Staff cuts force agency to suspend waste advice service

The Environment Agency has suspended a service that advised businesses on whether they could create new products out of their waste. The waste industry is concerned the move will damage the drive towards a circular economy. 

Companies that want to turn waste materials into a new product, for example, a playground surface from waste tyres, have to meet EU End of Waste Regulations. The legislation requires firms to submit evidence to the agency that the material does not need to be treated as waste. Scrap iron, steel, aluminium, copper and glass come under the regulation.

The Definition of Waste (DoW) panel consisted of up to eight agency experts who helped businesses with this process. However, the environmentalist understands that staff losses following budget cuts has left the team with only one or two members, forcing the agency to suspend the service. The staffing situation is not expected to improve in the short term, a source said. 

The agency plans to review the closure in November, according to an update on the website. Businesses can still use the EU-funded online self-assessment tool, which was introduced in 2014. 

Roy Hathaway, policy adviser at waste trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said: ‘If you’re a responsible company and you’re talking about multi-million pound investments, the prudent thing to do once you’ve been through the online tool is to submit that to the agency.’ The panel considers submissions and determines whether the company’s assessment is correct or not, he explained. 

Hathaway described the suspension of the panel, which has happened at very short notice and without consultation, as ‘really bad news’. 

‘They’ve downsized the agency, a lot of people left at the end of September. If they’re short of staff now, I’m not quite sure how they’d be in a position to recommence the panel next month,’ he said.

‘ESA members who have invested time and money in novel waste recovery techniques and need an end of waste determination now face two choices. They can sit on their hands until the agency reboots the panel, or they can risk money and [their] reputations going ahead on the assumption that the agency would have given them end of waste status.’ 

Technically, responsibility for determining if a material is waste or not lies with the firm producing it, he explained. ‘But a big company making big investments would rather have confirmation by the agency that the material is not deemed by them to be waste. That’s why the panel existed. They could be open to prosecution for moving waste around without the right permits and licences if they had wrongly deemed it a product,’ he said. 

Companies who are not trying to do the right thing will see that the agency is not policing end of waste assessments, which could encourage waste crime, he said.

Laura Grant, policy advisor at the Chartered Institution for Waste and Environmental Management (CIWEM), said it was worried how decisions on end of waste will be made in the future without the panel’s expertise. 

‘This is such an important aspect of the drive towards a circular economy. Given the agency’s prior effort on end of waste, we hope that the panel will be re-established as a priority and not sidelined as a result of budget cuts,’ she said.  

Finella Elliott, climate and environment policy advisor at manufacturing trade body EEF said that the panel’s closure highlights the uncertainty manufacturers face with defining if their waste materials can be reused in products. 

‘This places UK companies at a competitive disadvantages to the US, especially for reprocessed scrap metals, as it makes the trading of these materials much harder – and in turn inhibits resource efficiency and productivity,’ she said. 

A spokesperson for the agency said: 'The Definition of Waste panel is closed to all new end of waste and by-product submissions for three months. This closure provides an opportunity to review the service and look at how to best meet the needs of our customers in the future. We will review the situation in mid-November.

'We want to encourage all businesses affected to read our guidance and use the IsItWaste self-assessment tool.'

This article was updated on 6 October with a comment from the Environment Agency.

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