DEFRA’s delay tactics throw the UK’s green waste agenda into question

No steps forward, three steps back

By Elliot Harrison-Holt – Waste Services Director at Everflow

Forward progress on the UK’s green agenda is all about timing. Getting ambitious initiatives off the ground at the right moment and with the necessary buy-in from all key stakeholders can help to ensure ideas take root and bear the fruit of long-term sustainable change.

Devising innovative green waste policies and setting timelines for roll-out is a key responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which should act as a guiding beacon for the UK’s waste sector and translate wider intentions and aspirations into tangible actions.

However, a series of back-to-back policy delays announced by DEFRA this summer has cast doubt over the Government’s commitment to delivering a more sustainable future for waste management across the UK.

A series of unfortunate events
In March, DEFRA was expected to announce a plan to impose consistent waste collection rules on local authorities in a bid to boost recycling rates and simplify waste management. The decision was then made to delay any announcement until after the May local elections, however, there has been no further communication on the policy since then.

Scotland was originally due to launch its Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in August 2023, an initiative expected to deliver a 90% increase in the recycling of single-use drinks containers. However, after initially delaying to March 2024, strong opposition from Westminster saw the scheme pushed back until October 2025 at the earliest.

Finally, in July, DEFRA decided to delay the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme until 2025 and pushed the introduction of requirements on food and drink businesses to report their food waste figures back until the end of 2026. EPR and the food waste reporting mandate had been promised in 2018’s resources and waste strategy. They had the potential to be a key driver in reducing commercial waste and incentivising the uptick of more sustainable materials.

The consequences of inaction
For those of us in the waste sector committed to tackling sustainability issues, this timeline of delay and indecision represents a serious blow. Both industry and local authorities require policy clarity from the Government on key measures and priorities. Without coherent planning, investment in innovation and new technologies often stagnate.

This inaction also comes when the UK recycling rate for households appears to have flatlined – increasing by only 0.2% between 2020 and 2021 – casting doubt on our ability to reach the UK’s recycling target of 65% by 2035. Meanwhile, 33.9 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste were generated in 2021 — up from 33.8 million in 2021.

We should not underestimate the wider unintended consequences of revising timelines. The chaotic attempt to roll out DRS in Scotland and the subsequent controversy over Circularity Scotland entering administration with debts of £86m has caused severe reputational damage to this critical project which relies heavily on consumer buy-in. Now, when DRS does finally go ahead in 2025, many will have the apparent disaster of Scotland’s DRS on their mind.

More fundamentally, shifting timelines undermines wider industry confidence in Government commitments which stifles the engagement needed to implement the policy effectively.

The case for delay
While disappointing and disruptive, delaying a policy rollout can be the right decision. The UK has experienced massive economic upheaval since publishing the 2018 resource and waste strategy, which will have disrupted original timelines. Firstly, COVID-19 and now the war in Ukraine have sparked a cost-of-living crisis and caused massive supply chain disruptions.

With many businesses and households now struggling to manage rising costs, there are justifiable concerns over whether the rollout of specific waste policies might add further financial pressures. For instance, food manufacturers and retailers expressed concerns that the launch of EPR would cost £1.7bn a year to implement, with the bulk of the cost passed on to consumers through higher prices.

At a time when food price rises are at their fastest annual rate since the 1970s, with the potential of an election looming. It is unsurprising why so many of these potentially inflationary policies have found themselves on pause. Policymakers in Westminster must remain cognisant of the situation on the ground.

Green policies which demonstrate a disconnect with people’s everyday lives only serve to turn people against the wider agenda rather than bringing them along the journey to a more sustainable future together. Additionally, if all key stakeholders aren’t onboard and prepared for the rollout, it is better to delay.

This isn’t to say that DEFRA should not be criticised for failing to prepare, but we shouldn’t make the situation worse by launching head-first in a transformative policy that’ll be dead on arrival.

While the rollout of EPR is expected to generate £1.2bn annually once fully operational, there is still a significant amount of uncertainty about how this will be distributed amongst key stakeholders managing the implementation cost. As a result of this lack of clarity, it is unsurprising that waste management companies and local authorities have been hesitant to invest, and it became necessary to delay.

Final thoughts
DEFRA is now operating on borrowed time to deliver several transformative waste policies. Indeed, mistakes and shortcomings in preparation are plentiful, and global events disrupt our ability to deliver on key commitments. What is important now is that we learn from these missteps and work to place ourselves on a surer footing moving forward. Greater honest and open engagement with industry, collaboration with local authorities and communication with the public will help shift attitudes and help to recycle these delayed policies and translate them into practical action.

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