The Environment Agency’s deputy director for waste, Steve Molyneux, discusses his role, the challenges, and the future direction of regulation and stopping waste criminals.
The waste industry has often been seen by others as a dirty, but necessary, part of our consumerist lifestyle. Traditionally, little thought has been given to how to deal with the tonnes of plastic, cardboard and electronic waste created in the pursuit of having the latest gadgets or the perfect lifestyle.
The industry has done its best to keep up with the ever-increasing, ever-changing nature of the waste stream, but, inevitably, some of it leaks out of the system – often through criminals. Lately, this has hit the headlines and there is now a renewed focus on what happens to the waste we create.
Currently, around 45% of the UK’s plastic waste is exported, but we should be looking to deal with the waste we generate on our own shores, turning it into a resource for use and subsequent export. Not only is this morally and ethically right, but assures our waste industry that investing in infrastructure will be rewarded.
The waste industry has often been seen by others as a dirty, but necessary, part of our consumerist lifestyle.
With the ESA’s commitment to meet net zero, the next decade could see a potential investment of up to £10bn. Our industry is fast being seen as an area of great potential – but our potential is yet to be fully appreciated and fulfilled by all. We need the right legislation and regulation for us to make the right choices and steer the industry in the right direction.
I have worked in our local area offices, going out to all kinds of sites to see the challenges they face. I’ve worked in our national waste-crime team and seen the scale of the blatant disregard that waste criminals have for others. These experiences are of great value to my new role, a large part of which is to help deliver the change promised by Defra’s resources and waste strategy.
There is lots of change on the way: consultations on consistent recycling and food-waste collections are closed, allowing the industry to have a united approach to kerbside collections in England. Electronic waste tracking will let us track waste from creation to disposal, generating valuable data and identifying leakage to criminal gangs. Extended producer liability will drive down unnecessary waste, and the plastics tax is already helping generate a UK market for recovered plastic.
EPR will drive down unnecessary waste and the plastics tax is already helping generate a UK market for recovered plastic.
There’s always risk in change, however. The risk that these reforms may not hit the spot, or work in the way we thought. We cannot guarantee everything will be perfect, and there will be a need for conversations, patience and constructive challenge. However, the stakes are high, and we need an ambitious strategy, delivered carefully with consultation and review by industry. This will help ensure reforms reach their full potential.
Recently, our chief executive, Sir James Bevan, spoke at an event hosted by Let’s Recycle and the ESA. His assessment of waste crime prompted debate and comment. To summarise, he said: waste criminals are getting more sophisticated; at best, we are keeping pace with them. This is not where any of us wants to be.
Regulatory changes, such as waste tracking, will prevent waste from falling into criminal hands, but we have also changed our enforcement strategy. We increasingly recognise the importance of cooperative working to stop criminals before they get their hands on waste. We must deter gangs from entering the waste industry, and suffocate their operations.
Waste criminals are getting more sophisticated; at best, we are keeping pace with them.
The Joint Unit for Waste Crime looks at serious and organised crime and is now embedded within the police, National Crime Agency and Government Agency Intelligence Network. This allows us to share intelligence and move quickly on criminals with the support of others. We also recognise that courts must play their part and prosecute criminals to the full extent of the law.
This is an exciting time to be in the waste industry, with so much potential to showcase. The days of being ‘the dirty industry’ are very much behind us. With hard work and continued focus, we can realise the potential for waste to be a positive driving force for the climate, communities and the economy.