Household recycling rates in England have stalled since 2011-121. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) still lacks effective long-term plans to reduce waste which contributes to climate change, a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) says.

In December 2018 the government published Our Waste, Our Resources: A strategy for England2. These plans sought to cut costs and environmental damage by establishing a circular economy where products are used again or for longer. The strategy was the most significant statement from government on plans to improve rates of recycling and reduce waste since 2007 – and became even more critical when the government set economy-wide net-zero targets in 2019.

The independent public spending watchdog’s report – The government’s resources and waste reforms for England today finds that more than four years on from publishing this strategy, effective delivery plans that set out how government will achieve its long-term ambitions for resource and waste management do not yet exist. This is making it increasingly difficult for businesses to prepare for investment and regulatory changes that will be required to achieve the department’s long-term plans.

An example of Defra’s insufficient planning includes eliminating waste at source, which in doing so the department estimates could stop most of the damage waste and its ineffective management causes the environment. Stakeholders from across the waste management sector, local authorities, and environmental groups expressed concern at this lack of prioritisation. Defra recognises that it has more to do, and in January 2023 the department committed to publish a new programme for minimising waste and maximising resources.

Government has made some progress, establishing its flagship collection and packaging reforms which are split into three main schemes3. These reforms seek to reduce waste from packaging and increase recycling rates. The deposit return scheme aims to reduce litter from drinks containers, but the effectiveness of the scheme is uncertain and Defra does not currently have plans to trial the scheme. Weaknesses in Defra’s set up of the collection and packaging reforms – along with factors outside of its control – have contributed to delays, and the risk of not delivering to the latest timetable is still high.

Previously, the government was working toward an EU-derived target for the UK to recycle 50% of waste from households by 2020 – but this ambition has not been achieved – with household recycling rates remaining static at around 43-44% since 2011-12.

Since publishing the 2018 strategy, government established legislative obligations (under the Environment Act) to halve the amount of residual waste per person in England by 2042; this includes waste sent to landfills and incineration. Defra expects that its collection and packaging reforms will play an important role in achieving its resources and waste ambitions, but they will not be enough on their own.

Although work is underway to explore plans for further intervention, Defra does not know what decisions about new interventions need to be made, and when, to ensure realistic timeframes for design, testing and implementation. It also doesn’t know what sequence of interventions is likely to produce the most benefit.

To improve Defra’s plans to achieve its targets, the NAO recommends the department develops a clear outline path to achieving all of its resource and waste ambitions; determine the likely cost implications of different policy options; and proactively engage stakeholders to give them as much clarity over its plans as possible

“Reducing waste is critical to reducing emissions and achieving some of government’s wider environmental goals, but Defra does not have effective long term plans for how it will achieve its ambitions for reducing waste, and there has been delay to its implementation of reforms.

“Defra must now establish a clear and coherent plan for its work on waste and resources, addressing the weaknesses in the reforms already in progress. If Defra takes these steps, it will be in a much stronger position to achieve its ambitions.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

The government’s resources and waste reforms for England

Notes for editors

  1. Government did not achieve its 2020 target for the UK to recycle 50% of waste from households.
  2. Our Waste, Our Resources: A strategy for England sets out the government’s aim to establish a circular economy where products are used again or for longer through reuse, repair, and recycling. It also contained strategic ambitions to double resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050, as well as additional commitments such as improving recycling and waste management, reducing food waste, and promoting waste reduction overseas.
  3. The three waste reform schemes include:
    • The extended producer responsibility for packaging scheme will require companies that produce packaging or sell packaged products to cover the full costs of processing and disposing of household packaging waste. Defra intends that the scheme will include variable fees, depending on the recyclability of the material used.
    • The consistent collections project will require local authorities and businesses to collect food waste and dry recyclable materials (paper and card, metal, plastic, and glass) separately where possible. Local authorities will also need to provide a separate garden waste collection for households.
    • The deposit return scheme will place a redeemable deposit on all single-use plastic and metal drinks containers up to three litres in volumeLocal authorities in England spent £4.9 billion on waste management (£3.8 billion when accounting for income) in 2021-22.