When is waste not waste?

The general election campaign saw environmental issues high up the political agenda and that can only be a good thing, says Matthew Farrow.

Of all the 500 or so EU directives and regulations covering environmental policy, the one that has probably caused more arguments, controversy and frustration than any other is the EU definition of waste. A while ago I came across a councillor who had been elected as an independent but became so enraged by the bureaucracy (as they saw it) forced on the council by this single piece of regulation that they switched to UKIP as a result.

The offending regulation is Article 3(1) of the revised waste framework directive. This defines waste as “any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard”.  Anyone like me who has spent years involved in waste and resources policy will have the names of the court cases fought over what these words mean in practice etched on their memory – the Tarmac case, (whether material Tarmac were using to restore a quarry near Leeds to comply with a planning conditions was legally waste material or not), the Van Der Walle case  (whether soil contaminated with leaking petrol underneath a Texaco petrol station in Brussels was legally waste) and others.

The reason this bit of EU law arouses such strong views is because if material is legally waste then it automatically attracts a vast raft of regulations aimed at protecting the public and environment from harmful effects of waste material.  So if you were one of the people who used to take the used coffee grinds sometimes given away by coffee shops to use as plant fertiliser on your garden you were technically breaking the law – because the grinds had been ‘discarded’ by the coffee shop they were legally waste which can only be transported by someone which a waste carrier license and an Environment Agency permit.

In commercial business terms, the unintended consequences like this tend to manifest themselves in industrial firms with a process by-product that has industrial value to another manufacturer but can only be transported by a waste management company, which usually leads to landfilling the material instead. In the construction sector, huge quantities of excavated earth are sent to landfill even if not contaminated for similar reasons (though there is a scheme called DoWCoP that EIC helped create that tries to avoid this with the Environment Agency’s blessing).

In fairness to the EU, there is some logic to its approach. You only have to see the piles of used tyres littered around verges and fields to see the need for some control over the habit of the unscrupulous to ‘discard’ things straight into someone else’s environment.  But we have had quite a few discussions recently in the EIC’s waste and resources working group about the need to move to a more ‘circular economy’ and the scale of the opportunity to see waste as a resource and free up reuse markets.

All of which means that this is one area where Brexit, if and when it happens, could bring benefits. There is a sense in business that Defra and the Environment Agency post-Brexit would be willing to look at a more pragmatic approach to legal definitions around waste. Let’s hope so.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms.