Urgent action needed by government departments to keep circular economy on track post-Brexit

Current patterns of production and consumption are driving the twin environmental crises of resource scarcity and waste overload. This can be tackled by moving away from our current consume-and-dispose economy to a circular economy, where resources are recovered and reused instead of being disposed of as waste. However, movement in this direction has been slow.

In order to promote such a transition to a circular economy, the Resource Recovery from Waste programme (RRfW) has been working with academia, government and industry to develop a shared vision and approach. Insights from their engagement with governmental actors have recently been published in the journal Sustainability.

In the paper, the authors compare the outcomes of interviews with waste and resource specialists from a diversity of governmental departments with the Governments’ formal published visions, strategies, and plans for the promotion of a circular economy, resource recovery, and waste management in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

The governmental specialists broadly agreed on a vision of a circular economy that maximises the value of materials by keeping them in the economy for as long as possible, moving away from end-of-pipe approaches and instead designing durability and recyclability into the economy (for a fuller description, please see our previous blog posts: effective government-academic collaborations, policy and regulatory approaches, and key changes and pivot points).

Comparing this vision described by the governmental specialists with official strategies and plans showed that parts of this vision have already been incorporated in policy and regulation. However, there are large differences in the extent to which this has been achieve across the four nations in the UK, with England especially falling behind the pack (see Table 1). In addition, any existing coherence appears to be mostly driven by a desire to comply with EU directives. With the uncertainty of Brexit looming on the horizon, it is not clear to what degree the UK as a whole or individual nations will continue to implement such directives. As such, the lack of coherence highlighted in Table 1 is likely to get worse unless concerted policy action is taken soon by BEIS, Defra and their devolved counterparts.

Table 1 Comparative analysis of key themes distilled from government specialists’ personal view and formal government visions, strategies, and plans for circular economy, resource recovery, and/or waste.
Table 1: Comparative analysis of key themes distilled from government specialists’ personal view and formal government visions, strategies, and plans for circular economy, resource recovery, and/or waste management (published documents) for Wales (W), Northern Ireland (NI), Scotland (S) and England (E). Green = included; orange = partly included; and red=not included in formal government documents.

Further recommendations for governmental organisations emerging from this research include:

  1. Progress should be measured in terms of technical, social and environmental values in addition to economic, and data collection adapted accordingly [delivered by new Office for Resource Stewardship or collective effort of e.g. BEIS, MHCLG, Defra, ONS; used by all government departments, especially the Treasury].
  2. Secondary resource markets should be supported through a mix of incentives and regulatory approaches [BEIS, Defra and devolved counterparts].
  3. Policy interventions should enable innovation, not only in waste processing technologies but also business models, product design, and methods of data collection and analysis [UKRI].
  4. A whole-system approach to analysis should be adopted (aided by academics) but, as government operates in departments,  this then needs to be translated into specific actions that can be steered through key intervention points [led by Cabinet and devolved counterparts, supported by new Office for Resource Stewardship].
  5. A long-term and predictable policy framework is required that focuses on resource efficiency in line with the decarbonisation agenda, building on the EU circular economy package [BEIS, Defra and devolved counterparts].
  6. Further action is needed to maintain the technical functional qualities of materials and thus their ability to contribute to industrial productivity i.e. as resources, not waste. This will require a change in investment profile away from energy-from-waste to resource recovery infrastructure [Infrastructure and Projects Authority, NIC].

Full details of this work are available in the open access article: Velenturf et al. (2018) Co-Producing a Vision and Approach for the Transition towards a Circular Economy: Perspectives from Government Partners. Sustainability, 10, 1401; doi: 10.3390/su10051401

The first paper in the series on the co-producing a vision for transition to a circular economy, which contains the academic perspective, is available at: Anne Velenturf and Phil Purnell (2017) Resource recovery from waste: Restoring the balance between resource scarcity and waste overload. Sustainability, 9 (9), 1603; doi:10.3390/su9091603 Open Access.

A final article in the series will be published in due course on the industrial perspective, incorporating results from a workshop and recent industry survey.

For further RRfW papers, please see our publications page.

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