An environmental exit?

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union presents both challenges and opportunities for waste management. We speak to international expert Richard Cowell about its impacts.

In 20 February, British Prime Minister David Cameron set the date for a referendum which would pose a simple question: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union (EU) or leave?

The date was set for 23 June, 2016, but little did the former prime minister know that the end result would be a 52 per cent yes to leave the EU and a 48 per cent voting no to remain.

On 24 June, only a few hours after the Brexit result became known, Mr Cameron revealed he would resign from office at the commencement of the Conservative Party Conference in October, 2016. In an impassioned speech outside 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron said:

“I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

Fast forward to 2018 and a new prime minister has been appointed and re-elected in Theresa May, as the UK undergoes talks to progress its exit from the EU. The UK and the EU have provisionally agreed on how much the UK owes the EU and what will happen to citizenship for those living in the EU and UK. It is scheduled to leave the EU on Friday, 29 March, 2019. What future relations will look like and a plan for a 21-month “transition” period are now being discussed, which will allow businesses and others to adjust to the new post-Brexit rules, including its terms of trade.

What remains to be seen is the uncertainty regarding environmental governance in the sovereign nation, according to a research paper by academics Richard Cowell, Andrew Flynn and Nick Hacking of Cardiff University in Wales.

Released in July 2017, the aim of the briefing report, Assessing the impact of Brexit on the UK waste resource management sector, is to spark debate about the possible effects of Brexit on future policy directions in the waste and resources management sector. It notes the most debate about the UK’s post-Brexit future is characterised by three scenarios: a “hard Brexit” where the UK loses access to the single market, a “soft Brexit” where it stays within the European Economic Area and an “‘à la carte Brexit” where efforts are made to maintain participation in specific EU institutions.

Brexit has implications for the different elements of EU-related policies applicable to the UK that could be open for change, the level at which waste policies could be organised, including with devolved nations, national or European, and the different perspectives on how environmental and economic goals should be integrated, according to the report. Given this complexity, it suggests there could be multiple future pathways for change.

Commentators around the globe were stunned by the outcome of the Brexit vote in 2016.

The EU Withdrawal Bill will transfer the whole body of existing EU environmental law into UK law. The UK Government will then have the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation in parliament over time.

Report co-author Richard Cowell, Professor of Environmental Planning at Cardiff University, tells Waste Management Review the EU has historically had a strong capacity for the implementation of environmental policy, and a post-Brexit UK would have to align itself with EU policy if it wanted to maintain waste-related exports to the EU.

“No matter which exit from the EU you take, regulatory alignment has become recognised as pretty likely in any case. In order to trade with the EU, it’s not just a matter of tariffs but also our regulations and a whole variety of elements have to be aligned if we’re going to trade waste-derived products,” Richard says.

One of the drivers of regulatory alignment is a need to maintain a friction-free border with Ireland, he adds.

If the UK re-joins the European Economic Area, legal experts anticipate it would still need to comply with the majority of policy regulations, the report argues. If the UK’s Brexit arrangements entail it not being members of a single market, which is its strategy at present, then the policies and regulations could become subject to greater change. These include numerous directives which affect Wales, England and Scotland, including a Landfill Directive which imposes restrictions on landfill, a Batteries Directive to encourage battery recycling and a Waste Framework Directive, which encourages the industry to follow the waste hierarchy. It is understood the government will support the Circular Economy Package, which sets common recycling targets and economic incentives for greener products. It will be voted on by EU member states this year and includes recycling targets for materials.

“There’s a big issue about what will happen to some of those directives in the long term. In the short term, the UK Government is preparing a great EU withdrawal bill to try and throw every bit of EU legislation into UK legislation, so that there is no gaps,” he says.

He adds that one area of conflict is whether all EU powers will be passed to central government in London, or be handed to the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“The uncertainty emerges longer term as we review the prospects for sticking with regulations aligned with the EU or diverging from that,” Richard says.

According to the report, some commentators argue that the fact that the UK has ratified numerous international treaties mean many environment protection obligations will remain. But the report asserts that international treaties are less precise and lack conventions for enforcement. The risk of leaving the EU is also a lack of access to its funding for waste policy delivery.

“Things like the Basel Convention for international waste transport of dangerous goods will still apply as before,” Richard says.

In terms of territory, a level playing field of waste-related standards through the EU helps the UK take advantage of export markets, including refuse-derived fuel. It also helps enforce concepts such as the proximity principle, which puts a level of risk and responsibility on long distance waste transport.

While exports are likely to remain in place, Richard says the key questions for the UK going forward are will the current recycling targets remain in place and will the government opt for more incineration (with energy recovery) to fill any gaps in the market?

He says this situation could be compounded by China’s tightening standards for its recyclates imports. Richard sees more incineration and less recycling as a worst-case scenario and a possible outcome of a hard Brexit.

According to the report, the Westminster Government has been rebuked for not setting any strategic direction since 2010. This worries the devolved Welsh and Scottish governments, Richard says, with key responsibility for waste in their territories, who see inaction by the UK government on things like packaging standards stymieing their ambition to press quickly for zero waste objectives.

Richard Cowell.

While governments lead the way in setting the policy agenda, another concern is that some local government authorities may see any post-Brexit softening on recycling as an opportunity to shift money from waste to what they perceive to be other more pressing matters.

“Fortunately the UK Government is now looking at releasing a Waste and Resources Strategy this year so we might get some policy clarity,” Richard says, adding that the appetite in the UK is also towards more regulation as opposed to deregulatory policies. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has also moved to ban all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042.

Richard says businesses have also taken waste and recycling into their own hands, with companies such as Coca-Cola setting their own recycling targets. The key question here, however, is how far will voluntary action will go?

While the path to Brexit is one of uncertainty, there may be opportunities, including for “more UK sensitive” approaches to policy. At present, the Wales and Scotland governments have achieved higher recycling targets than the rest of the UK.

“One of the arguments that Brexit has amplified is that we need to deal with things more in a national space and get more of our materials within the country,” Richard says.

“When the UK Government stands up and talks about a national waste policy, it largely means a policy for England, as Wales and Scotland position themselves as environmental leaders. Wales has one of the highest recycling rates in Europe.”

As Brexit is still undergoing negotiations, the outcome and policy direction can change fast.

However, at this stage Richard says legislative changes would likely occur after the end of the transition period, which is slated for December 2020.

“Even in this Brexit negotiation period, there is nothing to stop us from doing things that are more ambitious than the EU legislation demands.”

A UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson said:

“Our 25 Year Plan for the environment set out our commitment to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it, and we’ll be setting out more detail on how we further increase resource efficiency and recycling rates in our Resources and Waste Strategy later this year.

“When we leave the EU we will have the opportunity to strengthen and enhance our environmental standards even further by delivering a green Brexit.”

This article was published in the May issue of Waste Management Review.