The Government’s latest updates, published late last week, confirmed that a scenario in which the UK fails to reach a withdrawal agreement with the EU would involve changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), eco-design standards, commercial fishing regulation, waste management and the cross-border trade of electricity and gas.

The updates reveal that the UK’s energy sector could be among the most severely affected in a ‘no deal’ scenario, confirming that “European energy law will no longer apply to the UK and the UK’s electricity markets will be decoupled from the Internal Energy Market”.

In terms of waste management, import and export licenses issued by the UK would no longer be valid for shipments of waste to the remaining EU countries under a ‘no deal’ scenario, the document states.

Concerns have been raised by many in the waste industry, including Suez’s director of external affairs Adam Read, who recently told ITV: “No deal’s not good, not good for us, (the) transition period will be scary.

“What do we do on that day one? What happens? Where does that material go? We can have logjams in the system operating with Europe and beyond. We need a plan.”

Silver linings?

However, resource sustainability firm TOMRA has taken a more optimistic view on the updates, claiming that a ‘no deal’ scenario could provide a boost to the UK’s circular economy efforts.

The updates confirm that the Government may impose a tax of up to 7.5% on waste exports in the event of a ‘no deal’, which, coupled with potential issues with ports and currency exchange rates, may make exporting waste to the EU economically unviable.

These changes – compounded by the recent ban on imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste by the Chinese government – have given policymakers and the waste management industry an opportunity to overhaul recycling standards and infrastructure, TOMRA’s chief executive Stefan Ranstrand has claimed.

“Through every challenge, there is a chance to look at the way we do things and how we can improve them,” Ranstrand said.

“The UK has a golden opportunity to make its economy more circular. By investing in better recycling technology rather than outsourcing waste, the recycling industry will see higher purity levels, meaning less material in landfills and less environmental pollution.”

Specifically, Ranstrand highlighted a ‘no deal’ Brexit as the ideal backdrop for the launch of a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic, aluminium and glass drinks packaging – arguing that doing so would help the public view packaging as a valuable resource rather than exportable, disposable waste.

At present just 43% of the 13bn plastic bottles sold each year in the UK are recycled, and 700,000 are littered every day. In Germany, a DRS was introduced in 2003 and 99% of plastic bottles are recycled.

Overhaul opportunity

Ranstrand’s sentiments echo those voiced by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and the Environmental Services Association (ESA) shortly after the Chinese waste import ban was announced, with the former having argued that it provided an opportunity for an overhaul of Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs).

The system creates a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).

For the UK, this cost is around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average for producer responsibility at around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%.

The likes of Coca-Cola and Tesco have also voiced beliefs that the PRO system should be overhauled, with MPs currently scrutinising alternatives as part of the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy, which is expected to be launched later this year. The strategy is widely expected to include increased rates of tax on virgin materials, coupled with tax breaks for manufacturers using recycled content in their products.

Sarah George

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