Last reviewed 15 April 2021

The new draft waste prevention programme for England, published on 18 March, demonstrates that the Government has grasped the importance of a circular economy and appreciates that it could bring major economic benefits — including job creation — while tackling the environmental imperatives of conserving resources and reducing carbon emissions. Caroline Hand reports on the details of the proposal.

Many of the initiatives described in the document are already under way or expected shortly as part of the Environment Bill. The plan identifies six priority sectors: construction, textiles, electronics, packaging, furniture, vehicles and food, where current levels of waste are unacceptable and there is scope for improvement. While most of the practical work of waste prevention falls to industry, the Government promises financial and administrative support alongside further research.

Progress since 2013

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has reviewed the original 2013 waste prevention plan, revealing that significant strides have been made over the last seven years. The review shows that most has been achieved through voluntary partnerships between industry and government. At least 387,000 tonnes of waste have been prevented by organisations collaborating with the Government, including approximately 103,0006 tonnes that would not have been prevented in the absence of government intervention.

The biggest successes have been in reducing food and packaging waste, primarily through the Courtauld Commitment and 5p carrier bag charge. The textile sector successfully reduced its carbon and water footprint through the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP), but has only reduced waste by 4%.

Key measures in the 2021 programme

The new waste prevention plan does not set many new targets, but reiterates the overarching target from the 25 Year Environment Plan to eliminate avoidable waste by 2050. We can also expect a new statutory waste target of some kind in 2022.

Product standards

The ideal product in a circular economy is durable, repairable and/or suitable for remanufacture, and recyclable at end of life. Product standards will drive up the quality of products and ensure that manufacturers make spare parts available for repairs. New ecodesign regulations will come into force this year for electrical goods, aimed at tackling planned obsolescence. The waste prevention plan suggests that ecodesign standards could be extended to other product categories such as construction materials, textiles and furniture.

Items meeting the standards would be clearly labelled to inform consumers that they are choosing a more sustainable product.

Product passports

This is a relatively new concept which would facilitate reuse, repair and remanufacturing, and encourage a market in secondary materials. Products would be accompanied by details of their component materials, indicating whether these can be reused and recovered. This could be a means of keeping valuable minerals such as lithium and rare earths in circulation — a priority for these essential components of green energy infrastructure and electric vehicles. Hazardous materials would be flagged up, hopefully leading to their eventual substitution.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

This key provision of the Environment Bill would make manufacturers responsible for the end-of-life costs of their products. By using a moderated fee scheme, products which are durable, repairable, reusable or recyclable would attract a lower charge, thus incentivising green design. Since the design stage is responsible for 80% of waste, this could be a real game changer for the circular economy,

Collaborative ventures

At present, large tonnages of reusable items brought to civic amenity centres are ending up in landfill. The Government will encourage local authorities to pilot local “circular economy hubs”. These will support reuse, repair and remanufacture services and businesses, enabling sharing of best practice examples. Some of the revenue from EPR could be used to fund these.

Research

Defra is sponsoring five circular economy research centres and a central hub to coordinate activity. These will bring together academic excellence and industry expertise to drive forward technological innovation, for example, finding new ways to create renewable materials from discarded textiles and household waste.

Six priority sectors

Construction

Building and demolition is the largest generator of waste in England. While 90% of building materials are recycled, their low value means that they are often just crushed for use as secondary aggregates rather than being directly reused. The plan supports the adoption of standards requiring buildings to be designed for disassembly. The Government is considering an EPR scheme for construction materials, together with ecodesign standards, to encourage greater use of reusable, recyclable and recycled materials.

Electronics

Too much WEEE is simply crushed for basic recycling rather than being reused, repaired and remanufactured. Consumers are mistrustful of secondhand products, and are still prone to hoard old phones and other gadgets. While initiatives for food, packaging (Coutauld Commitment) and textiles (SCAP) have produced results, there is little to report from the Sustainable Electricals Action Plan.

This year the Government will review the WEEE Regulations in an effort to improve the rate of reuse and recycling. Already, retailers who sell over £100,000 of electrical and electronic equipment are required to provide their own instore take back, rather than relying on the Distributor Takeback Scheme. See our WEEE topic. This year the WEEE Regulations will be reviewed to increase their effectiveness.

Textiles

Wasteful, cheap “fast fashion” is unfortunately a winner with many consumers. The Government proposes an EPR scheme for the textile sector which could boost reuse, improve collections and recycling, drive the use of sustainable fibres, and support sustainable businesses models such as rental schemes. In addition, there will be a new Sustainable Clothing Action Plan for textile businesses. Members will commit to targets including a 30% reduction in water footprint.

The Government proposes to use powers in the Environment Bill to set quality standards for clothing, alongside better environmental labelling for consumers which would provide information on durability, reparability, recyclability, and recycled content.

Furniture

Furniture reuse has improved in recent years, but there are still barriers to overcome, particularly the perception that secondhand furniture is inferior, and the cheap methods of construction that make items such as sofas difficult to dismantle. As with the other materials discussed in the paper, EPR and product standards are proposed.

Vehicles

Again, EPR and ecodesign standards are under consideration. The Resources and Waste Strategy had already proposed an EPR scheme for tyres. The Government has invested in the Faraday Initiative to support the research, development and scale-up of world-leading battery technology in the UK.

Packaging

Several concrete measures are in the pipeline to support the move away from single use plastics. The plastic bag tax will rise to 10p; there will be consultations on banning further items; and a consultation on EPR is expected soon.

Food

This is an area where there is significant progress to report. Between 2007 and 2018, there was a 21% reduction in food waste per capita in the UK. The good work is still going on through Courtauld 2025. One specific issue of concern is the waste caused when retailers cancel orders for farm produce at the last minute, leaving the crops to spoil in the fields.

There will be a further consultation on mandatory reporting of food waste by larger businesses.

The overall vision of the new plan is summed up in this quote:

“We want to increase the momentum towards sharing and using products as services, utilising digital platforms and new business models such as product servitisation. This will be in time supported by more ecodesigned products on the markets, consumers making informed decisions, and collection of products once consumers no longer have use for them. Reuse and repair facilities and services will increasingly be available, and information about the availability of secondary materials will be readily available to manufacturers which want to use them.”

Hopefully, the measures outlined in the new plan will help to realise this positive vision of a circular economy.