Waste Watch: UK Plan Opts for ‘Polluter Pays’ Approach

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Finally, the UK appears to be getting somewhere with its new waste management strategy, announced yesterday, and  to take effect in 2023, after consultations during the coming new year.

The plan is the first major update to UK waste strategy in more than a decade. It advances farther toward implementing the ‘circular economy’ concept, particularly as it pertains to plastic waste – endorsed last January as EU plastics policy, as I posted here at the time, and which built on an earlier EU plan discussed here . Ironically, this breakthrough occurs just as the UK ramps up plans to exit the EU.

The plan gets one key issue right: it puts the onus on businesses to manage – and most importantly, pay for – waste clean-up. This should help direct those who insist on swathing purchases in packaging to reduce doing so. As anyone who’s been in a UK, US, or other supermarket recently knows, it’s nearly impossible to avoid plastic packaging – a point to which numerous NC readers have testified to in comments on various  posts I’ve written on waste.

Crucially, the plan reduces the £1 billion annual burden on local councils for  disposal of this packaging, of which the businesses that generate the waste currently pay only 10 per cent.

Instead, as the UK government press release, Gove launches landmark blueprint for resources and waste, announces, the plan aims at the following goals:

  • ensure producers pay the full net costs of disposal or recycling of packaging they place on the market by extending producer responsibility – up from just 10% now
  • review our producer responsibility schemes for items that can be harder or costly to recycle including cars, electrical goods, batteries and explore extending it to textiles, fishing gear, vehicle tyres, certain materials from construction and demolition, and bulky waste such as mattresses, furniture and carpets
  • introduce a consistent set of recyclable materials collected from all households and businesses, and consistent labelling on packaging so consumers know what they can recycle, to drive-up recycling rates
  • ensure weekly collections of food waste, which is often smelly and unpleasant, for every household – restoring weekly collections in some local authorities. This will be subject to consultation which will also consider free garden waste collections for households with gardens, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfill
  • introduce a deposit return scheme, subject to consultation, to increase the recycling of single-use drinks containers including bottles, cans, and disposable cups filled at the point of sale
  • explore mandatory guarantees and extended warranties on products, to encourage manufacturers to design products that last longer and drive up the levels of repair and re-use
  • introduce annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses. Should progress be insufficient, we will consult on introducing mandatory targets for food waste prevention
  • clamp-down on illegal movements of waste at home and abroad by introducing compulsory electronic tracking of waste, and tougher penalties for rogue waste crime operators if they mislabel their waste to dodge tax rules

Imperfect Plan

I was pleased to see the plan also rejects  undue reliance on the recycling fairy, and recognizes that sending waste abroad for recycling is no longer a viable option – as China last year stopped accepting most waste imports for recycling (see here, and here). The consequences of this move have swamped the capacity of alternative destinations for such waste, and led, in some instances, to abandonment of recycling arrangements as suitable replacements for taking the waste have yet to be found.

Nonetheless, the plan is by no means perfect. Environmentalists, among others, have raised three major criciticms.

First, the plan’s deadlines are lax.  

As the Guardian reports:

“It is great to see further commitments to introduce a deposit return system for cans and bottles, which is tried, tested and proven to boost recycle rates to over 90%,” said Samantha Harding, litter programme manager at the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

“However, the rollout of such a system may not happen for another five years. With the Scottish government expected to introduce its deposit system by 2020, and the packaging producers – who would pay for the system – wanting it to be UK-wide, why does our government think it would take a further three years to get in line?”

Second, plan’s goals are vague, implementation details remain weak, and it is by no means clear British businesses will embrace the policy.

Instead, I expect they’ll seek to water it down in future months.

On vagueness, as reported by the Independent:

“At long last the government appears to be getting serious about tackling England’s vast mountains of waste,” said Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Julian Kirby.

“But while there are many welcome initiatives in this strategy, there is still too much reliance on voluntary measures, and precious little commitment to targets to reduce waste and boost recycling.”

On implementation, according to the Guardian:

Simon Ellin, of the Recycling Association, welcomed the strategy. He said: “It ticks most of the boxes we have asked for – full cost producer responsibility, consistent local authority collections and labelling, food waste reductions, focus on waste crime.

“There is a little bit too much consultation involved before delivery and therefore the chance the polices could get watered down.”

The Green Alliance was also positive. A spokesperson said: “The positive steps include ensuring producers are made to pay for the waste they create and giving households access to the consistent, high-quality recycling and food waste collections that we have been calling for. These proposals must now translate into policy, fully supported by other departments and sufficient funding. And the warm words on resource efficiency must become concrete action.”

On business attitudes, the Independent notes:

Richard Kirkman, of the waste management company Veolia, said the government had “listened to industry”. However, a spokesperson from the Confederation of British Industry noted the considerable challenge such a change could pose.

“Such an apparent hike in the costs to businesses, particularly smaller firms, could add a significant burden at a time of great uncertainty,” the spokesperson said.

Third, the plan doesn’t tackle fashion waste. British textile consumption – fed and facilitated by the fast fashion industry, among other sources – deposits  vast amounts of  waste  in landfills (as I have reported most recently here).

Labour MP and chair for the Environmental Audit Committee Mary Creagh  was willing to be more publicly critical of the government’s plan. According to the Independent:

“The government appears to be kicking the waste can down the road yet again.

“The plastic bottle deposit return scheme promised in 2018 won’t be ready until 2023. Textile waste piling up in landfill won’t be tackled until even later.”

The Bottom Line

The UK’s new waste management strategy on its face appears to be ambitious – although the lax deadlines leave the impression it’s still not up to the mark in dealing with the magnitude of the waste crisis.The ultimate success or failure of the plan will depend largely on how aggressively it is implemented. Unfortunately, I expect the waste management agenda is one of many areas that will soon be overwhelmed by the catastrophic fallout from the government’s failed Brexit strategy.


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  1. DolleyMadison

    So if you are rich you can pollute all you want as long as you pay extra for the privilege. But if you are poor you can’t afford to heat your house or drive to work. Ok. All Good. I need to buy a yellow vest…

    1. Summer

      That’s pretty much the unspoken, psycho global plan for everyone.
      Lots of “serious” people have apparently done “studies.”
      Works as population control, too.

  2. BlueMoose

    My favorite part (common to these type of grandiose announcements): to take effect in 2023
    Can you say: kick the can down the road. I thought so.

  3. Ignacio

    Those that are originators of future waste should have incentives to reduce it that is key to reduce waste. One way is to make them have a larger share of waste treatment costs, nevertheless i think this is not enough although it goes in the rigth direction. For instance, there are practices that make treatment difficult that should be banned.

  4. Copeland

    Well it sounds like nirvana to this Yank. I can’t even imagine such things being discussed over here, let alone implemented…in five years.

    It seems to me that as long as the game is rigged the way it is –accumulating large amounts of wealth is good, and encouraged– then these schemes that seek to make things better for us mopes are doomed to fail. If “business” will be asked to bear the burden of reducing packaging and paying for disposal of excessive waste, “business” will pass the cost on to you know who. They couldn’t possibly be asked to accumulate a little less wealth!

    It seems to me that the condition of *being wealthy* first has to be outlawed, before any of this will work. Once “being wealthy” is taken off the table, all sorts of things become possible again.

    Or am I way off base on all this?

    1. BlueMoose

      No, I think you pretty much nailed it. I too like to daydream sometimes about an alternate universe where wealth, profit, and growth were not part of the vocabulary. It always amazes me to read about corporate complaints that profits are down. My first reaction is – Ok, but you made a profit, right?

  5. Cal2

    “Insure producers pay the full net costs of disposal or recycling of packaging they place on the market by extending producer responsibility”

    Read this on N.C. and am paraphrasing it from memory:

    When ordering anything, I ask “is it packed in styrofoam? If so, I don’t want it.”

    If no answer to that question, I don’t order it.

    If I order it and it comes with styrofoam, I send it back for a full refund with an explanatory note.

    At retail, I open packages before buying. If any styrofoam, it gets left at the checkout with a lecture about the evils of that unrecyclable plastic garbage and why they shouldn’t be selling it.

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