Don’t fear change, embrace it

Robbie Staniforth, head of policy at Ecosurety explains why there are reasons to be positive regardless of who is Secretary of State for the Environment once the Conservative party leadership contest concludes.

Our industry had only just enough time to catch its breath following the closure of the government’s various resources and waste consultations before it started to contemplate changes of a different kind. The race to lead the Conservative party is likely to have an impact on all government departments, but given the Defrarecent progress in resources and waste after such a long hiatus, it is likely that our industry could be impacted more than most.

Michael Gove has entered the race and even if he is unsuccessful in his candidacy, it is possible that he may yet leave the sector in a reshuffle to a new department or out of the cabinet all together.

I have heard a lot of concerns about losing the Secretary of State for Environment, who by most accounts has re-energised Defra. He has certainly not been afraid to press for action by insisting that change is possible and ensuring that new opinions have been introduced into waste policy formulation.

In conversations at industry events over the last few weeks, I’ve heard some parties suggest that the brakes may be applied to newly forming resource policies, or heaven forbid, they could be simply kicked into the long grass by a new minister.

With primetime BBC airtime being dedicated to the problem created by plastic waste, there will be clamour from politicians to be perceived to be doing something about the issue.

While I share the opinion that Defra has been more engaged with industry over the last year than in the past, I do not agree with the pervading pessimism about the potential impact of a ministerial change. Ultimately, the policy debate has been sparked by Mr Gove but there is a long way to go before meaningful legislation is in place and making a difference. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and we’ve merely seen the menu (or been involved in choosing it) to date.

The Resources and Waste Strategy clearly outlines timescales for the government to consider changes and introduce new policies. Defra and industry have this paper as a reference point, so that even if a new minister does not exhibit the same vim and vigour as their predecessor, it can be used as a guiding document to ground or steer the conversation.

Plastic waste in Malaysia – picture credit: Greenpeace

In addition, a cabinet reshuffle could present an opportunity to row back from some of the political announcements that have been made before the policy research had concluded. For example, the plastic packaging tax could be pivoted into a raw material tax to drive post-consumer recyclate in all packaging and maybe other products too.

For packaging specifically, a new minister may present the opportunity to ensure they are focused on the areas that will lead to the greatest increase in the quality of waste material, namely collection harmonisation and changes to extended producer responsibility.

Of course, there is always the potential for a new Secretary of State for the Environment to focus on the more tangible, headline-grabbing measures. With primetime BBC airtime being dedicated to the problem created by plastic waste, there will be clamour from politicians to be perceived to be doing something about the issue.

It is within our industry’s gift to make sure that it is the right “something” they focus on. There are major issues in the volume of plastic being collected and recycled in the UK and urgent tweaks to the current system are required in the coming months, not years.

The danger of inaction looms much greater than that of misguided action. For too long the UK has been treading water when it comes to waste policy and now is the time to ensure the government press ahead with the agenda they have set.

We hope to see a summary of consultation responses in the next few weeks that provide the framework for the next round of policy refinement. These suggested changes are not to be feared by the sector but to be embraced – they offer the chance to breathe new life into a recycling system that’s been in declining health for some time.

Ultimately, an overhaul of our recycling and waste system will have to happen, regardless of who occupies the cabinet post on 22 July – increasing public awareness of waste issues will prevent action from being derailed.

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