With the UK promised an ‘in/out’ referendum on EU membership by December 2017, talk is turning to what a potential exit would mean for the UK’s waste sector. As with much of the so-called ‘Brexit’, what Britain decides when it takes to the ballot box could leave the industry at a crossroads.
The EU has certainly played a vital role in shaping the UK’s waste recycling industry to date. In 1995, Britain had a well-deserved reputation as ‘the dirty man of Europe’, with 83% of all domestic waste sent directly to landfill and only 7% recycled or composted. But, since then, the UK has been making great strides to clean up its act. In 2014, the UK’s recycling rates had soared to 45% – thanks in no small part to a series of EU directives. These include the pioneering Waste Framework Directive, which calls for a more regulated and sustainable approach to waste management.
Indeed, nowadays, the UK enjoys a leading position in global recycling rates. Britain is in the top 10 countries in Europe for recycling and leads the field in terms of construction waste management (using more recycled aggregates than any other country in Europe).
There is legitimate concern, therefore, for what would happen in a post Union-landscape. Currently, the UK government’s approach to waste management is guided by a number of EU directives – such as the proposed Circular Economy Package which requires a 90% waste aversion from landfill by 2030 – but there’s potential that this could be watered down in the event of an exit.
This said, any separation from the EU would take several years to truly come into force and, as such, current legislation informing recycling and waste management in Britain is likely to remain in place until they are superseded.
What’s more, independent of the EU, parts of the UK has displayed a pioneering attitude to sustainable waste management. For example, the Zero Waste Scotland regulations, which require materials to be separated tor recycling rather than being sent to landfill, came as a result of action from the UK parliament and not the European Union.
So what is the solution? It’s fair to say that the UK’s leading approach to waste management is the result of both guidance from Europe and proactive domestic politics. Past experience shows us that frameworks developed by the EU (including material specific guidelines, such as the WEEE directive) are essential for providing targets, but these can only be achieved by a government and populace that believe and invest in them.
The UK’s EU membership remains on a knife edge. A recent YouGov reveals that 42% of the British public wanted to remain part of the union, while 35% favoured leaving. It goes without saying that whatever the outcome, the ramifications are likely to be felt in the waste sector, but one thing remains critically important – the UK cannot afford to halt the progress made by the waste sector over the past decade.