Much of the UK’s current waste policy is derived from the EU Waste Framework Directive. This policy sets a common definition of waste and aims to ensure it is recovered or disposed of responsibly through permitting, registration and inspection requirements. It has been a key driver for the waste management and recycling industries in the UK and has led to the reduction of landfill, change in consumer behaviour and the development of energy from waste plants.
Although in the UK there is a clear momentum towards greater levels of recycling and reduced dependence on landfill, there is still a high level of uncertainty as to the impact Brexit will have on the UK’s waste and recycling policies. In its White Paper on Brexit published in July 2018, the government made clear that it intends to maintain high environmental standards once the UK exits the EU. The government’s 25-Year Environment Plan, which promises to deliver a ‘Green Brexit’, sets out the scale of its future ambitions.
The introduction of new trade barriers between the UK and EU may increase the cost and difficulty of trading in waste. Such barriers could result in storage difficulties due to border control delays, an increase in waste crime and more waste ending up in landfill sites. The government’s plans for waste and recycling policies after Brexit may also be undermined by lack of funding at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), which receives a substantial amount of funding from the EU for such policies. The UK will leave the EU budget and receive no further funding if the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 without agreement on these issues.
It is unlikely that Brexit, in any form, will lead to significant change to the UK’s waste and recycling policies. There are very few positive messages central government could make for moving significantly away from EU targets in such areas without impacting on other environmental policies. Any change to the UK’s waste policy will, in any event, take many years to agree and implement.
However there might be greater pressure from local authorities to move away from the objectives set by the EU Landfill Directive; to reduce the landfilling of waste by introducing stringent technical requirements for waste and landfills. These EU driven targets have caused local councils to incur large fines for missing the landfill reduction levels. These fines get carried across into council tax bills.
Many local councils are already committed to long term waste management contracts, whether through PPP or other forms of outsourcing, which require the waste company to meet recycling and/or landfill reduction targets driven by the EU Directive. Any change to those targets after Brexit will not have an immediate impact on those long term contracts without renegotiation.