What impact will Brexit have on the circular economy?

With the UK set to leave the European Union in less than a month, Aidan Bell, co-founder of sustainable materials company Envirobuild, contemplates the impact this might have on the circular economy.

The circular economy centres around the idea of maximising the longevity and potential of our resources in order to minimise waste and use of virgin materials. It centres around a regenerative approach to materials and as a result, recycling is a core component.

Around 80% of the UK’s environmental laws have been created by the EU, including the Europe-wide target for 50% of household waste to be reused or recycled by 2020. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has affirmed that the environment will not be worse off after Brexit, arguing that it could even create a space for environmental innovation. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) will manage Britain’s resource policy after the 29th March, however, whether they will have to adhere to the EU’s circular economy strategy will depend significantly on the Brexit deal the UK achieves.

A brief history of recycling in the UK

Progress in the UK in terms of recycling has vastly been as a result of EU regulations.

Before the early 2000s recycling was not integral to UK society both in culture and policy. This began to change with the Waste Strategy 2000 and eventual introduction of statutory recycling targets, both stemming from EU law. In 2011 Defra’s Review of Waste Policy in England included 13 sustainability commitments towards a zero-waste economy which also largely came from EU legislations.

In recent years recycling rates in the UK have stalled and between 2016 and 2017 municipal waste recycling fell to 43.7%. As a result, the UK is already unlikely to reach the EU’s 50% target for 2020, set out in the Waste Framework Directive of 2008.

The European Union’s latest Circular Economy Package (CEP), published in 2018, demands that all plastic packaging must be recyclable by 2030, while the Revised Legislative Framework on Waste requires 70% of packaging waste to be recycled by 2030 and 65% of urban waste by 2035.

Even though the UK will be leaving before this fully comes into force, Gove has maintained his commitment to these targets. However, without EU pressure, if these goals are not fully converted into UK law, it seems highly likely that the UK would fall behind them.

The impact of different Brexit scenarios on the circular economy

The legislative relationship between the UK and EU will depend on how Brexit negotiations pan out over the next few weeks.

Soft Brexit

Little change would come as a result of the UK remaining within the European Economic Area (EEA), also known as ‘soft Brexit’. We would still have to abide by many environmental regulations yet without any say over their creation. This is the case with Norway who, for example, must accept recycling targets from the EEA.

Even if EU legislations were not directly applicable, as in Switzerland’s bilateral agreement, we would still have to meet EU environmental standards such as recycling rates. Likewise, if we wanted to carry on exporting non-recyclable waste to Europe, we would have to adhere to current waste management laws – although this could become too expensive in a no-deal scenario.

In these two cases, and obviously if we were to remain within the EU, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would still be able to hold the UK accountable to environmental regulations. In the case of a transition period for more negotiating time, something May has been pushing for, the ECJ would likely also retain this power during that time.

Hard Brexit

It is within the case of a ‘hard Brexit’, or no deal, where the UK will have the greatest scope for environmental change, for better or worse.

In order to enforce environmental law without the ECJ, Gove has proposed an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This new independent statutory body will “hold the powerful to account” while “embed[ding] protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as the UK leaves the EU”.

However, it has been estimated it will not be ready until 2021 and green groups such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth argue the Bill “give[s] the environment and countryside less protection after Brexit than exists now.” Further stating, “There is no commitment to give the proposed new watchdog power to initiate legal action, nor is there any commitment to enshrine vital environmental principles […] in law.”

This type of jurisdictive watering-down by government may come as no shock to those who have witnessed the UK’s recent interactions with EU regulations.

The UK was taken to court by the European Commission in May 2018 due to its continued violation of EU nitrogen dioxide levels, which became a danger to public health. In fact, the UK is more likely to be taken to court over environmental law than any other EU policy. As a result of the large market it is operating within, the EU has the ability to apply powerful sanctions to the UK, such as multimillion-euro fines.

The UK has also shown opposition to EU environmental laws. The EU’s 2035 urban waste strategy was initially resisted, before being committed to in March 2018. Likewise, the UK previously disputed the ban on bee-harming neonicotinoids before finally agreeing in November 2018, which consequently delayed its implementation.

Looking forward

EU legislations have pushed forward progress in terms of the circular economy in Britain. As it stands, the future of the circular economy in the UK hinges most considerably on the type of Brexit deal which Theresa May can attain – if any.

Theoretically a ‘hard Brexit’ could create greater scope for legislative environmental innovation, such as more directed recycling laws. However, developing our own home-grown policies would represent such an enormous task that, from the sheer scale alone, it would likely become difficult for the circular economy standards to be maintained.

Even in the case of a ‘soft Brexit’, and consequently with retaining the circular economy package, we would nonetheless be rendered voiceless in the creation of new European environmental laws in the coming years.


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