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Jan—24

What's the environmental impact of Brexit?

After long and gruelling negotiations, two snap elections, and an increasing divide across the nation, it’s official – the UK will leave the European Union on 31 January 2020 at 11:00 pm, with an 11-month transition period set to follow.

There’s a lot going on and if you’re confused, don’t panic. We are too. But while the future is unclear, it still looks bright when it comes to the environment. Here’s what we know so far.

Waste management and Brexit

In the December 2019 election, each party had great ambitions for sustainability in their manifestos. The Liberal Democrats sought to head towards a circular economy, effectively banning single-use plastics by 2030, and to hit a 70% target for recycling nationwide. Labour proposed making manufacturers responsible for their waste, and to introduce a container deposit scheme, while the Green Party and Conservatives also strategised putting the financial onus of recycling and waste management onto the producers, retailers, and manufacturers themselves.

Seeing recycling and waste as top issues for the respective parties felt reassuring. Now that the Conservatives have won a majority in the UK parliament though, many are wondering if they will stay true to their vow to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries and other environmental promises. Without the pressure of the European Union and the threat of substantial fines for inaction, is it possible that hopes of a 2050 carbon-neutral UK will be put on the back-burner?

There’s always a risk, but it’s something that the introduction of the Office for Environmental Protection has been put in place to prevent, aiming to protect existing EU-compliant environmental law after Brexit. Not all citizens feel heartened by this agency, however. Speaking to the publication New Scientist, Environment Audit Committee (EAC) chair and Labour MP Mary Creagh said: “We are very concerned the OEP will be funded by government, monitoring targets set by government and with a chair appointed by government.” Creagh echoes the worry others have that without the checks and balances of a larger entity, like the European Union, a majority government can act as they please without consequence, forgoing action on global emergencies.

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Brexit waste export

So what other promises do we hope that Brexit won’t break? Since 2000, portions of the colossal amount of waste produced in the UK have been successfully diverted from landfill and turned into electricity at dedicated plants. While this has been extremely effective, many materials ending up in this stream have failed to be harnessed for their true value – through recycling or a more circular model.

In the new Environment Bill presented by the Conservatives, manufacturers, retailers, and producers will be “covered by extended producer responsibility requirements [and] will need to fully fund material recycling costs.” This should act as a great incentive for organisations to adopt circular economy practices, increasing the lifetime of resources, and will hopefully, in the years to come, lessen the need for recycling and waste to be exported, a major issue facing waste management today. We should be able to get a clearer vision of the impact of these policies by watching Australia as they roll out a similar ban on exporting of recyclables or waste, starting mid-2020.

What is the government’s Environment Bill and what does it mean for recycling?

On 11 January 2018, under the leadership of Theresa May, the Conservative government released their detailed envisioning of their sustainability goals – ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’.

The plan celebrated the successes of the introduction of the 5p plastic bag fee, adopted in supermarkets and shops, in slashing the number used by 83%, and introduced plans by Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, for a “new Northern Forest,” among others. The 151-page document proposed a goal of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and an emphasis on using and reusing resources efficiently.

While the aims were exciting, the plan saw little in the way of tangible targets with dates, steps, or action points – for example, campaigners were disappointed by the absence of a bottle collection scheme. The reason for the lack of concise timelines? It’s likely a constantly changing political landscape had something to do with it. After all, less than one year after it was presented, May was no longer in office.

So what has become of the bill? Boris Johnson’s government’s Environment Bill carries many of the same vows as May’s, calling once again for comprehensive and frequent collection services (including weekly separate food waste collection), and reform of extended producer responsibility to help authorities and waste operators. It has also been pushed alongside the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s OUR WASTE, OUR RESOURCES: A STRATEGY FOR ENGLAND.

Highlights of this waste-specific document include that the organisation is working with WRAP UK, circular economy and resource efficiency experts, and to maintain consistency in recycling with industry and local authorities. DEFRA are emphasising the role of businesses in waste management, pledging to give more information to businesses on recycling, promote shared collection services, and “investigate... other measures to help cut costs, particularly for SMEs” when it comes to recycling.

The role of businesses in keeping us on target

While prime ministers may change and legislation may falter, one thing’s for sure: businesses can still make an impact with their recycling and waste management. To prove this point, we need only look to Britain’s titans of retail that are stepping in.

Marks and Spencer have recently removed 1,000 tonnes of plastic from its range, replacing 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery with FSC-certified wood alternatives and 1,700 tons of black plastic packaging with easy-to-recycle alternatives, while this week Nestle has announced it will invest a staggering CHF 2 billion (£1.6 billion) to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics and to accelerate the development of innovative sustainable packaging.

Brexit will not be ‘done’ in 2020, and neither will the work we can be doing at work and at home. We continue to see considerable action thanks to the UK’s changemakers, but we need to remember that, more than ever, making a difference isn’t simply one person acting perfectly, but a lot of people making small and considered changes.

We need local authorities, consumers, and businesses to open up about their waste and what they are doing to reduce it. By sharing our solutions, and in so doing putting pressure on the government to invest in infrastructure and education, we have the power to make our future brighter.

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