Will UK Maintain Higher Recycling Targets & EPR Requirements? : BLOG: The Implications of Brexit on Circular Economy Initiatives

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One area of EU law which is developing rapidly is legislation to improve the circular economy. Anita Lloyd explains that there are a number of legislative proposals in the pipeline, but with the UK leaving the EU, what are the implications for these circular economy initiatives, and could there be opportunities for the UK to move ahead in any respects?

The EU Commission’s Action Plan Communication, called “Closing the Loop” which was launched in 2 December 2015 (replacing an earlier proposal). It sets out a wide range of planned measures and initiatives which together make up the Circular Economy Package.

At its core are four proposals for new waste-related Directives. These will amend the existing suite of Directives on waste, end of life vehicles, packaging waste, landfilling of waste, waste batteries, and waste electrical and electronic equipment. The package also includes communications and proposals on connected issues, notably the Plastics Strategy, and a communication on options to address the interface between chemical, product and waste legislation.

The proposals include significantly higher recycling rates and extended producer responsibility. The intention is to link end of life costs of specific products more closely to producer financial contributions, so that those who place products on the market that are more difficult or costly to recycle will need to contribute more to producer responsibility schemes.

The package also includes proposals which add some much-needed clarity to the definition of waste and associated concepts, such as end of waste and by-product, which can sometimes act as blocks to the reuse of materials. It is vital, for a circular economy to function well, to make the transition from a waste or a by-product to a ‘new’ product as clear and straightforward as possible.

Possible implications of Brexit

The new Directives are going through the final stages of the EU legislative process, and are due to be finalised and adopted in the next few months. The UK will then be required to transpose the Directives over the next two years. Given the transitional period that is due to apply post-Brexit, it seems that the UK will be obliged to give effect to these circular economy packages measures.

However, given that the UK is currently struggling with some of the existing recycling targets, it remains to be seen whether the UK government will change its approach thereafter. One suggestion that has been widely mooted is a move away from measuring recycling according to weight, which the UK has historically not supported.

The UK’s future policy direction has been outlined to some extent in Defra’s 25 year plan, such as the pledge to eliminate “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042. We expect further detail later this year, in the form of a Defra Resources and Waste Strategy and understand this will place strong emphasis on maximising the value from resources and minimising the impacts of end of life disposal.

The country is also having to deal with the ramifications of the Chinese import ban on recyclates, which is expected to have a major impact on the global market in waste materials. Whilst this ban could be a catalyst for the ‘reshoring’ of recycling activities to the UK and ultimately enhance the circularity of the economy within the UK, substantial investment in new recycling infrastructure is likely to be required.

The UK is setting itself out as a leader in the debate on resource efficiency and the circular economy, with some ambitious policy goals and statements. As ever, it remains to be seen whether those ambitions will ultimately be converted into binding legislative targets in due course.

Anita Lloyd is a Director in the Environmental, Safety & Health Practice, Squire Patton Boggs.