Is it perfect policy timing for waste?

The United Nations, European Commission and UK Government have all recently announced key policy themes around waste and resources. The question is, will they complement each other?

A series of ambitious waste targets were unveiled last month when the United Nations (UN) announced its new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The SDGs represent a universal set of goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to frame their political policies and agendas around over the next 15 years.

Waste is covered in-depth under Goal 12, which is to ‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’. The goal tasks members with achieving sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources by 2030 – headline targets include:

  • To halve per capita global food waste at both the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030
  • To achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil by 2020
  • To substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse by 2030.

Goal 12 also includes other calls to action that should help underpin the targets, such as the promotion of sustainable public procurement practices, greater uptake of sustainability reporting among companies and the rationalisation of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions.

Meanwhile Goal 7 picks up the renewables theme with its intention to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all which could provide something of a boost for the energy-from-waste and biomass sectors. This goal includes the target to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030 and to promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology.

The UN SDGs have been welcomed by industry leaders who see it as yet another useful lever for the UK’s resource agenda. Given that the European Commission is set to unveil its revised circular economy package later this year, it will be interesting to see if, and how, this new package of proposals will translate the UN goals and principles into hard policy.

It’s worth noting however that the jury is still out on what the circular economy means for waste and resource managers. Recently this new business agenda has become a catch-all for all sorts of policy objectives, and its actual focus may well need to be refined and trimmed by the European Commission if it is to provide a clear, realistic steer for waste prevention.

Closer to home, the Government has launched a review of waste regulation as part of its Cutting Red Tape programme, with a call for evidence on various issues such as the impact of regulation and enforcement on the development of new technologies for processing and sorting waste, commercial and export opportunities, and the effectiveness of landfill tax and producer responsibility schemes.

This development may also be significant as it could potentially lead to the removal of certain regulatory and system constraints that currently hinder more circular flows of materials. It may be too big an ask to expect complete alignment of vision between the UN, European Commission and UK Government when it comes to waste and resource, but the close timing of these three policy pieces is certainly intriguing.

Maxine Perella

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