Environmental Regulation in a Post-Brexit World

Good news for UK foodservice: radical change is unlikely and the sector should be able to keep working to cut waste. By Mark Hilton and Dominic Hogg.

The environment wasn’t exactly prominent in the EU referendum debate – despite environmental professionals’ concerns that, given the EU’s role in setting standards, Brexit could prove regressive.

The form and implications of Brexit remain unclear. If the UK prioritises access to the single market, compliance with relevant directives will still probably be required; if not, the UK could shape its own rules. How far might foodservice businesses need to be affected?

Food has significant environmental impacts: according to WRAP, the UK generates about 10m tonnes of food waste a year, associated with 20m tonnes of CO2e emissions (60% of which is avoidable). The waste is valued at £17 billion a year – in a country supposedly in the grip of austerity. Yet the foodservice sector isn’t especially heavily regulated in environmental terms; much of the relevant regulation also applies to other sectors.

Some legislation that directly affects foodservice isn’t EU-inspired. The Waste (Scotland) Regulations, for example, ban the use of macerators for food waste disposal and require Scottish food businesses (at least, non-rural ones that produce more than 5kg of food waste per week) to separate food waste for collection. Northern Ireland has implemented a similar measure, while Wales is expected soon to follow suit. Eunomia research for the Renewable Energy Association shows that mandatory separation of commercial food waste is likely to save businesses money, which experience in Scotland appears to bear out.

Brexit could prevent the recently published EU Circular Economy Package from reaching these shores. It proposes an aspirational target to halve food waste by 2030, in line with the UN target. Scotland already has a self-imposed target to cut food waste by 33% by 2025. For food businesses, reducing waste is commercial good sense: a focus on food waste prevention almost always reduces operating costs. Research for WRAP shows that savings often exceed 15%, while reductions of up to 40% can be achieved in settings such as buffet services.

Other regulations affecting the foodservice sector do stem from the EU. The Animal By-Products Regulations limit how food waste from catering can be dealt with – for example, used as animal feed or not – so as to prevent the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth. Although framed in EU regulations, it was strongly shaped by UK concerns. Clarifying the rules on using catering waste as animal feed is high on the EU agenda, in part due to the loss in resource efficiency from preventing this unnecessarily. After Brexit, the UK could move faster; but with the last foot and mouth outbreak still fresh in mind, the political will may be lacking.

The Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulations require businesses over certain thresholds to report how much packaging they handle, and to contribute towards its recycling by purchasing packaging recovery notes. The rules implement an EU directive, although their complexity is largely of our own making. Whatever form Brexit takes, DEFRA’s review could simplify matters while also offering incentives to reduce the use of packaging that is difficult to recycle.

Various carrier bag charges now apply across the UK, with the devolved administrations again leading the way; the EU subsequently set targets to reduce single-use plastic bags. Charges have proved successful in encouraging reuse and reducing litter (as evidenced by DEFRA’s recent announcement). Indeed, there are good arguments for similar levies on other single-use items, such as coffee cups and disposable cutlery.

Brexit, whatever its form, is therefore unlikely to trigger radical change in environmental legislation – although reviews could improve its effectiveness and efficiency. Recently, interesting changes have been driven as much by common sense and corporate responsibility as by regulation. The decision in France to require supermarkets to donate food that would otherwise be wasted to charities has captured the imagination. In the UK, more businesses are signing up to FareShare, Plan Zheroes and similar organisations.

There were, and are, choices to be made. Before the referendum, parts of the UK were already pursuing more progressive agendas. Their continuing leadership, alongside WRAP in England progressing initiatives such as Courtauld 2025, could allow the UK to continue to drive down waste post-Brexit, helping foodservice businesses to save money while reducing environmental effects.

Mark Hilton is resource efficiency lead and Dominic Hogg is founder and chairman of consultancy firm Eunomia.

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