more consideration. Is EfW still the elephant in the room among circular policy-makers?

I was hoping Scotland could demonstrate some leadership here, especially given the recently launched cross-party EfW inquiry in England, which will among other things be asking that very question. Led by Policy Connect’s Sustainable Resource Forum, the inquiry seeks to examine the future of EfW, including the role it could play in contributing to national circular economy ambitions.

This means examining whether the residual waste element is being appropriately considered alongside increased recycling and reduced landfill/exports and identifying opportunities for EfW to act as a low carbon heating solution. The inquiry should be an interesting one, and I look forward to digesting its outcomes.

But first we have an election to contend with and continued uncertainty on Brexit. Let’s hope by this time next year we’ll have some much-needed stability and a sounder base on which to push forward with positive – if indeed radical – change for this sector.

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