In a nutshell, nobody actually knows what the consequences will be for the UK when (or indeed IF) the government invokes Article 50 of the EU Treaty, both in terms of recycling laws or indeed any other laws. These are uncharted waters and the only thing that can be said for certain is that there will be uncertainty – a great deal of uncertainty.
With environmental issues not having featured highly on the referendums campaign manifesto, it is likely that they will not be high on the government’s list as they navigate the UK out of the EU in what is predicted to be a lengthy process.
In the short term
In the short-term waste management businesses should expect no changes to take place in respect of recycling laws in the UK, and they should carry on exactly as they do now. Existing waste management laws will still apply and contracts that are in place will still need to be fulfilled. It should be remembered that with many of the environmental laws in the UK implementing international treaties and agreements we would still be bound by them – the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movements of Waste being the most obvious of these.
Long term scenario 1
If the UK come to an agreement with the EU that gives full access to the single market, then it is highly likely that EU environmental laws will still apply. This includes all laws that pertain to waste management as well. As a non-EU member however we would no longer have influence over the creation of new laws, as these are decisions that only EU members can vote on. Certain environmental laws could cease to apply in which case the government would need to make a decision on laws and policies in those areas, the Birds and Habitats Directives, amongst others.
Long term scenario 2
With environmental issues often pushed aside it is possible that the UK could negotiate a withdrawal agreement that does not include the need to continue to apply EU environmental laws here. The government might decide to continue with current waste management laws as they stand, because keeping them regulated makes sense. However, lowering the standards would give greater freedom to rogue operators.
Long term scenario 3
A third possible scenario is that in the event the UK does not have to apply EU laws, the government will be able to develop their own waste management laws and policies. The major stumbling point with such a scenario would be if some parts of the UK choose to create more stringent laws whilst others are laxer and choose to get rid of environmental laws and policies especially if they consider them a barrier to economic growth This would of course take into account any current laws and policies that implement international treaties and agreements.
Whilst we can speculate about what the possible outcome might be in terms of recycling laws nobody knows what the future holds, and with a leadership election currently taking place within the ruling party, it will be a while before anyone is in a position to push the metaphorical button that begins the whole Article 50 process. The UK waste industry, just like other UK industries, will just have to wait and see what happens.