FCC Environment’s Kristian Dales considers the future direction of the UK waste sector post-Brexit

Following the momentous decision to leave the EU last year, there has, unsurprisngly, been much unease amongst the business community about what our renewed relationship with Europe will look like. The future of waste policy and regulation is particularly unclear given it has historically been driven heavily by EU law. This means that there has been little opportunity to independently decide the direction of UK waste policy – until now.

The industry has been divided for some time in its approach to dealing with waste as a resource, a situation compounded by the absence of clear legislative and fiscal drivers, particularly in England. There is also the bigger issue of addressing the country’s long-term energy needs and security. Brexit presents a big opportunity to push waste as an economic resource higher up the political agenda.

Defra is due to publish its much-anticipated Environment Plan in the coming weeks, which will outline the department’s environmental policy priorities for the next 25 years. The importance of this document should not be underestimated. We will be looking out for bold plans for waste legislation that are  fit for the UK market, and not a tired blueprint of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach previously adopted by EU environmental directives.

More specifically, we would like to see Defra move away from the Circular Economy Package which outlined a number of policy ideas that, while admirable, are increasingly unattainable for the UK. Instead, we would like to see a firm commitment to supporting and nurturing Energy From Waste (EfW) in the UK.

EfW - burning waste to create clean energy – is well-established within the global waste hierarchy. However, in the UK it has suffered from a poor historical image which is not only persistent but outdated.

In reality, EfW is a far superior alternative to landfill, and in northern continental Europe, Scandinavia and Germany in particular, EfW is viewed as playing a crucial role in its energy supplies. In light of Brexit, there is now an opportunity for the UK to fully embrace EfW as a viable, sustainable and cost-efficient method of not only managing our waste but helping safeguard the UK’s long-term energy security.   

In my view, much greater emphasis should be placed on EfW in Defra’s 25 Year Plan.   Increased investment from the UK government could enable the waste industry to deliver 50,000 new British jobs and boost UK GDP by an additional £3bn through additional infrastructure. It could also replace ageing infrastructure and address a waste capacity gap of around 20 million tonnes. If this was specifically diverted to EfW plants, it could significantly boost productivity and performance in both the energy and waste sectors.

I strongly believe our industry will prosper in a post-Brexit Great Britain. However, to fully capitalise on our ability to improve the UK’s energy and resource security, much stronger domestic policy is needed so that we can move forward with confidence.