One of the central arguments for people campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union is that outside the EU, Britain can makes its own decisions and thrive without laws being dictated from Brussels.
While the debate is playing out between high-profile figures (we’ve even seen president Barack Obama wade in), it’s the micro-level issues that cause the biggest furore. Take, for example, the British obsession with the bendiness of bananas (a subject on which Brussels apparently has a lot to say, but not as much as people think) or whether or not eggs can be sold by the dozen.
So what would Brexit mean for that most mundane, but most important, of household items – your bin? Would leaving cause rubbish to pile up on the street or would Britain be liberated from rubbish EU regulation on waste?
The role of the EU
For the average Brexiter, the EU’s long-term interest in what we throw away probably sounds as interfering as a ban on busty barmaids. It conjures up images of refuse collection trucks manned by Brussels bureaucrats, measuring the size and dimensions of your organic waste output.
It is true that the EU plays a major part in your rubbish – but not quite to this extent. In 1975, it introduced a waste hierarchy, a prioritisation of various activities – prevention, reuse, recycling, energy recovery, disposal – that has shaped the thinking behind the management of waste.
And indeed, the UK’s waste management legislation is mostly based on EU law – in particular the Landfill Directive and the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Allowance Trading Directive. But directives only state an overall objective. How member states did that was up to them – hardly a loss of sovereignty.
The Landfill Directive introduced mandatory targets for all member states to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste. Each country had to produce a national strategy on how it would meet these goals. The UK’s included its own recycling targets for local authorities. The national government could face a fine if it were to fail to meets its EU targets. It would probably pass the cost of any fine onto local authorities, who are responsible for making sure our rubbish is collected, recycled, incinerated or thrown away. That, in turn, would affect local spending on other services, such as schools and libraries.
But why do we even need an EU-wide approach for dealing with waste? Surely we just sort our rubbish into the right bin and it is taken away. The UK exports tonnes of recyclable metals, paper and plastic and refuse-derived fuel. More than £750,000 of it goes to other EU countries. That will become more expensive with tariff barriers.
So there is a financial and political incentive for the UK to make sure it meets waste reduction targets. The good news is that, so far, it has.
Stay or go?
Meeting EU targets has not been easy. But it has pushed the UK to come up with radical policies. For example, in 1996, the Conservative government brought in a landfill tax – a per-tonne levy on the people or businesses who run landfill sites. This was a significant and ambitious development – the first environmental tax to be introduced in the UK. It stands in stark contrast to the current government’s view on green taxes.
In 2003, the Labour government made it compulsory for local councils to provide a household collection for recyclable waste. It also introduced a landfill allowance trading system. Each local council had a limit on how much waste it could send to landfill and could buy or sell allowances as required. And in 2008, the UK became the first country to have mandatory carbon budgets and gave local councils the power to charge for household rubbish collections so that they could pay incentives for recycling.
In many ways, you could argue that being part of the EU pushes the UK to be the best version of itself as a nation of recyclers. The UK opposes a common EU recycling rate target of 65%. That said, even with the EU watching, many member states are struggling to meet existing targets.
If the UK left the EU, it would no longer be bound by the mandatory targets in the Landfill Directive. And there are signs that it would move away from pressing for tough targets.
Between 2000 and 2010, the recycling rate increased from 11% to 43%, but has since started to level off. There is real concern that the UK won’t meet the 2020 and 2030 targets – even with the EU watching.
The UK government has already said that it plans to be less involved in particular areas of waste policy, because it sees businesses and households as more able to take the lead. It also wants local councils to be more self-financing, which means relying more on council tax and partnerships. Without EU leadership, it would be up to the industry and local councils to make sure waste is collected and to encourage recycling.
The inverse of this argument is that without the UK government’s involvement, councils and waste management companies may be more motivated by the market to come up with more innovative recycling collection.
Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus that leaving the EU will not be good for the sector.
Brexit won’t see your bin collection disappear – it’s been around since the 18th century. But there is a chance that you might have to pay more for your bendy banana skins to be picked up if the UK does leave the EU.