Waste management is everyone’s responsibility

The Scottish Government sets a good example, says Laura Tainsh

The Scottish Government sets a good example, says Laura Tainsh

It might not be a subject that interests everyone, but what better time to talk waste management than at the end of the festive season when we have all produced our fair share of waste? For those of us involved in the waste management sector professionally, there has been a growing awareness of differing policy across UK borders, with the Scottish Government seemingly determined to set an example, introducing waste policies for others to follow.

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These policy developments and resulting regulations seek to address some of the problems in the industry, including waste crime and the poor quality of recyclates – but this approach is also impacting on the sector and wider business community.

Carrier bag charges, for example, initially introduced in 2011 in Wales, 2013 in Northern Ireland and rolled out last year in Scotland have resulted in an 80 per cent reduction in the use of mainly plastic bags. Retailers have reported the 5p charge has had a positive impact on both their businesses and customers. The success of the initiative will have eased the way for its introduction in England last October.

Also last October, Scotland put in place a stricter code of practice governing the sampling and reporting on materials recovery facilities when compared to the one introduced in England and Wales in 2014. The legislation introduced a requirement on operators receiving more than 1,000 tonnes of dry recyclate to report on the quality of materials being processed. Whereas SEPA has taken a proactive, forceful approach to compliance, according to UK recycling body WRAP there has been a fairly slow take-up by operators south of the Border, creating a variation in terms of the impact on businesses and local authorities which produce and dispose of recyclable materials.

Meanwhile, new enforcement measures are designed to bridge the compliance gap between the use of warnings or statutory notices at the lower end of the scale and referral by SEPA of serious matters for criminal prosecution. A Scottish consultation ended last October and, while results are yet to be published, a range of more flexible options, including the imposition of fixed and variable fines, are being proposed to allow SEPA to take more proportionate action at an earlier stage. The intention is to encourage behavioural change among those carrying out regulated activities. The impact on businesses is not yet clear and will depend on the approach taken by SEPA in using their new enforcement tools. It is possible that minor breaches, such as an outdated permit due for review, could result in a fine, which wasn’t previously the case.

Unlike the intention behind the changes in Scotland, the enforcement policy being introduced in early 2016 in England and Wales seems more focused on tackling waste crime and continuously poor performing operators rather than creating a level playing field for businesses. It’s premature to say what the overall impact on business will be but the industry view is that there is more to come in terms of financial provision to ensure adequate resources are in place for all permitted sites for ultimate clean-up or decommissioning requirements. It certainly will require businesses to respond to significant changes around compliance.

Recent developments suggest there could be a move towards a more harmonised policy in dealing with waste and resource management. However, for the time being there are still notable differences between Scotland and its UK neighbours. For most businesses that operate cross-border, this currently means extra time and expense to manage and ensure compliance with environmental regulation in all jurisdictions. On the basis that there is national recognition of the main issues plaguing those who deal with waste and resource management operations, a more joined-up approach from policy-makers and regulators alike would ultimately benefit business.

• Laura Tainsh is a partner at Davidson Chalmers LLP