Government intervention on waste and recycling definitions in England could generate a “worse outcome” for the industry, newly-appointed resources minister Thérèse Coffey has cautioned.
Speaking before the Environmental Audit Committee in Westminster today (7 September), Dr Coffey suggested that Defra’s post-Brexit policy towards waste would focus on “outcomes” rather than being “prescriptive”.
Dr Coffey was giving evidence to the Committee’s inquiry into the ‘Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’, which is assessing what measures the UK will put in place to protect environmental legislation following its departure from the European Union.
Initial soundings from the minister, who succeeded Rory Stewart in the role in July, suggest that the UK government’s position on post-Brexit policy for the sector remains uncertain.
At present, the UK is continuing in discussions on the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package – which includes a proposed recycling target of 65% by 2030, as well as legal definitions on certain waste types and how recycling is calculated by individual Member States. However, it is unclear whether the UK will be required to formally adopt the package.
Commenting on the Package, Dr Coffey said the UK would “continue to play an active role” in the discussions but argued it was “too early to say” whether it would be adopted into legislation following Brexit.
She said: “People always want certainty but we will be seeking views on what outcomes we might want to see. Waste is a devolved area anyway and the Welsh Assembly has already legislated on certain areas.”
On the circular economy, Dr Coffey added: “It’s a very interesting area and I am all for extending the life of materials we have. Sometimes we need to be careful we need a focus on outcomes rather than being prescriptive.”
Committee chair Mary Creagh MP remarked that there was a “very strong feeling” from the waste industry that government had taken a backseat on policy in recent years, and asked if Dr Coffey would support a 60% recycling target as mooted by the Commission.
Dr Coffey replied that she was not yet in a position to answer the question. This prompted committee member and former shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy MP to suggest there was “no political will” from the government to address the issue.
The minister responded by arguing that the Circular Economy “is not unique” to Europe – adding that the term implies there are no opportunities for growth outside of a “closed loop” system.
She added: “Some of the proposals about changing definition of recycling could have a big impact on the UK. Just because of some very specific rules and regulations we don’t want to end up with a worse outcome.”
The minister continued that she was “appalled” by falling recycling rates in some areas and would be working to make sure communities recycle better.
While there was no mention of the minister’s proposed report exploring ‘how the UK can move from creating waste to valuing resources’ – which is due to be published later in the autumn – she did reveal progress is continuing on Defra’s delayed 25-year environment strategy.
The strategy will dictate Defra’s long-term ‘comprehensive plan on the environment’ despite being put on hold earlier in the summer (see letsrecycle.com story).
Asked by Green Party joint leader Caroline Lucas how that strategy would differ post-EU Referendum, Dr Coffey answered: “The 25 year plan is the model. It was going to be the model if we were staying in the EU and it’s still the model now we are leaving.”
The minister revealed that a framework for the strategy is due to be released “fairly soon” with the final version expected next year. “We want something with long legs”, she added.