Saying one thing and doing another – UK oppose higher EU recycling targets despite talking tough on plastic

A leaked note from a closed-door meeting reveals the UK’s opposition to a newly agreed EU recycling target. But while it’s unclear whether the country will eventually accept the target, other member states are moving forward with the agreement, EU officials and NGOs say.

The UK government is opposing a new EU recycling target agreed by EU institutions and all member states last December, according to a note from a meeting among EU member states obtained by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The note, written by a government official from another member state, says: “The UK cannot support a binding [EU recycling] target of 65% for 2035.”

A spokesperson from the UK Department for Environment (Defra) later told Unearthed that “the government will make a decision on its vote following close scrutiny of the proposals, which are still provisional.”

EU institutions and member states, including the UK, agreed to increase the recycling of municipal waste in all member states to at least 65% by 2035.

The negotiations lasted eight months over which NGOs accused a minority of member states, including Denmark and Finland, of trying to sabotage any ambitious target behind closed doors.

The final agreement was already seen as a compromise, given that the European Parliament originally requested a 70% recycling target by 2030 while the current target is of 50% by 2020.

The new target will be scrutinised again by the European Parliament in the coming months before being formally adopted by all member states.

While questions remain over whether the UK will also eventually adopt the new target, EU institutions are expected to confirm the agreement – meaning that Westminster’s opposition is unlikely to have any chilling effect on other EU countries.

The adoption of the target is just a formality at this point, a diplomat from another member state and a member of the European Parliament told META speaking on condition of anonymity.

As Piotr Barczak put it,

other EU countries have already reached a rather underwhelming compromise on the new recycling target, so it is unlikely the UK will be able to water it down even further.”

But critics also pointed out that lowering the ambition on recycling rates in the UK is at odds with the government’s pledge to uphold high environmental standards in spite of Brexit. Barczak said:

“At this stage, the UK’s opposition can be seen as further proof that, despite Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ rhetoric, the country is in fact preparing to lower environmental standards.”

The European Commission estimated that a 70% recycling target, like proposed by the European Parliament, would trigger over 530,000 new jobs and €72 billion a year in savings across Europe by 2030.

Curiously enough, in an internal presentation seen by the EEB, the UK Department for Environment itself estimated that a recycling target of 65% could save almost £10 billion over a decade in waste sector, greenhouse gas and social costs.