What’s in store for waste and resources in 2021?

A brief review of upcoming policy documents, new legislation and consultations on waste by Caroline Hand.

Bills before Parliament

Environment Bill

The most important piece of environmental legislation under consideration in 2021 is the Environment Bill. This was expected to receive royal assent in the summer, but on 26 January, ministers announced that it will be delayed until the autumn.

The Bill will establish the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) and will pave the way for a new Extended Producer Responsibility regime, a binding national target on waste, new charges on single use plastic items, and many other measures. The primary legislation needs to be fleshed out by detailed regulations, so these new measures will not come into effect this year.

The Environment Bill will also give the Government a new power to ban plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries.

See article, The Environment Bill: What does it say?

Finance Bill 2021

The Finance Bill will provide the statutory framework for the new plastic tax, though this will not come into force until 2022. Plastic packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic will be taxed at £200 per tonne.

See article, The impact of the new plastic packaging tax.

Regulations and guidance

Waste wood

On 31 January, the Environment Agency will withdraw its guidance on classifying mixed waste wood. After this, any waste wood which has not been assessed must be classified as hazardous. This means that it can only be treated, recovered or disposed of at a site which is authorised to take hazardous waste. Consignments of non-assessed waste wood will have to be accompanied by a hazardous waste consignment note.

This development creates an incentive to assess waste wood if it is likely to meet the criteria for non-hazardous waste.

Detailed guidance on the assessment and classifying hazardous waste is set out in the EA guidance document WM3 (updated in January 2021 in the light of Brexit). The procedure is summarised in the Croner-i topic, Assessment of hazardous waste.

Withdrawal of Covid Regulatory Position Statements (RPS)

On 31 March, the Environment Agency will withdraw these temporary measures, which take account of the difficulty in complying with regulatory requirements during the pandemic. Covid RPSs C1, C5, C8, C13, C15 and C23.

C1 and C5 relate to the management of healthcare waste; C8 covers social distancing when handing over consignment notes; C13 and C15 deal with radioactive substances and waste, and C23 concerns the incineration of healthcare waste at a municipal waste facility.

For further details see www.gov.uk/government/collections/covid-19-regulatory-position-statements#waste-management-(excluding-radioactive-waste).

Guidance for waste treatment and transfer facilities

This year the EA will publish its responses to a consultation on new guidance for waste treatment and transfer facilities taking non-hazardous and inert waste (consult.environment-agency.gov.uk).

The initial proposals were viewed with concern by the waste industry which believed that they could lead to an increase in waste crime.

Single-use plastics

On 2 July, the ban on plastic straws attached to drinks cartons comes into force. This is set out in the Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) Regulations 2020. The bans on cotton buds with plastic stems, and plastic stirrers, are already in force.

Consultations

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

A new system of EPR was promised in the 2018 Waste and Resources Strategy and the statutory framework will be included in the Environment Bill. In brief, EPR makes industry responsible for the full end-of-life costs of their products. This ensures that more products are reused, recovered or recycled, and creates an incentive to design more “circular” materials and products. Initially EPR will apply to packaging. Defra will launch a new public consultation on EPR early this year.

Industry and Government are currently collaborating on a project to develop the practical and financial aspects of the scheme. By the end of April, they aim to have a list of packaging categories that could fall within the scope of EPR. They will also examine possible modulation mechanisms, ie financial incentives to reward companies whose packaging is reusable/recyclable, etc.

At the end of July, the suggested categories and mechanisms will be assessed for their effectiveness. The new scheme will not be introduced until 2023/4.

UK Plan for Shipments of Waste

The Plan prohibits imports of waste into, and exports out of, the UK for disposal. It is due for an update this year, primarily due to Brexit. The Government proposes four main changes to the plan.

  • Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) waste of UK origin will be allowed into the UK for disposal, while other shipments of NORM waste for disposal will be restricted.

  • Interim disposal operations should be carried out within the UK where possible.

  • There will no longer be an exception for the export of contaminated river sediment waste.

  • There will be a new exception relating to the export of mercury and mercury-contaminated wastes.

The draft plan can be found here.

The consultation closes on 1 March.

Other consultations

Consistent recycling and deposit return scheme

The Waste and Resources Strategy 2018 promised consultations on a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers, and a consistent scheme for household waste recycling collections. The initial consultations were published in 2019 and further consultations can be expected this year. The Environment Bill will provide the legislative underpinning for these schemes.

Food waste reporting

In early 2021, the Government intends to consult on mandatory food waste reporting by food businesses. Larger businesses (the threshold size has not yet been decided) will have to report annually on the amount of food wasted.

Waste Management Plan for England

This plan is required by law but will not introduce any new policies or requirements. It basically summarises current policies and describes how waste is currently managed. The consultation on this document closed last year and can be found at consult.defra.gov.uk/waste-and-recycling/waste-management-plan-for-england.

And some of the broader issues

New projects to reuse unwanted laptops and tablets are springing up all over the country, in response to the realisation that many children have not been able to access online learning during the pandemic. Members of the public can find a local project via the BBC’s Make a Difference website. Perhaps the realisation that old gadgets can have a useful second life might lead to greater recycling of mobile phones and other “tech”.

The impetus to create a circular economy continues to grow, as the concept, and the need for it, becomes more widely understood. For example, our progress towards net zero needs to go hand in hand with breakthroughs in recycling lithium batteries from electric vehicles, and making sure that the rare earths which form an integral part of wind turbines and smart energy networks are not lost to disposal.

On 21 January it was announced that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a government-sponsored body, is investing £3.5m to create a new circular economy hub at the University of Exeter, which will be used to coordinate research and development across the country.

The hub will act as the UK’s first national circular economy “observatory”, collecting and analysing data that will be used to inform key policy and business decisions. This year also marks a new Festival of Circular Economy organised by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.

Let’s hope that, in resource management at least, there is something to celebrate in this otherwise bleak year.