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Circular Economy and Elimination of Waste

Volume 809: debated on Monday 18 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage (1) a circular economy, and (2) the elimination of waste.

My Lords, in the 25-year environment plan, the Government pledged to leave the environment in a better condition for the next generation, committing to eliminating avoidable waste and doubling our resource productivity by 2050. Our resources and waste strategy sets out how we will meet that commitment, moving society away from the inefficient linear economic model of take, make, use, throw to a more circular economy, where resources are kept in circulation for longer.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I understand that the Government are going to publish a resource and waste strategy imminently—there was a policy statement last July. However, it is quite piecemeal in approach. Some 80% of the environmental impact is in the design phase, so to prevent waste we have to look at things such as built-in obsolescence and the manufacture of white goods which can only be repaired by the manufacturer and are in fact designed to be thrown away rather than reused. Will the Government produce a proper circular economy action plan, as the EU has done, and lay out how it can be put on to the statue book?

My Lords, the Environment Bill includes powers to introduce legislation on product or eco-design—for example, to support durable, repairable and recyclable products. It will also enable us to introduce extended producer responsibility schemes for packaging and a whole range of products, as well as a deposit return scheme, or DRS, for drinks containers. We are absolutely ready to initiate a whole suite of measures that will reduce waste and remove built-in obsolescence.

Will the Minister update the House on how the Government plan to tackle planned obsolescence? Do they favour altering consumer rights legislation, taking a regulatory approach or introducing primary legislation?

My Lords, as I mentioned, the Environment Bill includes a whole suite of primary legislation measures, which, combined, will result in a move towards a more circular economy. That means tackling built-in obsolescence and encouraging manufacturers to produce products that can either be recycled, repaired or reused. It means removing waste as a default for manufacturers and shifting the emphasis as much as possible towards the producer and away from the consumer so that products are designed in such a way as to avoid a legacy of unnecessary waste.

My Lords, I fear that the Minister has probably answered my question, but I recall that 60 years ago my father used to acquire damaged and scrapped cycles, rebuild them and sell them at auction. He was literally an early recycler, I suppose. Could manufacturers be legally required, by better design, to make access to items easier, thereby enabling the owner to repair as opposed to replace items such as domestic appliances?

Yes, subject to the consultation that I mentioned earlier, it is possible, even likely, that manufacturers will be required to manufacture products that are not simply thrown away as a default. In addition, since publishing the resources and waste strategy, we have already introduced a whole range of measures. We have consulted, for example, on major reforms to the way in which waste is managed, including DRS, extended producer responsibility and consistent recycling. We have set up pilot schemes to reduce food waste and have published proposals for targets in the Environment Bill. Our carrier bag charge has been hugely successful; it will be extended to all retailers and increased to 10p. There is a range of bans on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. We are not waiting for the Environment Bill to begin this process, but it will create a coherence and give us the powers that we need to go further.

My Lords, given that prevention is better than cure and to achieve food waste elimination ambitions recommended in the CCC’s sixth carbon budget, what steps is my noble friend taking to prevent household waste, beyond awareness campaigns, and to explore novel ways in which to make reducing food waste easier for households?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a really important point. The UK is fully signed up to meeting the UN sustainable development goal 12.3 target, which seeks to halve global food waste at consumer and retail level by 2030. Our resource and waste strategy committed us to better redistributing food to those in need before it gets thrown away, and we have put £15 million into that. We are consulting on mandatory food waste prevention targets for businesses and publishing a food surplus and waste hierarchy to support businesses to prevent food waste. Around 3 million tonnes of waste has been prevented since 2013 and, of that, around 2.7 million tonnes is food waste.

My Lords, I was appalled to find that on leaving the EU, the UK will be exporting our plastic waste to third world countries, where it will be burned, releasing toxins into the atmosphere. I understand that countries receiving our toxic waste have the option to refuse it. Can the Minister reassure us that not only will he encourage his colleagues to ban the export of plastic waste, but he will campaign rigorously to reduce plastic waste to zero?

The noble Baroness has my commitment on both points. We recognise the problems of waste mountains in numerous countries that cannot or do not manage their waste properly. The Government have already committed to banning the export of plastic waste to countries that are not members of the OECD. In addition, the entire thrust of the Environment Bill that I mentioned earlier is designed to reduce all avoidable and unnecessary waste.

My Lords, on a related issue, is my noble friend satisfied with the functionality and efficiency of local council waste reception sites? Is he concerned, like me, that many types of waste materials taken to these sites are capable of being recycled—for instance, some plastics, shredded paper and other materials—but they are still being sent to landfill unnecessarily and perhaps in error? Perhaps guidance to the operators needs reviewing.

There is no doubt that the recycling infrastructure or approach across the country is mixed. The Government are committed to a 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2035, which is a significant increase on where we are now. One way in which we will do that is by requiring local authorities and other waste collectors to collect the same core set of recyclable materials—including plastics, but other materials as well—from households and businesses in England from 2023.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the order of change that the circular economy will effect on society must equally mean significant change in education, particularly in schools, not just in terms of content but fundamentally in classroom organisation and dynamics, with the encouragement of holistic thinking and multidisciplinary learning? Then there is the central role that design will play in future. Finland is leading on these changes, and we should be looking at this too.

My Lords, our goals in the 25-year environment plan are for zero avoidable waste, doubling our resource productivity by 2050 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on nature relating to waste, as well as enhancing our resource security. One way in which we will be able to do that is by ensuring that the educational system—by which I mean not just what children are taught but the environment in which they are taught it—promotes an understanding and appreciation of the value of resources and the damage of resource waste. Education awareness is a key component; it is already a key component in the litter strategy for England. I believe that 80% of schools in England are already members of the eco-schools programme, and we are pushing hard to increase that. There are numerous other resources available for schools as well.

My Lords, WRAP has recommended that as we recover from the economic impact of Covid, government financial support to businesses should focus on remanufacturing and repair, which will generate new jobs and tackle structural unemployment. Does the Minister agree with that approach? What is he doing to deliver that investment, which, of course, will need to take place with other departments?

I certainly agree with that assessment, and the Government do too. Reusing and repairing products saves people money. Low-income households saved, we believe, £468 million in 2019 through reuse and repair. Widespread adoption and circular economy business models have the potential to add around £75 billion in gross value added to the UK economy, according to WRAP. It also believes that moving to a more circular economy, including recycling, could create around half a million jobs across all skill levels and regions in the UK. This is central to what we are attempting to achieve through our waste strategy and via the Environment Bill, which will facilitate the changes that are needed.

My Lords, electronic waste is an enormous problem, particularly given the speed at which we replace our devices. One of the main barriers to recycling is a concern about the security of those devices. Will the Minister give some urgent thought to how to support and extend initiatives to make devices secure and get them out to schools and other settings where they are badly needed?

UK law can already be used to set requirements in relation to electronic equipment: on durability, repairability and recyclability. BEIS has run a call for evidence, which will be completed in June. Following that, BEIS and Defra have commissioned research to prioritise energy-related products for future eco-design regulation. I cannot confirm whether that work covers the security aspect that the noble Baroness raised, but I will write to her on that specifically following this session.