The theory of devolution: UK nations different waste strategies



Devolution may have helped UK nations advance waste management innovations, but self-rule hasn’t allowed them to entirely master their own destiny, Peter Taylor-Whiffen writes.

Wales famously has one of the highest recycling rates in the world. Scotland will introduce the UK’s first ban on biodegradable waste going to landfill. Northern Ireland’s compact size makes it easy to create nationwide consensus on waste services. When it comes to waste management, it would appear devolution has clearly helped the UK’s individual nations to, well, clean up.

They have forged such clear and distinct paths that cities and regions, too, have negotiated their own devolution away from Westminster to manage their own waste. Furthermore, ReLondon sees the Greater London Assembly work with the city’s boroughs.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority oversees waste management there and similar responsibility is devolved to eight other regions of the UK.

The one exception to all of this is the country of England itself. It does not have its own local parliament, and any England-related policy that emanates from Westminster is inextricably tied in with UK-wide legislation.

This gives it both the advantage of still being able, when it feels like it, to impose its political will on the cities and nations of the UK, and the simultaneous disadvantage of struggling to create and separate out initiatives that are exclusively for England.

It’s 25 years since the four nations of the UK went their separate ways – and their progress in waste management has diverged significantly during that time, thanks to their different visions, priorities, and mindsets.

However, independent decision-making and responsibility are not always everything it seems. Self-rule hasn’t allowed England’s neighbours to entirely master their own destiny. Most famously, of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland find themselves out of the European Union despite their peoples very clearly voting to remain in it.

Scotland delayed its DRS until October 2025 last year.

Earlier this year, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford blamed a £900m shortfall in his budget on years of UK government fiscal mismanagement. The Scottish government has found its infamous deposit return scheme (DRS) plans stymied by Westminster and, until recently, Northern Ireland’s lack of a ruling executive meant it wasn’t able to pass any laws at all. All remain tied, somehow, some way, to the Westminster machine.

But there are myriad advantages to running your own local waste services – not least using local knowledge to prioritise resource to meet local needs. “It’s very easy and straightforward to engage with local stakeholders,” says Keith Patterson, director of Sustainable Northern Ireland.

“Everyone understands the need; you’re much more likely to get consensus and collaboration. Even if people are on different political sides, they know the local area and the local issues and come together for local solutions, usually far better and with more local engagement than a decision made by a distant government with no on-the-ground understanding of what’s really needed. On something like waste, people want to do the right thing for the local area and community.”

Devolution, too, can enable local legislators to push through change in response to local sentiment – action which might not happen if Westminster is not so keen.

“A lot of Scottish waste initiatives are bold and innovative, and our government is rightly keen to push them through,” says Jim Brown, group commercial director at Edinburgh-based waste management firm Binn Group.

“Sometimes there’s the sense that our priorities are not the same as those in Westminster, and if we didn’t have our own powers, a lack of desire in London would mean these schemes would never happen. There’s scope for working in cooperation, but it’s good we have that autonomy to go at our own pace.”

That is the upside of devolution. The downside for the devolved nations and authorities is that, when it feels like it, Westminster can still overrule them.

Sometimes there’s the sense that our priorities are not the same as those in Westminster.

Devolution builds in a common framework that still loosely “glues” the different parties together, enabling cooperation and managing any potential disruption; for example, by allowing exclusions that cede the right for one of the parties to do their own thing while still broadly adhering to the framework.

In the case of waste, in December 2022 the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a provisional common framework to promote recycling, encourage trade and respect the devolved rights of the four home nations.

However, when Scotland asked the UK for an exclusion within this framework for its DRS scheme, it didn’t get it. Scotland insisted that it had followed all the rules of exemption, which are underwritten by the UK’s Internal Market Act. Inevitably, the Scottish government was unimpressed by the UK’s intervention in its devolved decision-making and made some highly vocal criticisms.

When Wales tried and failed to challenge the Internal Market Act in court earlier this year, its rhetoric was a little stronger, calling it “an unwarranted attack on devolution and the right of the Senedd to legislate without interference in areas devolved to Wales”.

According to the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, the UK sees its powers to intervene in devolved matters as “very much a last resort” – but it still most certainly uses them to block waste initiatives when it feels it needs to.

Some might see this as ironic, given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s devolution has arguably allowed them to advance waste management innovation far quicker and more effectively than England. 



England has always struggled to find consistency on waste management. Its 338 local authorities have an enormous variety of methods and rules around disposal, recycling and collection.

This lack of a centrally structured, focused approach to waste is reflected in England’s disparate and wide-ranging rates for household reuse, recycling and composting. According to Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), between 2022/2023 these ranged from a high of 61.5% in Three Rivers District Council, to just 17.7% in Tower Hamlets LB.

Why is there such inconsistency? It may be that, while local authorities do enjoy a degree of independence from their central government, for England there is no single unitary English parliament to tie all this together.

“Every single local authority has a slightly different collection system, some vastly different,” Simon Ellin, former CEO of the Recycling Association, told The Guardian. “The material they’re then collecting from the public; it’s often heavily contaminated. It’s not target material because it’s been designed so poorly. It hasn’t been labelled properly. It’s been a broken supply chain.”

England does, however, have a Waste Management Plan, published in 2021 and built on the government’s waste strategy. Goals include: all plastic packaging on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025; eliminating food waste to landfill by 2030; eliminating avoidable plastic waste within 25 years; and eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050.

Every single local authority has a slightly different collection system, some vastly different.

The strategy, Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy For England, seems to have inched forward painfully slowly.

A National Audit Office review of its progress in summer 2023 concluded: “Four and a half years on from its 2018 strategy, Defra has still not developed effective long-term delivery plans that set out how it will achieve its ambitions for resources and waste.”

Critics of the current Conservative government will point to what they perceive as a lack of genuine commitment to the drive to net zero, and the vital role waste management plays in that. Almost three years after the government launched a consultation on waste collection consistency, Defra has only just published its results and accompanying proposals.

The policy – renamed to “Simpler Recycling” – will let members of the public recycle the same materials consistently across England at home, work and school. Local authorities will be required to collect commingled glass, metal, paper, and card at the kerbside, plus residual waste. Optional garden waste collections can be offered. Weekly food-waste collections must be in place by 2026.



It’s nearly 10 years since the Scottish parliament passed a law making it mandatory for all businesses, public sector and not-for-profit organisations to present metal, plastic, glass, paper and card for separate collection.

This and other initiatives have helped Scotland reduce its total waste in the 10 years to 2021 by 19.9%  (2.3m tonnes). It’s still moving forward. It became the first of the UK’s devolved nations to ban the manufacture and supply of numerous types of single-use plastics.

Last summer, the government published its Circular Economy Bill, giving ministers powers to set local recycling targets as has been so successfully done in Wales. Underpinning this legislation is the Circular Economy Strategy, which outlines collaboration with local authorities to co-design an updated national Code of Practice for household waste recycling.

The strategy outlines targets, including recycling and composting 70% of all Scottish waste by 2025 – not an unrealistic improvement on the current 63%. A further target to landfill less than 5% might be more ambitious – 21 in 2021 that figure stood at more than 30%.

Jim Brown, group commercial director at Edinburgh-based waste management firm Binn Group, welcomes the government’s initiatives and believes Scotland has performed well – though he thinks more can be done. “Its waste regulations were forward thinking and have accelerated the journey to a net zero economy,” he says.

Its waste regulations were forward thinking and have accelerated the journey to a net zero economy.

But change can only come with the right infrastructure – a lack of which was one reason for Scotland’s ongoing DRS fiasco. The Deposit Return Scheme, which mooted adding 20p to the retail price of all bottles and cans for refund to customers who recycled them at participating shops, suffered numerous delays.

Yet the greatest blow was a devolutionary one: the Scottish government needed exemption from the terms of the UK Internal Market Act – which Westminster refused on the grounds this would diverge from and compromise what it called the “interoperability” of planned schemes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The block was described by Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf as “sabotage” by the UK government.

Brown sums things up well: “Should the UK government get all the nations to sit round the table and come up with a British Isles version of DRS? Maybe – but while Scotland wants to push on, I think there’s a feeling that the UK government doesn’t have quite the same desire.”



Prior to devolution in 1998, Wales was one of the world’s worst recyclers, recycling only 4.8% of household waste. Since taking charge of its own affairs, it has risen to third best on the planet, with a rate of 65.2%.

In the last decade, its landfill rate has plummeted from 42% to under 5%. It has collected separate household food waste across the entire country. That waste, from 22 local authorities, is sent to one of Wales’s five anaerobic digestion plants to be converted into 7MW of energy – enough to power 12,000 homes.

The secret ingredient is the devolved government’s mighty £1bn investment over the past 25 years – and the mindset. Free from Westminster, it was the first UK nation to set statutory recycling targets. It launched an ongoing campaign, Recycle For Wales, including education on where the nation’s waste goes, and launched a Collections Blueprint, setting out a recommended method of waste collection to help local authorities provide collection services for recyclable, compostable and residual waste.

Recycling rates
Since devolution, Wales’s recycling rate has risen to 65.2%.

The list goes on. The Welsh government gave local authorities specific funding that has given 99% of Welsh 25 homes a specific food waste collection. It has funded the development of waste recycling, introduced mattress recycling, reduced the frequency of general rubbish collections and encouraged more recycling. It was the first UK nation to introduce a charge for plastic carrier bags. In 2019, the Welsh Senedd was the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency.

Key to all this has been the government’s ability to educate and galvanise the Welsh people. Andy Rees, head of waste strategy for the Welsh government, believes devolution has been a factor in the country’s success. “We aspire to do good things but take advantage of being relatively small,” he recently told The Guardian. “Then we can all get around the table together with our local authorities and work out the way forward.”

More legislation is coming. From April 2024, all workplaces must separate all waste. The next phase is to make the country a circular economy.

The government’s current waste strategy Beyond Recycling, which is underpinned by another Welsh innovation, the Well Being Of Future Generations Act, sets out a specific timeline: mandatory waste tracking by 2025, zero waste to landfill and a 50% reduction in avoidable food waste.

By the end of the decade, it aims for a 33% reduction in all waste, a 92% cut in waste sector emissions and a carbon-neutral public sector.

Following a sold out 2023 event, Resource Conference Cymru returns to Cardiff to explore how the resources and waste sector can deliver the infrastructure for a circular Wales.

Find out more about this unique event today.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Overseeing waste management practice and policy in Northern Ireland faces a unique challenge – the country doesn’t have a government.

“We’re always aware we’re working in a political vacuum,” says Rachael Hook, head of resources and waste strategy at Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). “There’s only so far we can go with any consultations or other initiatives without having an executive in place to approve them.”

Despite this, there has been much activity. The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, which was signed off before last year’s election, targets net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an interim target of 48% net emissions by the end of this decade.

Alongside this are the government’s Circular Economy strategy, a Climate Action Plan and a new Waste Management strategy, which could seek to limit waste to landfill levels to just 10% by 2035.

Despite a lack of government, consultation and consensus tends to be relatively straightforward in the province – because it’s such a small area with just 11 councils. Debbie Nesbitt, CIWM’s Northern Ireland chair, agrees.

We do dialogue and engagement better than anyone.

“We do dialogue and engagement better than anyone,” she says. “We’re working on a recycling consultation at present which will ask questions around restricting residual capacity at the kerbside, introducing more separation to improve quantity and quality, and looking at how we can improve food waste and garden collection.”

But a country this small struggles to establish the infrastructure needed to meet targets. “Our geography means we’re isolated from things like markets,” says Keith Patterson, director of Sustainable Northern Ireland and Belfast-based waste manager at WRAP.

“Because we’re on our own, we can’t process all those materials we want collected from the kerbside. It’s an additional hassle to move it across a border or across the Irish Sea to Britain.”

Waste facilities are being built. In 2018, Northern Ireland’s most integrated private waste management firm RiverRidge unveiled the nation’s first EfW plant, capable of recovering energy from 160,000 metric tonnes of refuse-derived fuel each year at the Belfast site. Debbie Nesbitt sees collaboration as being at the heart of Northern Ireland’s waste future.

“Waste operations in Northern Ireland can benefit from bringing waste down south for process,” she says. “In government, we would like to improve that all-Ireland approach.”

Greater London

Among the UK’s devolved regions, London is the most complex in its waste management structure. This is overseen by ReLondon, an organisation which links the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly (GLA) with the city’s boroughs.

A mix of history, tradition and innovation means it sits in a unique administrative position, devolving historic GLA powers to the city’s four statutory joint waste authorities – East London, North London, West London and Western Riverside, which between them are responsible for 21 boroughs – along with 12 other boroughs which are independent waste authorities in their own right. ReLondon reports to the GLA and the Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Its responsibilities are split, with waste collection and disposal within the remit of the boroughs and the partnerships. However, ReLondon itself supports the mayor in delivering his statutory municipal waste strategy – which aims to transform the city into a low-carbon circular economy – and supports the boroughs and partnerships to conform to that by running initiatives designed to reduce the city’s volumes of domestic and commercial waste.

Greater Manchester

The Greater Manchester Waste and Resources Team has devolved powers to oversee around 4% of the UK’s waste. Collecting and processing 1.1m tonnes of waste and recycling every year from more than one million households, it is the largest waste disposal authority in the country.

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