Resources and Waste Strategy: Our reaction

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has released its long awaited Resources and Waste Strategy but what does it mean for the waste sector?

16 January 2019

The new Resources and Waste Strategy ('RWS'), published on 18 December 2018, introduced many new proposals which if implemented have the capacity to fundamentally change the way we deal with and think about waste as a society and an economy. Many of the measures are clearly designed to incentivise sustainable behaviours towards waste and provide a transition to a much more circular economy than we have ever seen before. The RWS sets out the government’s thinking on a wide range of issues affecting the environment, food production and resource and waste management. In this first of two briefings, we focus on some of the key actions expected from the RWS and consider how they will impact the waste sector. Our second briefing, picking out and focusing on some of the regulatory ambitions and implications, can be found here.

The Resources and Waste Strategy 2018

The RWS is the first significant government statement in the area since the 2011 Waste Review and the subsequent Waste Prevention Programme 2013 for England. The RWS brings together the other government strategies relating to the environment including the Litter Strategy, the Clean Growth Strategy, the Industrial Strategy and the 25 Year Environment Plan. The 25 Year Environment Plan in particular provides the overarching theme of this suite of government publications, to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it.

To achieve this, RWS sets out a series of principles, planned consultations, actions and milestones, broken down into 8 chapters and all adding to the goal of a 'circular' (rather than linear) economy. The RWS is seeking to break down the attitude of 'take, make, use, throw' by doing what the Waste and Resources Action Programme ('WRAP') calls the 3 R's:

  • reinventing how we design, produce and sell things
  • rethinking how we use and consume things
  • redefining what’s possible about reuse and recycling.

Key Milestones

RWS sets out 5 strategic ambitions:

  • work towards all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025
  • work towards eliminating food waste to landfill by 2030
  • eliminate avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Environment Plan
  • eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050
  • double 'resource productivity' (being the value to GDP of each unit of raw material used in the economy) by 2050 (e.g. by reuse, recycling, or recovery).

In addition to these goals which longstop the waste action timeline, RWS has scheduled:

  • an initial 6 consultations up to and during 2020
  • 4 long term ‘targets’ 
  • 9 ‘key milestones’

The aspiration to meet (and in some cases exceed) EU Circular Economy Package targets provides some comfort in the current Brexit climate that government will seek to build on our existing regulatory regime, so heavily influenced by the EU. However, RWS explicitly states that 'leaving the EU provides us with an opportunity to review and streamline the regulatory environment to overcome these barriers (to increasing the uptake of recycled materials)’. The RWS advocates consistency of approach between the UK’s home nations and across England’s waste authorities because resources and waste issues 'cut across continents and oceans' but also claims that if we free ourselves the 'green-tape' that comes from the EU bureaucracy we can better achieve our environmental aims.

Waste sector development

We’ve set out below our thoughts on some of the key points in the RWS and their impact on the waste sector:

  • There’s a move away from the industry's traditional tonnage-based metrics which means that the waste industry and its customers may have to revise traditional weight based reporting systems and payment mechanisms to reflect the impact-based approach. The RWS commits to impact-based metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on natural capital. This means a much greater understanding will be required of how our products are manufactured and their impact on the environment, and this information will need to be shared. This is consistent with the recognition in the RWS that data and knowledge will be increasingly important commodities in the circular economy. To help consumers there is a proposal to consult about the options for an 'ecolabel' scheme (which could require, for example, labelling of recycled content or ability to repair) and for business and the public sector, a proposal for a national materials ‘Datahub’ to provide information on the availability of raw and secondary materials, including chemicals.
  • Last year's Budget indicated an intention to introduce a stimulus for the recycled plastics market through a proposed tax on plastic packaging with less than a 30 per cent recycled content. This clearly signals government's view that plastics are a vital part of the modern economy but need to be more responsibly managed (in the same vein, there is a proposal to consult in increasing the carrier bag charge and a commitment to reduce 'unnecessary single use plastic products'). This kind of fiscal measure should help to create a more stable (and investable) market for both existing plastic recycling and the development of technologies that can recycle 'hard to treat' (but 'necessary') plastics. Indeed, there is clear support for the development of new domestic processing capacity for recyclables. The RWS identifies the strategic aim of increasing the competitiveness of UK reprocessing and investors’ confidence in the sector through a number of mechanisms stimulating the domestic market. We look in further detail at some of the regulatory challenges behind these proposals in our second article.
  • Following on the theme of helping consumers make more informed choices about the products they buy, the RWS looks to incentivise greater reuse, repair and remanufacture of products that otherwise go on to enter the waste steam. There are some clear opportunities here for local authorities, operators of HWRCs and organisations focussing on 'pre-owned' goods. The RWS promises amendment to waste legislation and suggests that the legislative change will enable items that arrive at HWRCs to be extracted from the waste stream (both literally and from a regulatory perspective) and be sold for re-use as a non-waste and therefore not subject to waste legislation. This relatively simple and eminently sensible change has numerous potential benefits including the clear potential to reduce disposal costs for local authorities, generate additional revenue streams for local authorities and HWRC operators and reduce use of virgin materials as well as providing other social benefits such as employment, training opportunities and access to quality used goods. On a similar theme, RWS also advocates large scale re-use and repair projects. But it recognises that for scale, there needs to be suitable logistics systems in place (and presumably sufficiently proximate to service users) and promises to use planning policy to support the development of this ambition.
  • In relation to the proposed elimination of food waste to landfill by 2030, RWS identifies a number of measures that will be of particular interest to the AD industry. These include:
  • a consultation on the introduction of separate weekly food waste collections for businesses and households by 2023
  • possible legislation to require businesses to present food waste and recyclates separately to residual waste and to encourage participation by obliging business to publish what they recycle – any publication requirement may well result in customers requiring additional information from their commercial waste collection contractors in order to comply.

There is clear support for the valuable contribution that AD makes. However, it remains to be seen whether the introduction of the food surplus and waste hierarchy (which identifies below redistribution, animal feed and bio-material processing) could provide some additional challenges for certain segments of the AD industry. For example, government is looking to ensure that a reduced volume of edible food enters the waste stream by:

  • encouraging the redistribution of edible food (citing approx. 100,000 tonnes of such edible, redistributable food currently being processed in AD plants
  • seeking to protect food producers (through the Agriculture Bill) from 'unfair practices' such as late changes to product specifications and last minute order cancellations which can otherwise result in edible food losing its route to market (and ending up in the waste stream).

There is also clear support for the EfW sector. The RWS identifies the important role for EfW to play in the decarbonisation of heat and a commitment to help both industrial heat users and housing providers take advantage of this opportunity, including by using planning policy to support the location of future plant near to potential heat customers. Given the historic difficulties of locating EfW near to heat users (particularly domestic ones) it will be interesting to see how this plays out. There is also an expectation that all future EfW plants achieve 'R1' recovery status – we assume through the planning and/or permitting process. In practice this may make development of EfW more challenging unless any R1 requirement is accompanied by planning, permitting and energy regulatory measures which are broadly supportive of such facilities and their outputs. The RWS also looks to the future, highlighting the opportunities for the waste sector in the development of fuels from waste and the role of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) in incentivising such processes as well as the government funding being made available to assist in the development of new technologies to deliver these fuels. Despite the clear support for EfW and its role in the waste sector, the threat of an incineration tax lingers, serving as a reminder of the possible consequences of the waste industry not supporting the Government's long term strategic aim to move waste up the waste hierarchy, as contemplated by the RWS.

Perhaps the single most important measure in the RWS is the commitment (subject to consultation) to develop a national approach to household recycling in the form of a legal duty for a consistent set of dry recyclables to be collected from all households and businesses. The proposal has the potential to have far reaching impacts on both waste authorities and private sector operators. However, better quality and improved quantities of recyclates will provide significant opportunities for more efficient joint working between authorities and more efficient infrastructure development. While the benefits of improved recycling participation, quality and quantity are there to be exploited (and applauded), careful thought will need to be given the implementation programme to ensure that both public and private sector investment programmes are not prejudiced by any change in approach. In tandem with any such change, there will need to be an investment programme to ensure that the necessary reprocessing infrastructure is available to support revised collection methods.

How can Burges Salmon help?

Burges Salmon advises on a wide range of energy and environment issues and has market-leading specialisms in both waste and environmental regulatory law. If you are interested in discussing these issues and the opportunities presented by the RWS for your organisation, please contact Simon Tilling or Nick Churchward.

Key contact

Nick Churchward

Nick Churchward Partner

  • Head of Resource and Waste Management
  • Projects
  • Energy and Utilities

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