Waste management in England - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

2  Role of Defra

Valuing waste as a resource

5. To set the wider context for this inquiry, many witnesses identified the benefits of moving towards a circular or "closed loop" economy in which resources are kept in circulation and valued to their full extent and the environmental impacts of resource use and disposal consequently reduced. The EU Commission estimates that better waste and resource management could contribute an additional 3% to gross domestic product (GDP) in Europe[7] and the Environmental Services Association (ESA) has estimated that a more circular economy could help to generate 50,000 new jobs with £10 billion investment and boost the United Kingdom's GDP by £3 billion.[8] The Government considers that it is important to maintain a focus on moving towards a more circular economy, rather than on achieving or delivering it. Defra has made it clear that it expects businesses to drive the changes that are needed.[9]

6. Valuing waste as a resource is increasingly important for the economy and the environment. One of Defra's key priorities is to improve the environment. Sustainable waste and resource management should play a key role in achieving this aim.

Waste policy

7. Waste policy and regulation in England is guided by the waste hierarchy, which is both a guide to sustainable waste management and a legal requirement of the revised EU Waste Framework Directive.[10] The waste hierarchy indicates the following order of preference for the stages of waste management: to prevent; to reuse; to recycle; to recover; and to dispose. This is explained further in the following diagram.

8. Waste policy, regulation and Government support have been major drivers of positive change in England over the last 20 years, illustrated by the introduction of the landfill tax, statutory recycling targets for English local authorities, programmes of funding support and the creation of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) as the Government's main delivery body for the provision of advice on waste reduction, recycling and resource efficiency in England.

9. A compelling example of the strength of Government intervention in the waste management sector is the success of the landfill tax (currently £80/tonne of standard waste and £2.50/tonne of inert waste disposed at landfill).[11] The EU Landfill Directive requires the UK to reduce the biodegradable waste sent to landfill to 35% of the 1995 level by 2020. Landfill tax was introduced in 1996 and qualitative research shows that it has been a key influencing factor on the waste management industry and a driver for the fall in demand for landfill and a rise in demand for alternatives.[12] About 130 landfill sites have closed since 2008 and the development of alternative waste treatment facilities, such as energy-from-waste plants, also diverts waste from landfill.[13] Local councils in England have reduced the amount of material landfilled by 71% per household between 2002/03 and 2012/13.[14] The UK met its 2010 and 2013 landfill diversion targets and Defra is confident that the UK is on track to meet the 2020 target.[15]

10. However, Defra wants the waste management sector to switch from being Government-led to being driven by businesses realising the economic and commercial opportunities that arise from resource efficiency and tackling environmental challenges. The Minister told us that recognising waste as a resource offers an opportunity for innovation and the development of new technologies and new businesses.[16] Businesses have a role to play in creating market demand for recycled products and packaging, as well as product design to reduce waste and enable repair, reuse and recycling. In relation to the lower end of the waste hierarchy, Green Alliance told us that the resource recovery part of industry is "way ahead of Government in this field […] in terms of its vision and its desire for a long-term solution."[17]

11. In order to support the contribution made by businesses, witnesses such as Keep Britain Tidy have called for an overarching framework of national policy and a central ambition to facilitate businesses in the long term.[18] Looking at whether the current policy framework helps businesses feel secure investing in new infrastructure, technologies, business models, and/or improved design of products, we found that Defra's reviews of waste policy in 2010 and 2011 were widely seen by industry leaders as:

    disappointing and lacking clarity, detail and leadership. The language of ambition on waste is still there, but it was not backed by policy levers that gave industry and local government much confidence in the future direction of waste policy.[19]

12. In this context, many witnesses expressed concern about Defra's more recent announcement that it would "step back in areas where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure."[20] SITA UK described Defra's decision to reduce its activities in waste management as:

    premature, not least because of the uncertainty as to whether England will meet all of its EU obligations by 2020, and because of the absence of a back-up plan held in reserve.[21]

13. Keep Britain Tidy are "deeply concerned" about Defra's decision and point out that:

    There still appear to be many market failures present in enabling the waste hierarchy to be followed in practice and businesses still require support and leadership from government to enable the economic, social and environmental benefits of reducing resource use and enabling a circular economy.[22]

14. When we put these concerns to Defra, the Minister responded that he was "disappointed if that is what they feel"[23] and emphasised that, despite Defra's announcement last year, waste policy remained "an important area of work for Defra" and "a priority".[24]

15. The investment and innovative solutions that businesses bring to the waste management sector are invaluable, but this does not remove the need for a clear framework of Government policy, legislation and guidance within which such businesses can thrive.

16. We recommend that Ministers actively reassure interested parties that waste policy remains a priority. In order to address concerns in the sector, Defra should immediately clarify its definition and interpretation of "clear market failure", explain how the market is monitored by the Government for signs of such failure, and confirm the criteria which must be met to identify areas where businesses are "better placed to act".

Leadership and collaboration

17. In addition to Defra, responsibilities for waste policy are held by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and HM Treasury. Witnesses have criticised the lack of co-ordination and co-operation between Government departments and the lack of clear Government leadership in waste and resource management. CIWM refer to "poorly co-ordinated and sometimes antagonistic departmental policies and interventions"[25] and ESA talk of the sector being "subject to a myriad of overlapping and sometimes conflicting messages from the various government departments with differing responsibilities for waste".[26] Similarly, the London Waste and Recycling Board is critical of the fact that "there is a lack of an ambitious and coherent national policy on waste management that incentivises local authorities to reduce, re-use and recycle waste" which is "exacerbated" by conflicting messages coming from different government departments.[27]

18. The National Farmers' Union (NFU) provided us with a specific example of a contradiction between departmental policies in terms of anaerobic digestion:

    We feel the Government is trying to encourage anaerobic digestion, and small-scale on-farm anaerobic digestion, whereas some of the incentives, such as the feed-in tariffs, have been pulled back slightly by DECC.[28]

19. The United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) focused on inconsistencies in terms of incineration:

    The pro-recycling message is being undermined by perverse financial incentives to incinerate and compost material that should not be…the Department for Communities and Local Government allows planning consent for incinerators that go against Government policies on climate change, energy efficiency and waste hierarchy.[29]

20. The National Association of Waste Disposal Officers (NAWDO) recommended that the Government needs to ensure that policies arising from different departments are aligned and working together and had a preference for Defra to take a lead role rather than stepping back.[30]

21. Co-ordination and consistency between all Government departments involved with waste policy is essential. Defra's policies and guidance should not be undermined by contradictory messages from other Government departments.

22. We recommend that, rather than stepping back, Defra takes the lead role and responsibility for waste management policy as part of its departmental priority to improve the environment. This should include appointing a Minister with clear responsibility for co-ordinating across all Government departments and ensuring consistency of approach in terms of legislation, policy, incentives and communications.

7   Chartered Institution of Wastes Management [WME 0073] para 5 Back

8   Environmental Services Association, Going for Growth: A practical route to a Circular Economy, June 2013 Back

9   Defra [WME 0072] para 2.3 Back

10   The EU requirements of the Waste Framework Directive are transposed into law in England through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011. Back

11   In Budget 2014, it was announced that both rates of landfill tax will increase in line with the RPI, rounded to the nearest 5 pence, from 1 April 2015. Back

12   Databuild Research and Solutions, Qualitative research into drivers of diversion from landfill and innovation in the waste management industry HM Revenue and Customs research report 316, April 2014 Back

13   See: GPT Waste solution, A decrease in waste volumes causes closure of landfill sites, January 2013 Back

14   Local Government Association [WME 0078], para 4 Back

15   Defra [WME 0072] para 6.3 Back

16   Q216 Back

17   Q100 [Julie Hill] Back

18   Keep Britain Tidy [WME 0057] para 4.1 Back

19   Resource Association [WME 0068] para 5 Back

20   Defra [WME 0072] Annex A Back

21   SITA UK [WME 005] para 3 Back

22   Keep Britain Tidy [WME 0057] para 1.2 Back

23   Q228 Back

24   Q214  Back

25   Chartered Institution of Wastes Management [WME 0073], para 8 Back

26   Environmental Services Association [WME 0045] para 1 Back

27   London Waste and Recycling Board [WME 0007] para 5 Back

28   Q159 Back

29   Q94 [Shlomo Dowen] Back

30   National Association of Waste Disposal Officers [WME 0011] para 9.1 Back

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Prepared 22 October 2014