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Recycling reforms stalled by Government’s lack of clarity as delays sap momentum on waste ambitions

1 December 2023

  • Uncertainty is stopping businesses and local authorities from preparing for the required changes 
  • Real risk of insufficient facilities to deal with increased volumes of recycling due to reforms, meaning more plastic will be sent to landfill than before

Government ambitions to reduce environmental and economic costs of waste are under threat due to a lack of clarity and delays. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) expresses concerns about a lack of certainty in the Government’s delayed collections and packaging reforms programme and its long-term waste planning. The report warns that without clarification, a resulting lack of investment will stop the Government reaching its ambitions for reducing the environmental and economic costs of waste.  


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) waste reforms are reliant on businesses and consumers changing their behaviour by producing less and recycling more. Despite this, the PAC’s report finds businesses and local authorities are unable to prepare for the required changes due to a lack of clarity on what form the reforms will take and the impact on council funding.  


Without clarification, local councils cannot invest and improve their recycling services and must delay procurement. The PAC warns that there is a real risk this would result in insufficient facilities to deal with the increased volumes of recycling coming from the reforms, meaning that more plastics will be incinerated, taken to landfill, or exported to other countries than before.  


The report also finds that Defra needs to provide similar clarity to support its longer-term waste policies. It has yet to set out how the waste system as a whole needs to change, including the waste infrastructure capacity it expects will be needed for England to meet its ambitions. Without the certainty of a long-term infrastructure plan, private sector companies lack the confidence to invest in new recycling facilities, compounding the issue of plastic waste.  


The report calls for clarification about the requirements for the programme’s waste infrastructure. Without the published requirements, timeline for implementation and funding confirmation, businesses and councils cannot use this time to make the necessary investments in their services. While simpler recycling is expected to increase recycling rates to 52% - 60% by 2035, the PAC warns that without successful contributions from other projects, Defra will not reach its 2035 target to recycle 65% of all municipal waste.  


Defra has suggested that the delayed implementation of the first step of the reforms programme to 2025 is partially to allow councils time to prepare - but two years on from the closure of Defra’s consultation on simpler recycling, no requirements have been published. Weaknesses in Defra’s set up of the programme contributed to these delays, including running the programme as three separate projects and poor programme management capability and capacity. 


Chair's comment


Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee said:


“Changing how we deal with waste is crucial to save the environment from further damage and meet the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050.  To meet its targets, it’s vital that the Government encourages a circular economy where products can be used again or for longer. Without a clearly communicated vision from Government on how these crucial reforms will actually work in practice, it's unlikely that these targets are reachable.  


Our inquiry has found that the reforms were beset with problems from the initial set up, with the Department lacking a clear plan on how to make their ambitions to reduce the environmental and economic costs of municipal waste feasible. Delays to the programme mean that businesses and consumers can’t prepare for the upcoming changes, which could mean that even more plastic is sent to landfill in the long term. With businesses and local authorities crying out for information, the Government needs to provide certainty as soon as possible to make sure the necessary investments and procurement can take place."

Further information

Image: CCO