How will Brexit impact UK environmental product regulations?
Legislation designed to reduce the environmental impacts of products including REACH, RoHS, WEEE, Batteries, Packaging, End of Life Vehicles and Ecodesign requirements for energy-related products were all negotiated and agreed at EU level. In light of Brexit, what impacts can we expect on UK environmental product regulations?
EU product legislation is arguably the toughest in the world requiring businesses to design their products to reduce the use of harmful chemicals and minimise resource use as well as finance their recovery and recycling. Its policy objectives are long term, which offers stability to business, often in contrast to national government policy. In addition, the EU provides funding to support businesses invest in product innovations that meet and exceed its high environmental standards. Rising standards have created new markets, new business opportunities and new jobs.
The EU has undoubtedly had a huge impact on improving product safety and the health of the environment. For example, before EU legislation mandated recycling targets, the UK sent almost all its waste to landfill. Today, according to government statistics, the UK recycles over 40% of its household waste and over 70% packaging waste is recovered or recycled. The use of harmful chemicals in products has also been reduced due to RoHS and REACH legislation and consumer products are more energy-efficient due to Ecodesign legislation.
UK and EU environmental product legislation is highly integrated and requirements will continue to apply unless repealed or amended by government. The direction that new legislation might take is hard to predict, especially in the current climate of uncertainty. However, the UK has a mixed track record on the environment and the current administration has been heavily criticised over the weakening of policies aiming to improve the health of the environment and grow the low carbon economy as well as its inadequate resourcing for DECC and Defra.
There is however a single market requirement for adhering to EU standards, as requirements for producer responsibility for waste, restriction of chemicals and energy efficiency, apply equally to domestic and imported products. Brexit requires a new trading agreement with the EU to be negotiated. It seems reasonable to assume that the UK will seek a similar relationship as Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, being a non EU-member of the European Economic Area. As a member of the EEA, UK exports would need to meet EU product standards to gain access to the EU market.
An alternative would be for the UK to agree an alternative trade agreement with the EU as is currently the case for Switzerland. Although it is difficult to forecast the terms of this agreement, it seems unlikely in the short term that the EU would agree to exclude any environmental product requirements applying to the EEA. However, lowering product standards is currently a major concern of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations which seeks to harmonise standards to promote trade and investment.
The UK administration is faced with a huge challenge of negotiating the terms of Brexit and it therefore seems unlikely, at least in the short term that significant changes would be made to UK environmental product legislation due to the scale of the administrative challenge to rewrite laws and the instability it would cause to businesses, especially those connected with the recycling industry. Moreover, public support for environmental issues and a powerful NGO lobby in the UK would vigorously oppose any weakening of environmental product standards.
The impact of Brexit has, as with many other issues, increased the level of uncertainty regarding the future of UK environmental product legislation. There is an increased risk that the UK may reduce standards to facilitate trade with non-EU countries. However, in the short term, it is unlikely that there will be any significant legislative changes due to EU market access requirements, the maturity and effectiveness of the legislation in improving the environment and generating business opportunities and the resource requirements of rewriting decades of environmental laws.
Anne Barr is managing consultant at The Compliance Map
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