Just before Christmas, the government published its strategy for waste and resources with extended producer responsibility (EPR) a cornerstone of public policy over the next few years.
From the foreword by Environment Minister, Michael Gove, it is clear that those involved in making or supplying products will be targeted:
“By making sure that manufacturers and producers bear a heavier financial burden for the pollution they cause, the Strategy fully upholds the ‘polluter pays’ principle. By introducing new incentives – regulatory and economic, along with better infrastructure and information, our measures help people do the right thing.”
The strategy specifically outlines that the government will release “consultations for two new EPR schemes by the end of Parliament”, indicating that we could see ideas for new laws - similar to those currently in place for packaging, WEEE, batteries and end-of-life vehicles - form over the next few years.
Construction industry spotlight
Having previously looked at some of the likely candidates for new policy, it is interesting to see recent scrutiny focus in on one sector I thought too mammoth and complicated for producer responsibility to tackle, namely construction and demolition waste.
A recent series of investigations into the impact of concrete exposed some of the issues with just one material, albeit at the heart of the sector. Arguments for using concrete are complicated and go well beyond the purely environmental into the social, economic and political. However, before laws were introduced for packaging, similar arguments were made in its defence that continue today.
Trying to influence the design community through regulation without stifling innovation and creativity is something that many legislators have wrangled with, as anyone tracking the EU’s ecodesign legislation will attest. If the UK wishes to make a transition to a more circular economy, it will need to make bold policy choices that rebalance the compromise in favour of environmental outcomes.
Moreover, if the policy conditions are correct they could allow new, innovative products, with greater environmental credentials, to scale-up and compete to be used in the construction of new buildings.
While the Construction Leadership Council have recognised the importance of reducing the industry’s impact by establishing the Green Construction Board, it appears that the government see some merit in regulation over voluntary arrangements. The recent hysteria about plastic has even led the Considerate Constructors Scheme to issue best practice guidance on plastic and packaging for the construction industry.
Addressing the estimated 50,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste generated each year is laudable, but it diverts attention away from much bigger waste management issues in the sector. The government have stated that it will “work with the construction industry in preparation for reviewing and consulting on EPR for certain construction materials”. It seems likely that cement-based products with specific waste management issues are likely to be those most in the government’s spotlight.
How could it work?
A proper functioning producer responsibility regime shouldn’t just ensure that revenues are funnelled into the resource management industry. It should incentivise the right material or product being used in the first place. While the language of the strategy is framed in terms of “incentives”, it may well be the “disincentives” that actually have the biggest impact.
Working with the waste management sector, government will need to get to grips with what types of demolition waste should be avoided at all costs (think asbestos!). However, there is a strong case for producer responsibility to solve more than just the issue of funding recycling. The prevalence of short-life buildings that are down-cycled into aggregate could be reduced if the government is bold enough to implement comprehensive producer responsibility.
Some thought will also need to be given to where the “point of compliance” should lie. Should a charge apply to the manufacturer, supplier or builder? Embedding the environmental cost at a stage where quantity surveyors, buyers and architects can see it seems sensible.
The design of new buildings, like other types of design, must be done to meet a price point. Producer responsibility could redress the economic imbalance between established building materials that have benefitted from years of development and economies of scale to meet a price point versus emergent virtuous materials that do not have the scale to compete.
Current context may be important
The government plans to build 250,000 homes by 2022, with housing charities calling for more to be done. However, given the statements in the strategy, it is unlikely that building will continue at any cost. Much has been done in recent years to improve the “use” of buildings, such as improving energy efficiency requirements. Now could be the time that the government looks more deeply into the full life-cycle of the building itself.
If you work in the construction and demolition sector and want to know how EPR could affect your business, please get in touch with our team.
Innovation and policy director
Robbie is innovation and policy director at Ecosurety. Having spent years building an intimate understanding of the industry’s policies and politics, he uses this knowledge to help shape new legislation and oversees Ecosurety’s growing portfolio of cross-industry innovation projects including Podback and the Flexible Plastic Fund. He has worked closely with Defra during the most recent packaging consultations, outlining the impacts and required transitional arrangements of the UK’s new EPR system and is a member of the government’s Advisory Committee on Packaging (ACP). He is also a spokesperson for the company and regularly uses his influence to communicate the importance of environmental responsibility to external stakeholders.