Background to the report

The amount of household, commercial and industrial, construction and demolition waste we produce and what we do with it has economic and environmental consequences. Disposal of plastic, food and garden waste can release greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Disposal and treatment of waste, including wastewater, represented 6% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2021.

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In December 2018, government published Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England (the Strategy). This set out government’s aim to establish a circular economy where products are used again or for longer through reuse, repair and recycling.

The government has commitments and requirements in this area that predate the Strategy, including through waste and recycling regulations transposed from EU directives into UK law in 2011, and under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act.

Scope of the report

This report examines whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is on track to achieve its resources and waste ambitions in a way that represents value for money.

It assesses:

  • whether government has effective plans to achieve its resources and waste ambitions
  • whether Defra is on track to successfully implement its main programme, the collection and packaging reforms

The report does not cover Defra’s ambition to tackle waste crime, which was the subject of a separate National Audit Office report in 2022


In December 2018 government set strategic long-term ambitions to reduce waste and make more efficient use of raw materials. Four and a half years on, Defra is delivering some projects and planning others, but it still does not know what it needs to do to achieve its ambitions over the long term.

Defra cannot plan every step in detail over such long time-frames. However, it should know, in outline, what new policy interventions may be needed, their respective contributions, and when the main decision points will be.

The UK missed its 2020 recycling target after nearly a decade of stalled recycling rates. The main reforms it has taken forward so far, on collection and packaging, have been delayed. Defra took too long to put in place essential elements of good programme management, and some elements are still lacking. A lack of clarity has made it hard for businesses and local authorities to prepare for the changes they will need to make.

Defra must now establish firmer foundations for its work on resources and waste.

It should develop a coherent approach to securing its ambitions across the waste management sector, rather than relying primarily on a project-by-project perspective.

In addition, it needs to address weaknesses in the reforms that are in progress, and build on these lessons to set up future waste projects and programmes more effectively.

If Defra takes these steps, it will be in a much stronger position to ensure that government achieves its ambitions, and the considerable benefits to taxpayers, consumers, businesses and the environment are secured.

Data visualisation of waste management

To support this report, we have produced an interactive data visualisation showing:

  • a national view of waste management
  • international exports of waste sent for recycling

Explore the data visualisation


Publication details

Press release

View press release (30 Jun 2023)

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