UK reverses opposition to tough EU recycling targets | Environment

The UK has reversed its opposition to tough EU recycling targets and will now back a goal of recycling two-thirds of urban waste by 2035, the Guardian has learned. The nation’s recycling rate has stalled and it is set to miss its current target of 50% by 2020.

The prime minister, Theresa May, and environment secretary, Michael Gove, have both made high-profile pledges to act on the plastic pollution that is devastating the oceans and littering the land, which May called “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”.

But in January, the Guardian and Greenpeace’s Unearthed unit revealed that despite a pledge to develop “ambitious new future targets and milestones”, behind the scenes the UK government was opposing strong new EU recycling targets.

Now ministers say they will support the targets, which are part of the EU’s circular economy package and are likely to be voted on in late April. The measures will also require that waste going to landfill is cut to 10% by 2035 – the current UK rate is 23%.

“I want the UK to lead the way in driving global resource efficiency and that’s why, as well as backing the EU’s circular economy package, we have committed to publishing a new resources and waste strategy in 2018,” said environment minister Thérèse Coffey.

“As we leave the EU we’ll be able to explore how we go even further to help achieve our aim of leaving our environment in a better state than we inherited it,” she said. The move came as Gove announced a deposit return scheme for all drinks containers, aimed at cleaning up the 7bn bottles that are not recycled each year in the UK.

“We’re really happy to see the UK government has listened to reason and is now backing ambitious recycling targets across the EU,” said Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace. “If Britain wants to stop ‘offshoring its dirt’, as Michael Gove put it, we absolutely need to get better at recycling as a nation, starting with plastic. If we’re serious about leaving a healthier environment to our grandchildren, the three Rs – reducing, reusing, recycling – will need to replace the two Bs, burning and burying, and fast.”

The government’s move is good news, according to Colin Church, chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management: “It supports the ambitious rhetoric of the government with some welcome legislative action.”

The EU package will set binding targets for household waste of 55% by 2025, 60% by 2030 and 65% by 2035. It also includes a more ambitious recycling target specifically for packaging, of 65% by 2025 and 70% by 2030.

The UK’s own environment officials had estimated that meeting ambitious recycling targets would bring benefits totalling billions of pounds in avoided waste sector, greenhouse gas and social costs.

The UK’s original opposition to the EU targets was in part due to concerns that recycling targets based on weight, and not environmental impact or value, might lead to perverse outcomes such as heavy garden waste being prioritised over plastic.

UK officials said the EU directive targets will be transferred into UK law if passed before the UK leaves the bloc. The UK government will then explore even more ambitious targets, they said. The decision by China to stop taking foreign waste is another reason for improving waste disposal.

Church said: “There may be aspects of the EU package that the UK resources and waste sector feel could be improved upon but this [directive] will shape EU policy for the foreseeable future. It is important, therefore, that the UK remains aligned with the overall ambition and direction of travel of our most important market.”