The objective of the circular economy is to move away from a linear throw-away system toward one in which depleting resources are reused to maximize their potential and minimize waste.
Recycling plays a key role, reflected in one of the EU’s pan-European objectives to reach 50% of reused or recycled residential waste by 2020. It is difficult to overestimate the role the European Union has played in the protection of the circular economy in the U.K.; around 80% of the U.K.’s environmental laws have been created by the European government.
But with the March 29 deadline now less than two weeks away, and Theresa May still unable to successfully pass a deal through parliament, there are doubts about the future of the circular economy in the U.K. The EU’s latest Circular Economy Package will not come into full force until after the currently scheduled exit day and, dependent on the type of Brexit deal achieved, the U.K. may or may not be obliged to keep to these targets.
Brief history of the U.K. circular economy
Before the start of the 21st century, recycling was relatively peripheral to U.K. society. This shift, in policy and culture, was prompted by EU regulations that resulted in a national strategy to deal with waste in 2000 and the subsequent introduction of statutory recycling targets.
In 2011 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs outlined 13 actions the country needed to take to move toward a zero-waste economy. These commitments also largely stemmed from EU laws.
But progress in recent years has halted. The rate of household waste recycling fell to 43.7% between 2016 and 2017; the U.K. may now fail the EU’s 50% objective for 2020. This indicates the need for legally binding legislation. In 2018, the EU drew up ambitious goals, like all plastic packaging being recyclable by 2030. Its Revised Legislative Framework on Waste demands 70% of packaging waste to be recyclable by 2030, as well as 65% of urban waste by 2035.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has vowed to implement these targets even after Brexit, but the U.K.’s interactions with recent EU environmental regulations calls this commitment into question. Take, for example, the U.K.’s initial opposition to the EU’s 2035 urban waste strategy, as well as previous resistance to the ban on bee-harming neonicotinoids. Without the pressure of the EU and its multimillion-euro fines, after Brexit the U.K. could easily fall short of rigorous environmental standards.
The direction of the circular economy in the U.K. ultimately hinges on the Brexit deal that Theresa May is able to obtain from the EU and pass through the Houses of Parliament.
If the U.K. stays within the European Economic Area–also known as “soft Brexit”–it would produce the least legislative change, because EU environmental laws would remain a legal requirement. This is the case with Norway, for example, which must adhere to the recycling targets from the EEA. The main and most significant difference is that the U.K. would no longer have any say in the creation of new laws.
Similarly, in the case of a bilateral agreement like Switzerland’s, certain EU environmental standards, like recycling rates, would still be binding. Given that the U.K. currently exports vast quantities of non-recyclable waste to the rest of Europe, current waste management laws may be retained to facilitate this, although a no-deal Brexit could make this too expensive.
In both those cases (and equally if the U.K. doesn’t leave Europe at all) the European Court of Justice would retain its legislative enforcement power, including the ability to fine for missing targets. During a transition period with more negotiating time this would also be the case–a situation that is becoming steadily more probable due to May’s latest deal having been rejected by parliament on March 13.
But if the U.K. is unable to reach any deal, resulting in a “hard Brexit,” there will be the most divergence from EU circular economy laws.
As an alternative to the ECJ, Gove has promised an Office for Environmental Protection, a new independent government body. He claims it will “embed protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as the U.K. leaves the EU” and “hold the powerful to account.”
However, it won’t be ready before 2021 and Greener UK, an alliance of 12 environmental groups including Greenpeace and WWF, believe it will leave the environment in a precarious position: “There is no commitment to give the proposed new watchdog power to initiate legal action, nor is there any commitment to enshrine vital environmental principles […] in law.”
As it stands, a delay to Brexit proceedings is looking increasingly likely if the U.K. is to avoid a no-deal scenario.
Although a hard Brexit could technically permit greater legislative innovation, it seems highly probable that the U.K. would ultimately fall behind the EU’s environmental regulations, given that the impetus for such progress has predominately arisen from EU legislation. With a soft Brexit the U.K. would remain bound to EU environmental legislations–but without any role in the crucial decision-making process.
Aidan Bell is the co-founder of sustainable building materials company Envirobuild. Bell’s mission is to use recycled plastic materials to design sustainable cladding, decking and furniture to help mitigate the built environment’s contribution to climate change.