It’s been called a potentially wasted opportunity but also a “red herring” for the recycling sector – so what impact would ‘Brexit’, Britain’s possible exit from the European Union, have on the recycling industry?
The arguments for and against Brexit are likely to become quite heated before the referendum itself arrives, and we are still very much in the ‘what if?’ stage; the decision to stay or leave is beyond the scope of this article.
But it’s worth considering the possible impact of Brexit on the recycling industry itself, and there seem to be two general scenarios expected by the people who have been most vocal on the issue so far.
Left to waste
On the one side, those in favour of Britain remaining in the EU are concerned that Brexit would lead to the abandonment of the EU’s strict targets on sustainability, climate change and the environment.
These have already seen significant strides forward on energy consumption, carbon emissions, and on recycling rates, and as one milestone is reached, a new one is usually close behind.
By 2030, EU member states could be looking at a legally binding target of 65% recycling of all household waste, up from the current target of 50% in 2020.
The UK’s recycling rate is currently around 45%, leading some to predict that Brexit would lead to less stringent targets being introduced for the next decade.
However, a Sky News poll of companies in the sector found that very few are expecting to cut jobs if the nation votes yes on Brexit – an indication that the concerns might be unfounded.
Right to recycling
The argument on the opposing side is that a vote for Brexit simply will not have an immediate negative effect on the nation’s recycling rates.
Much of our trade will still be with EU member states, so it would make sense for the UK to continue to comply with EU waste management legislation, to avoid losing their business.
Our own government probably would not want to introduce a raft of waste legislation that is substantially different from that already in place – although a certain level of divergence would be likely as time goes on.
But it’s worth remembering that the UK is an island, with limited landfill potential, existing recycling infrastructure and an eco-aware population and business sector.
Ultimately, we are already on the road towards greater recycling rates, and for many households and businesses, a vote for Brexit will not mean turning their backs on their environmental commitments.
Brexit and the road ahead
What happens next depends on which way the referendum vote goes – early signs showed the ‘remain’ campaign in the lead, but with gathering momentum among ‘leave’ supporters.
If the UK votes to remain an EU member state, then the concerns are moot, and the UK government will continue to be bound by continent-wide efforts to raise recycling rates and cut waste and emissions.
A vote for Brexit will not mean instant departure from the EU anyway, as a separation agreement must be negotiated between the UK and all other member states; even once this is finalised, it seems unlikely that anything would change overnight in terms of our approach to waste disposal, and to recycling in particular.