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Wasted Opportunity: Household Recycling Stalls as EU Target to Increase It was Quietly Abandoned after Brexit Vote

A new waste strategy was drawn up by the Government in 2018 but, five years on, there are no delivery dates for it, according to a new report by the independent spending watchdog

Photo: Alex Segre/Alamy

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Progress in recycling household waste has been stalled for 12 years and an EU target to increase it was abandoned by the Government following the Brexit vote, a new report by the National Audit Office reveals.

It discloses that there has been no progress under successive Conservative Governments since 2011, with the proportion of recycled household waste having remained at 44%.

While the UK was a member of the European Union, it was subject to an EU directive to increase the proportion of recycled waste to 50% by 2020. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was committed to meeting the EU target, according to the report.

But the moment the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, this target was quietly abandoned. A new waste strategy was drawn up by the Government in 2018, promising ambitious plans to eliminate waste.

However the NAO reveals that, nearly five years into the new strategy, there are no delivery dates to achieve the Government’s plans, beyond a commitment to halve the amount of waste per person in England by 2042.

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The result is that both business and local authorities are finding it very difficult to plan how to reduce waste as they do not know what and when new laws and regulations will be implemented.

Some firms have introduced new packaging to cut down on the use of plastics and there is a plan to introduce a returnable deposit scheme for bottles and cans. But the NAO has found that the scheme has yet to be trialled and DEFRA has no plans to do so.

Instead, it appears it was hoping to see how Scotland’s plan to introduce a similar scheme would work, but this has now been delayed until 2025.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Reducing waste is critical to reducing emissions and achieving some of government’s wider environmental goals, but DEFRA does not have effective long-term plans for how it will achieve its ambitions for reducing waste, and there has been delay to its implementation of reforms.

“DEFRA must now establish a clear and coherent plan for its work on waste and resources, addressing the weaknesses in the reforms already in progress. If DEFRA takes these steps, it will be in a much stronger position to achieve its ambitions.”

Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, said that “having missed its 2020 target on household recycling, DEFRA still lacks good long-term delivery plans for its work on waste” and that this is another example of the department’s “culture of delay”.

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“Nearly five years on from its 2018 strategy, DEFRA has much to do before it can implement major reforms like the deposit return scheme,” she added. “DEFRA must give households, local authorities and businesses the confidence they need to substantially change behaviours, or risk further setbacks to our environmental objectives.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it is “pushing ahead” with its reforms to reduce waste and improve the use of resources.

“This includes introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic and metal drinks containers from October 2025, implementing consistent recycling between different councils to boost recycling rates, and banning the supply of single-use plastics like plastic plates and cutlery from October 2023,” they said.

“We have been working closely with industry, environmental organisations and local government as these initiatives are rolled-out and will provide more updates on our long-term plans shortly.”

The spokesperson said the department had “carefully considered” the NAO’s recommendations, which “will inform our approach as we continue to deliver on our environmental ambitions”.

The department did not comment on fresh targets for household waste recycling. 

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