Recent environment secretaries may have little appetite to embrace issues like packaging, food waste and the circular economy. Photograph: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images Recent environment secretaries may have little appetite to embrace issues like packaging, food waste and the circular economy. Photograph: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Has the government lost its way on waste?

Has the government’s waste policy run aground? In recent weeks this question has cropped up frequently in webinars, social media chats and virtual industry get-togethers.

“There was a real sense of enthusiasm and momentum when the resources and waste strategy was released in [December] 2018,” explains Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, a think tank. “A couple years on [and] it’s hard not to feel like the wind’s gone out of the sails a bit.”

Covid has tripped things up in the past year, of course, so too Brexit (food, farming and fish have sucked up resources during trade talks). But a little over 18 months ago the good ship DEFRA also lost a powerful captain in Michael Gove. 

Compared to the previous decade, “he really drove things rather spectacularly”, says Joe Papineschi, chairperson at Eunomia Research and Consulting. “I hoped he would continue to provide support and momentum when he moved on [to become chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster].”

But Gove’s successors have shown little appetite to embrace issues like packaging, food waste and the circular economy. 

An analysis by ENDS of the 60 DEFRA announcements and speeches made by environment secretary George Eustice in the past 12 months shows just three (5%) related specifically to the resources and waste portfolio. Almost half (45%) were about food and farming. In her seven months in charge at DEFRA, Theresa Villiers, made just two announcements specifically related to waste and resources – one launching the joint unit for waste crime and the other on sales of plastic bags.

In his first 12 months at DEFRA, nine of Gove’s 78 announcements (12%) were related to waste. He also launched the 25-year environment plan awash with commitments relating to plastic pollution and went on to publish the resources and waste strategy in his second year. 

Gove is of course the arch-Brexiter, who teed up Brexit as an opportunity to deliver more ambitious environment policies. But this freedom has led to stagnation and confusion. The EU policy-making process provided officials with knowledge, intelligence and ideas but that isn’t there anymore. This, plus an inevitable churn of officials as new policies drag on, has exposed some “naivety” in DEFRA staff, according to some experts.

Take extended producer responsibility (EPR), which will force producers to pay the full costs of disposal for the packaging they place on the market. Westminster originally stole a march on Brussels on what Defra called a “powerful environmental policy”. In the past two years Europe has caught up. “There is more clarity from the EU currently,” says Papineschi.

A second consultation on EPR, due to come into force in the UK in 2023, is expected any day now (a year later than planned). Follow-up consultations for more consistent household and business recycling collections and a deposit return scheme (DRS) are also due. There was an incredible amount of engagement that went on initially, says Robbie Staniforth, head of innovation and policy at producer responsibility compliance scheme Ecosurety, but that ceased some months ago. “We are now simply waiting to appraise proposals,” he says.

These consultations are arguably a litmus test for the government’s aspirations on waste and resources. The expectation is for marked progress in the government’s thinking and proposals. As Felix Gummer, director at consultancy Sancroft suggests, with two years to go we should be at the “fine tuning” stage. Could that 2023 deadline slip? The National Infrastructure Strategy, published in November, indicated “implementation in 2024”. Some gossip has suggested 2025.

Let’s not forget the areas targeted for reform are far from straightforward. These are the “game changers” suggests Pat Jennings, head of policy at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, so “better to take the time to get them right”. Staniforth says the “realities of the systems’ complexity has become apparent to government since […] hence the delays”.

There is slippage elsewhere too. A consultation on mandatory food waste reporting for businesses is almost two years overdue. There is no sign yet of the government’s response to a call for evidence on standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics – which closed in October 2019. 

Most notable however is the delay to the Environment Bill, which will give many of the strategy’s objectives a legal footing. The bill at least has long-term targets focused in the right areas: resource productivity and waste minimisation. An updated waste prevention plan, published yesterday, offers hope that all is not lost. Peake says the document builds the narrative for why waste prevention and reducing resource use are so important, but there are glaring gaps in funding. “The pace of change and policy development is not commensurate with the urgency of the problem,” she adds.

It’s hard to shrug off the feeling that interest has waned on waste – and perhaps most markedly in Westminster. In Scotland, for example, draft legislation was this week published for market restrictions on a number of single-use plastic items and oxo-degradable products (though the planned 2022 rollout for a DRS is now under review). Wales has also consulted on the bans – which would see Holyrood and the Senedd align with the EU’s single-use plastics directive. 

In England, the waste prevention plan says the government will consult on further single-use plastic bans – which is new. It had talked previously of reprioritising and refreshing environmental policy outside of the EU. 

There is certainly a Brexit opportunity to create better policies that work best for the UK. But this desire to be different and more ambitious could be shackling civil servants. Europe has spent a huge amount of effort, time and money on its circular economy policies (ripping one almost complete version up and starting again). Matching the pace and intent of Brussels while making policies distinctive is a tough gig. 

Gove’s ambition to rethink the whole waste system was welcome but others have been left to work out how to do it. The next few weeks will tell us if they have some of the answers.

 

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