DEFRA ‘underestimated’ the complexity of waste reforms, says department's packaging lead

DEFRA originally “underestimated the complexity” of implementing the 2018 Resource and Waste Strategy, a senior civil servant at the department has told an audience at the Resource and Waste Management Expo in Birmingham.

The pace at which the government is rolling out its waste reforms has come under increased scrutiny, with three of the key planks of the 2018 strategy now delayed, including the deposit return scheme (DRS), extended producer responsibility (EPR) and consistent collections. 

READ MORE: What has made waste the poor relation of environmental policy?

Speaking on a panel at expo yesterday about the impact of the strategy five years on, Linda Crichton, team leader of packaging policy at DEFRA, said: “I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had some challenges, the timescales originally underestimated the complexity of the task”. 

“The reforms affect every local authority, most businesses that supply and send products in the UK and the whole waste management sector. The complexity of the challenges are considerable.”

However, Crichton reassured the panel that the “reforms remain high on the government’s agenda”.

“Our commitment is very much there, we have made good progress on EPR, we’ve done the policy, had the feedback, the next step is just setting out the regulations,” she said. 

Speaking about consistent collections, for which the government has not yet published its response to the 2021 consultation, Crichton said DEFRA “is working really hard to get that done”. This echoed the language used by Tamara Finkelstein, the department's permanent secretary, who said in a Public Accounts Committee session earlier this week that “we will very much imminently be publishing the [consultation] response”. 

“We recognise that consistency is the missing piece of the jigsaw, we are working hard to publish that as soon as possible, we do appreciate that it completes the programme”, Critchon said. 

On the reasons for these delays, Crichton said that political uncertainty may have hampered progress.

“Since consistency was first endorsed, we’ve had eight environment ministers”, she said, quickly emphasising that “this is not a political criticism”, but instead stating that it reflects that the current “system doesn’t allow for the pace of change that we would like to see”.

Speaking on the biggest risk that waste reforms face, various voices on the panel reiterated that it is political uncertainty that is the biggest concern.

“I worry that in the next 18 months as we lead up to a general election that we will see more wobbles,” Chris Mills, a special advisor at the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), said. 

Adam Read, chief sustainability officer at waste management firm SUEZ echoed this, stating that we have “18 months of political uncertainty”.

“What politician is going to make big decisions that affect every household?”, he asked, also raising concerns that any new administration may not want to make any immediate decisions.

“I worry that political risk is our biggest hurdle”, he said.