Debate over whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union has begun to intensify within the waste sector, with the likes of Suez, Grundon and the Confederation of Paper Industries setting out their stall on the issue.
The Prime Minister this weekend secured a deal with member states regarding the UK’s membership of the EU and announced that an ‘in-out’ referendum will take place on 23 June. He, along with the majority of his cabinet – including Environment Secretary Liz Truss – will campaign against Brexit.
Yet many in the waste and recycling industry have so far been reticent to openly wade into the debate. Major waste companies contacted by letsrecycle.com such as Biffa and Veolia all declined to comment or give a preferred position.
This is despite recent comments from Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson, who – speaking in a personal capacity at the Kit Strange Lecture in London (see letsrecycle.com story) – said the waste industry “mustn’t avoid complacency on the issue”.
If the sector believes the UK is better in the EU, he said: “we need to speak out and not be complacent … even if we do nothing more than speak to our workforces, it would be a dereliction of duty if we don’t. We can join forces and we mustn’t avoid complacency on this issue.”
Responding to Mr Georgeson’s comments though, Suez chief executive David Palmer-Jones said that while the French-owned firm made all of its employees “aware of the important role of EU policy is making in respect of our sector” he was also mindful that the debate is “far more wide-reaching”.
Nevertheless, Mr Palmer-Jones is broadly in favour of the UK remaining part of the EU: “Leaving the EU would be detrimental to the environmental services sector because the EU is the driving force behind much of the environmental policy and legislation which enables companies like SUEZ to invest in new services and infrastructure.”
He added: “Therefore, while Suez supports Britain’s continued membership of the EU, because we believe that it’s the right thing for the environment and our sector, we would not go as far as promoting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in a future referendum among our hugely diverse workforce because we respect that everyone has their own, individual, political convictions.”
Although personally in favour of an EU exit and therefore differing with Suez, deputy chairman of Oxfordshire-based Grundon Waste Management, Neil Grundon, agreed that its employees should make their own minds up on how to vote.
“Our staff canteen operates like a House of Commons debating chamber. I would have more hope of convincing water to flow uphill than to change our workforce’s highly developed and differing views on Europe.”Neil Grundon
Grundon deputy chairman
He said: “Our staff canteen operates like a House of Commons debating chamber. I would have more hope of convincing water to flow uphill than to change our workforce’s highly developed and differing views on Europe.”
Mr Grundon, who has already written of his desire for the UK to leave the EU in an opinion piece for letsrecycle.com, added: “I will make my views known, but in a democratic country such as ours, it is up to individuals to make up their own minds. Europe affects us on many levels in our lives and our work is only one part of that.”
Meanwhile, Spanish-owned FCC Environment appeared to back Britain’s EU membership in a 2014 policy paper, which stated that the “overwhelmingly positive effect that EU membership has had on UK waste policy makes bailing out of Europe a daunting prospect”.
However, when contacted by letsrecyle.com, last week, the company declined to comment on the issue at the current time.
Similar pro-EU sentiments were also expressed by the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI) in a briefing to MPs earlier this month (February 3), but the organisation qualified this by adding that reform of the EU is “not only overdue but essential” due to the burden of regulations such as the Climate Change Act.
This, CPI’s general director David Workman said, was “overwhelmingly” the position of UK papermakers, converters and recyclers – many of which are European-owned.
According to Mr Workman, the future of UK papermaking relies on “continued and ongoing capital investment”, adding that the “great strength that the EU offers our industry is the ability to be able to trade freely across its borders”.
He said leaving the EU would “cast doubts over free movements and regulatory frameworks” but exporters to the EU would still have to comply “with a host of EU regulations and standards”. Leaving could also jeopardise 25,000 direct jobs and 100,000 indirect jobs in the UK paper supply chain, he said.
Elsewhere, Mr Workman suggested that separation from the EU would be “protracted and messy” leading to a “very lengthy period of uncertainty”.
Defra resources minister Rory Stewart voted in favour of the UK holding a referendum on the issue and has written about both the positives and negatives of EU membership, but he is still be expected to back the position of the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile Labour’s shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy, who attended the recent launch of the E4E (Environmentalists for Europe) alongside several prominent politicians from across all the main political parties, will also campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.
Other E4E supporters include Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Conservative chair of the Climate Change Committee Lord Deben and Green Alliance director Matthew Spencer, who praised the EU for legislating to “improve waste management”.
But, speaking to letsrecycle.com earlier this month, E4E supporter and Lib Dem environment spokesperson Baroness Parminter said she was surprised so few figures within the waste and recycling sector itself had yet to speak openly on what is such a key issue for the industry.
She said: “It’s quite interesting, because environmental groups and the farming community are starting to have that debate about ‘in or out’. But it’s not one I’ve seen in terms of the waste management, recycling and AD (anaerobic digestion) area.
“I’m intrigued that at the moment there hasn’t been that level of debate in this industry. It will have a huge impact, so there might be an opportunity for the industry to shout a bit louder.”