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Waste and recycling legislation

The majority of waste legislation derives from the European Union, which is implemented in the UK largely though statutory instruments. Within the UK many aspects of EU waste legislation and policy implementation are devolved. For example, each of the four devolved nations has the ability to manage its own municipal waste and set its own recycling targets. Some aspects of waste management policy are managed at a UK level, but in close cooperation with the devolved administrations – for example, the UK Government leads on tax measures to encourage recycling.

Recycling targets

The UK is currently required to meet an existing EU target of recycling a minimum of 50% (by weight) of its household waste by 2020. Recycling rates have increased markedly since 2000 but concerns have been raised in recent years that household recycling rates have started to plateau.

Wales is the only nation within the UK to have already met the 50% requirement, reporting a household recycling rate of 64% in 2016/17. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have household recycling rates between 44-46%. In 2016, the UK as a whole reported a household recycling rate of 44.6%.

Defra’s policy for England is an ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. A new resources and waste strategy, expected later in 2018, will set further policy in this area. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also have zero waste policies, but each has diverged in terms of specific targets and approaches. Wales is the only administration in the UK to have introduced statutory targets for municipal waste recycling which must be met by local authorities.

EU Circular Economy Package

An EU Circular Economy Package was formally agreed by the European Council on 22 May 2018. The package includes sets a recycling target for municipal waste of 65% by 2035. By 2035 the amount of municipal waste landfilled must be reduced to 10% or less of the total amount of municipal waste generated. There are also new recycling targets for specific types of packaging waste.

“Action on Plastics” was identified as a priority in the 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan. Following on from this a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted by the European Commission on 16 January, 2018, which sets an ambition that “all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted.”

The implications of this package for the UK will depend on the speed at which the strategy progresses through the European institutions and the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. The UK Government also has its own non-EU related polices for reducing plastics consumption.

Barriers to recycling

A number of barriers to increasing the recycling rate have been identified, including:

  • Losing value in households: in 2015 only 42% of England’s household waste was segregated at source as recyclables, which was significantly lower than levels achieved in the best performing European countries.
  • Poor material capture: local authorities only provide a limited proportion of households with collection systems for the major recyclables.
  • Housing mix and multi-occupancy dwellings: recycling rates are falling in areas where there is an increase in multi-occupancy dwellings. Rates also tend to be lower where there are challenges with social deprivation, urban classifications, education, language and residential stability.
  • Weaker policy levers: high performers in the EU use stronger incentives such as ‘pay-as-you-throw’ schemes where householders are charged for having non-recyclable waste collected; and landfill/incineration restrictions for some materials.

In order to help increase household recycling rates, in September 2016, WRAP published a voluntary framework for greater consistency in household recycling and the first National Recycling Guidelines were published by WRAP in October 2016.


Most commentators agree that EU law has been instrumental in increasing recycling rates in the UK. Until a final Brexit agreement is reached with the EU, much of what will happen to the waste management regime following Brexit is the subject of speculation. The Government has stated that it remains “committed to making the most of our resources, to reducing waste and to increasing reuse and recycling.” Some stakeholders see Brexit as an opportunity to rethink how recycling targets could be reimagined.

While the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will copy across waste and recycling targets, the role that EU institutions play in monitoring and enforcing these targets will be lost. There has been considerable debate over the loss of the role of EU institutions in monitoring and enforcing environmental law following Brexit and over the future of EU environmental principles. In response to concerns raised, the Government held a consultation on environmental principles and governance from May-August 2018. It proposed the creation of a new statutory independent environmental watchdog to hold government to account on its environmental obligations; and options for establishing environmental principles in the UK. A draft Environmental Principles and Governance Bill is due to be published by the end of the year to begin the legal process of putting this in place.

A Library briefing paper, Brexit and the Environment, provides more context and further information about these issues in relation to waste and the environment more generally .

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