What’s DEFRA’s problem with waste?

Each year for the past 10 years, government departments publish details of the work they are doing to reduce their environmental impact. These are set against targets under the so-called ‘Greening Government Commitments (GGC) – which are regularly revised – covering waste management (including single-use plastic), greenhouse gas emissions, water use, travel (including domestic flights), paper use and ‘sustainable procurement’ practices.

DEFRA secretary George Eustice. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/Getty Images

Overall, the government hasn’t done too badly. A target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% has been met, domestic flights have been cut by 38% and together departments have dipped under the goal of sending less than 10% of waste to landfill. The 2019/20 performance report “demonstrates how departments are taking both the environment and the need for efficiency into account in the way they use energy and water, make travel decisions, handle waste and procure goods and services”, wrote environment minister Rebecca Pow in her foreword.

If that were the case, wouldn’t the report have been published alongside a press release, rather snuck out five months later than in the previous two years?

Start to unpick the results across all 22 departments and holes start to appear. Three missed the greenhouse gas emission reduction target, 12 fell short of the one on domestic flights (in six departments flights actually went up) and six couldn’t reduce paper by sufficient margins. Five missed the mark on water reduction and only 12 reported against all four transparency commitment areas in their annual reports.

To some these commitments may appear like a box-ticking exercise. But these latest results are arguably more significant than ever: the UK government is hosting the COP26 climate talks and at great pains to communicate its leadership on climate change as it cajoles others to ‘keep 1.5 degrees alive’. 

Look back at the GGC reports of the past and many departments have made significant strides and are far more engaged than they would have been if left to their own devices. However, the department overseeing the whole programme, DEFRA, continues to struggle. 

ENDS reported earlier this year that DEFRA was struggling to practice what it preaches on waste. This remains the case. In 2019/20, 7,526 tonnes of waste was produced, a fall of 7% against the 2009/10 baseline (8,116 tonnes) and up on the 2018/19 figure. Only three departments performed worse, with nine managing to reduce waste by 50% or more.

DEFRA also sends more waste to landfill (20%) than any other department, with eight registering ‘zero waste to landfill’ in the most recent dataset. DEFRA actually buried more waste in 2019/20 than it did in 2018/19; this was due to the Forestry Commission sending “large amounts of chemically treated wood to landfill”. 

The department has in the past blamed poor performance on its diverse portfolio of properties – buildings, pumping stations, forestry facilities and so on. This “presents considerable challenges in delivering savings”, DEFRA’s 2019/20 annual report reads. 

Recycling is also a problem: DEFRA managed 40% in the latest year, a steep drop from the 52% in 2017/18 and well below the much-maligned household recycling rate of 46%. Taken together, government departments managed 64%, just down on the 65% in 2018/19. DEFRA has yet to respond to a request from ENDS for a statement.

The department was singled out for praise on plastic, reducing use by 31% and introducing a ‘closed loop recycling’ solution for the 60,000 plastic gloves used in its laboratories. However, many departments struggled to meet a target, introduced by the Cabinet Office on a voluntary basis, to remove all ‘consumer single-use plastic’ by the end of 2019. 

This is embarrassing for a government that has placed considerable emphasis on tackling plastic pollution through the Environment Act, its 25-year environment plan and proposed revamp of extended producer responsibility regulations. A plastics tax will also come into force in April next year, while more consistent recycling collections are planned for 2023. 

Jo Churchill, recently appointed waste and resources minister in a cabinet reshuffle, has already called for recycling to be made “easier”. She wants to be a “champion” for the sector – and is already coming under pressure to deliver following the perceived sidelining of resource management during the COP26 talks and within the government’s new net zero strategy.

Speaking after a week in Glasgow, Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez and president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), told ENDS that ministers “can’t marginalise us” because “so much of the net zero transition comes back to our resources”. Gavin Graveson, senior executive vice-president for Veolia in Northern Europe, made similar noises in a statement this week.

Many are getting twitchy, eager to invest in infrastructure but reluctant to do so due to government dithering over a raft of planned policy reforms originally set out in the resources and waste strategy three years ago. The delays are quite simply “costing carbon”, Read added.

The Environment Act, now enshrined into UK law, should grease the wheels, empowering the government to implement policies at every stage of the product lifecycle to improve resource efficiency and recycling rates. The target is to recycle 65% of municipal waste in England by 2035.

For central government departments, the new bar is 70% recycling by 2025. Less than 5% of waste should also be sent to landfill, according to the newly published 2021 to 2025 GGCs. Other than greenhouse gas reductions the targets are aggregated so DEFRA can breathe easy. The hard work on resource management has however only just begun.