Brexit: The implications on waste and the circular economy

Last week, we gave attendees of September’s North West Sustainable Business Quarterly in Manchester, UK, the opportunity to build-their-own Brexit event; an interactive event where we tailored what we delivered to what you wanted to hear!

Massive thanks to Andrew S Davies from global law firm DLA Piper for kicking off the evening with an introduction to the environmental policy landscape – an unenviable task in such an uncertain political climate, and one which he delivered admirably! And while it was ‘Air quality, climate and energy’ which was then voted for as the “must hear” legislation area, round table discussions proved the perfect opportunity for us to also delve deeper into the runner-up policy areas too: waste and circular economy, chemical regulation, and water.

You can view Andrew’s presentation slides from the evening here.

In honor of Recycle Week 2016, we have summarized the main opinions and ideas arising from the event in relation to waste and the circular economy (CE). Our resource and waste management sector expert Peter Scholes led this discussion; Pete has worked in the sector for 15 years across areas such as waste infrastructure due diligence for investors, needs assessment for waste planning authorities, and all aspects of collecting and applying waste data.

What’s the situation?

The waste sector has been driven by EU legislation for the past two decades. And with the launch of the EU’s Circular Economy Package in 2015, it is a crucial time for progress – putting the focus on supply chains, life cycle of materials, and using CE ideas to deliver economic, environmental and social benefits.

So, as Britain prepares for exit, we use Pete’s insights, and the opinions debated during the evening’s round table discussion, to take a look at some of the main Brexit risks, opportunities and recommendations for waste and the CE.

What are the risks presented through Brexit?

  • Weakened legislation – a widely-acknowledged concern both pre and post 23 June, it is possible that we may see the waste and resources sector lose the current focus it has adopted through the EU’s influence.
  • Loss of CE collaboration opportunities – when we Brexit, it was felt we may be excluded from the families of organizations and research institutions which currently work together to develop technology and innovation in the sector. For example, initiatives such as the Scottish Government’s recently-announced £70m investment in CE ideas could be at risk, as half of the financing for it comes from the EU.
  • Reduced/delayed investment from international investors – the waste and CE sector is one which depends on the development of new infrastructure. As there is significant uncertainty about how the UK Government will adopt environmental legislation, international investors are being cautious of new UK projects.

What are the opportunities presented through Brexit?

While the risks are significant, the evening’s round table participants saw the constructive value in focusing mainly on looking for the potentially positive opportunities presented by Brexit for waste and the CE:

  • Encouraged innovation in the waste and CE sector – a Brexit is a chance to distinguish the UK as leaders in CE thinking, such as by building on the Scottish Government’s current appetite.
  • Increased support for UK manufacturing – being part of the EU has enabled the UK to develop world-leading technologies, skills and experience in waste and CE innovation. This is eminently marketable to markets around the world, whether we are still a part of the EU or not.
  • Increased opportunities for more localized funding opportunities – focused on the unique needs of the UK.
  • A chance to build on the success of the UK’s Landfill Tax – a highly effective UK initiative in delivering results. Brexit could be a chance for us to develop similar thinking across a spectrum of environmental areas.
  • A chance for UK businesses to help decide what happens next ­­– we can help the UK Government and global businesses alike to understand and take advantage of CE ideas.
  • We can use our own criteria to define ‘waste’, rather than the EU definitions – enabling new technologies to come into the marketplace.
  • Increased freedom for UK businesses to innovate and boost the economy –­ by way of explanation, it was discussed that current UK austerity naturally coincides with the government’s focus on immediate issues and a reduction in environmental investment. If the UK is able to boost the economy through Brexit, this may feed back revenue into the treasury and enable more money to be spent of the environment in due course.

What’s the advice?

To the policymakers, Pete’s advice, as an absolute minimum for the UK, is to keep the current product design and waste management legislation we have. He also felt that the Government should give more support to the secondary commodity market sector – currently under pressure and needing support to help companies produce the valuable, high quality secondary materials that can feed back into manufacturing. And Pete outlined that it’s also incredibly important to help companies do business in markets around the world where there is real demand for UK expertise and technology, an area where there is an important role for the Government department for UK Trade and Investment.

To businesses, the advice is to continue to grow your focus on CE ideas and skill set development – the more UK business does to adopt these ways of working can only strengthen our position in markets globally and attune us to requirements of customers, and the finite nature of the world’s resources.

Do you agree that with big change comes big opportunity? We’d love to hear your thoughts and if these opinions and discussion points match your own. Please drop Pete, who led the evening’s discussion, a line at

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