With the general election out of the way, the EU referendum is now high on the agenda with debate raging on either side relating to the pros and cons of continuing membership. So, jumping on the band wagon, I thought this could be a good time to look at this from a waste and resources perspective.
I started my career way back in 1990, working as a waste control inspector in the West Midlands. Essentially this equated to waste management regulation pre Environment Agency days. The Environmental Protection Act had just been introduced with a Duty of Care requirement placed upon all those who produce, manage, transport, treat or dispose of waste to make sure it was managed correctly with minimal risk to human health or the environment. All well and good but in practice there were horrendous acts of pollution occurring on a regular basis throughout business, from small through to large organisations.
Consequently, there were frequent toxic discharges into water courses that wiped out aquatic life in long stretches, leaching of hazardous waste into ground (and then into groundwater/water courses) and uncontrolled burning of waste materials, causing noxious gaseous emissions. For example, I was called out to an incident involving a battery recycling site which had dumped battery acid over their fence rather than pay for it to be taken away for treatment. This had been going on for years and the pH of the soil was zero. Needless to say, the whole area was devoid of plant life.
There were lots more equally awful examples of the complete disregard shown by (mainly) businesses in the four years I worked in that role. The most common excuse I heard was; ‘we’ve always worked in this way and we will go bust if we have to follow all these regulations’. The particular site incident mentioned above, managed to avoid prosecution through installing a onsite treatment plant for the waste acid – which may seem overly lenient through today’s lens but was considered a successful enforcement result at the time.
Roll on 20 odd years and these types of incidents are comparatively rare events. Improvements have been largely driven by European Directives that reinforce the fundamental premise of responsibility and accountability of those responsible for waste, including those who manufacture and distribute. This includes Extended Producer Responsibility for end of life vehicles, batteries, tyres, packaging, electrical and electronic equipment etc. Many of these products were routinely dumped in massive quantities throughout the UK. Tyre dumping was particularly problematic as they would usually catch fire at some point and cause significant damage locally, as well as the thick black smoke that could be seen for miles around. Fridge mountains became a common sight with the restrictions on disposal due to the foam containing CFCs and hence no longer having such great scrap value.
It is a testament to how much things have improved that this wild west of waste seems a world away from how most UK businesses act today in terms of waste management. Maybe we would have got to this point anyway through national legislation, but I am confident the rate of improvement would have been much slower without the EU juggernaut driving forward harmonisation of best practice from the likes of Netherlands and Germany across the whole of the EU. Many recent EU member states are currently going through an extremely accelerated improvement process, from almost zero waste enforcement to high levels of resource efficiency.
I’ve visited less advanced waste economies recently, such as Brazil, which are in denial about the need to enforce Duty of Care to make sure it actually happens. It’s a world we definitely don’t want to go back to; and with the associated local nuisances of smell, air pollution and pests, I don’t think it could become acceptable again in the UK.
So, what are the cons? There are some, though massively outweighed by the benefits in my opinion. The main problem is the requirement to have inherently restrictive legislation to avoid loopholes being created that would be inevitably exploited if it made/saved money. As a result, the legislation can become a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Inflexibility and complexity often results, and this can have detrimental effect for those who are at the cutting edge of innovation and development of new practices to improve resource use.
Ideally, as waste is redefined as valuable resource, the social norm will act as self-regulation and the EU regulation machine can slow down production. Focus can then be shifted to more proactive work, such as development of the EU Circular Economy Strategy due in late in 2015.