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Brexit is our opportunity, the UK must lead the war on waste

27th September 2017

Rubbish is not the sexiest of topics but it is increasingly newsworthy.

By Sarah Heald, Director of Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations

Leaving the European Union presents a huge opportunity for the UK to develop a radical new approach to waste policy.

As a Director of Pennon Group, a business headquartered in Exeter but with commercial operations across the country, we remain undeniably concerned about Brexit, especially our ability to recruit and to export materials between the UK and Europe. However, far from joining the list of naysayers – companies that constantly talk down the UK’s future prospects outside the EU – we decided to examine the potential benefits of our impending exit.

We want to see the UK create a ‘Bespoke for Britain’ framework for our waste sector as part of Michael Gove’s commitment to a ‘Green Brexit’. This must work for the consumer and benefit the economy. If we get this right, a new approach to the way we recycle and extract Energy from Waste could substantially reduce costs for businesses and households.

We’ve published our annual UK Recycling Index. We surveyed 1,500 people and found that 8 out of 10 see waste for what it is – a valuable resource that can be used to make new things. The public are running ahead of the politicians on this issue.

Since joining the EU, UK waste policy has been largely determined by European Directives – such as the Waste Framework Directive and Landfill Directive. These policies have significantly altered the way that we – as consumers – think about waste and mostly for the better. We recycle more and send less waste to landfill.

But the European Commission is drawing up new plans for waste that put additional and arguably unnecessary costs on UK businesses and households. The ‘Circular Economy package’ is a set of proposals seeking to increase municipal recycling to 65% by 2030. Policy Exchange wrote an insightful report earlier this year showing that these targets are being pursued for their own sake, not a specified outcome, and would cost British businesses and households an extra c.£2 billion. In the UK, we’re not even on track to make the current recycling target of 50% by 2020. It is a classic case of one-size fits all policy-making.

Policy Exchange rightly argued that the UK should shift waste policy from a purely environmental agenda, with unclear aims and high costs, to one that also promotes resource productivity, and improves UK competitiveness. The economics of recycling have deteriorated in recent years due to the fall in commodity prices since the Global Financial Crisis. This has impacted on the value of secondary materials and the viability and profitability of recycling. To continue making progress, the business case for recycling needs to stack up.

We must put the war on waste at the heart of the government’s modern industrial strategy. A focus on promoting the re-use of these resources, a more standardised collections system (there are currently 400 systems across English local authorities), and increasing the country’s skills and expertise in the burgeoning Energy from Waste sector. This could lead to even greater environmental benefits, contribute to security of energy supply and create huge numbers of jobs across the country.



Recycling is an evolving industry and if we want to see it grow, the Government must seize the mantle and define a bold new post-Brexit policy framework for waste. This would give businesses the confidence to invest in the next generation of vital infrastructure and exploit the export potential of these recycled commodities – plastics, paper & packaging, metals.

As we leave the EU, we must seize opportunities across each and every sector, attracting long-term investment and building a more prosperous UK.

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