No-deal Brexit could force increase in landfill waste
Concerns have arisen that a no-deal Brexit could see more waste sent to landfill in the UK due to the impact on waste exports to EU-based facilities.
The prospect of millions more tonnes of waste remaining on UK shores will rack up costs for local councils and cause environmental harm according to experts.
Three million tonnes of UK domestic waste is exported to the EU annually to be recycled or converted into fuel.
The trade body of the UK waste industry has warned that a disorderly Brexit could see tonnes of this waste from the South East sent to landfill in northern England instead.
The Environment Agency has tasked firms with finding a solution and has begun working with experts to assess the capacity of landfill sites to take on extra waste that would have been sent to export.
It also expects waste exporters to contingency plan for any disruption to ensure that environmental standards continue to be met.
A spokesperson said: "We are encouraging businesses who export waste to consider and continue to plan alternative options in case of disruption at borders.
"Even in a no deal situation, we will continue to expect all waste operators to adhere to the conditions of their permits and will not hesitate to take appropriate action otherwise”.
Given the potential of waste to be converted into fuel, World Trade Organisation terms are unclear as to whether trading waste with the EU would be tariffed, based on its possible definitions as importing a service, waste processing, or exporting goods.
Industry experts Suez believe that any blockages to waste export will see the UK miss its waste management targets and that in the short-term, it will be difficult to find a viable alternative to diverting waste to landfill.
Its technical development director, Stuart Hayward-Higham, said: “In the various impacts we've looked at, as a result of a no-deal Brexit, we do know that there'll be some lowering of those environmental performance indicators that we are all trying to strive to achieve.
"One of the outcomes of a no-deal Brexit will mean that we will put more to landfill”.
The government has made a commitment to respect the EU’s "Circular Economy Package" after Brexit, which states that a limit of ten per cent of household waste is to go to landfill by 2035.
Existing levels see 20 per cent of household waste going to such sites.
Internal documents detailing the preparation local councils are undertaking for a no-deal Brexit suggest there are local concerns about waste build-up, with numerous councils rating its potential for disruption as medium or high risk in their Brexit contingency planning.
In a document compiled ahead of the previous Brexit deadline of March, Southampton City Council outlined that port disruption could “result in recycling banks and waste transfer stations becoming full and potentially closing”.
This could see recyclables forced to be redirected to landfill en masse in the absence of a more viable long-term solution.
Sending household waste to Europe for processing could be physically prevented or delayed by port congestion as a result of a disorderly Brexit, with some councils having already stockpiled bin bags and wheelie bins as part of contingency planning.
Other worries include the impact on congestion in local areas.
Jacob Hayler, head of the Environmental Services Association, told the BBC that the councils’ worries were mainly worst case scenario issues and highlighted the government’s good work in keeping waste exports intact in the first instance.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs successfully negotiated the continuation of waste trade with individual regulators in EU states.
However, Hayler did emphasise that in the event of delays to exports, waste couldn’t be left “piling up at the docks”.
In the absence of a longer-term sustainable solution, Hayler believes landfill is the best option, with sites in the north of the country having to shoulder the responsibility due to a lack of capacity further south.
Hayler explained: ”It [the waste] would have to start being trucked from the ports up to those landfill spaces further up north and stuck in a hole in the ground. And that's something that we would really like to avoid”.