England’s resource efficiency agenda must be accelerated with urgency


In a new report out today [1], the Aldersgate Group calls on the Government to accelerate progress on resource efficiency to secure major benefits in terms of emission savings, reduced environmental impacts, job creation and economic resilience.  Although government strategies have built a positive overarching vision for resource efficiency, policy commitments in this area have lacked ambition, pace and detail, and appear to have received limited buy-in from other government departments beyond the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The Group argues that government must improve collaboration across departments to achieve further progress, accelerate the implementation of policies that improve how products, industrial materials and infrastructure are designed, and introduce measures to reduce consumption in the first place, such as through citizen engagement campaigns and incentivising service-based business models.

Driving greater resource efficiency across the economy would deliver significant economic and environmental benefits, with research suggesting that such action would deliver 80% of the additional emission savings required to deliver the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget with a net gain in Gross Value Added of £9.1bn by 2030. [3]

However, the Aldersgate Group’s extensive engagement with businesses, professional institutes and civil society organisations shows that England’s policy on resources and waste has to date been too piecemeal and subject to repeated delays. Whilst the UK Government outlined a positive policy ambition in its 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy for England, insufficient progress has been delivered since, with the recent Waste Prevention Programme restating many pre-existing policy commitments.

In its new report out today, Closing the Loop: Time to crack on with resource efficiency, the Aldersgate Group calls for much greater urgency, stronger cross-government collaboration, and a more systemic approach to improve resource efficiency across the economy. The report sets out priority areas where the development and implementation of existing policy proposals needs to be accelerated, highlights policy gaps where new proposals are needed, and makes specific policy recommendations to improve resource efficiency across the construction and automotive industries, two resource intensive sectors.

Key recommendations for the future of England’s resources and waste policy include:

  • Resource efficiency should become a cross-government priority beyond efforts led by Defra, with all departments such as HM Treasury, BEIS, DfT and MHCLG contributing to policy development and implementation in this area. This should include close collaboration with devolved administrations, with nations such as Wales having made significant progress on this agenda.
  • The Government should accelerate the implementation of proposals which will have the most rapid impact in improving product design. This includes accelerating the development of mandatory eco-design standards and lifecycle assessments for a growing range of products and rolling out Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Schemes beyond packaging, with a focus on ambitious fee modulation mechanisms, clear definitions and a close monitoring of performance. The design and role of Deposit Return Schemes should be clarified, with a particular focus on introducing these schemes in areas where the introduction of EPR schemes and eco-design criteria may not deliver sufficient progress.
  • The Environment Bill – which will introduce long-term, legally binding targets on waste reduction and resource productivity – should be amended to provide for more robust interim targets that will provide businesses with greater clarity on the near-term policy actions that the Government will take to meet the long-term targets under the Bill.
  • New proposals should be put forward to tackle ongoing market barriers that are slowing the take-up of more resource efficient business models. This should include developing resource efficiency criteria for the £290 billion a year spent by the UK on public procurement [4], introducing fiscal mechanisms – such as variable VAT rates and a broader tax on single-use items – to help more resource efficient products and materials compete on cost, and funding for public awareness campaigns to build consumer trust in resource efficient products and services. The use of targeted public finance – such as through the UK Infrastructure Bank – could also play a critical role in attracting private investment in much needed infrastructure to support greater rates of recycling, repair, remanufacturing and re-use.
  • A comprehensive strategy on low carbon skills will be essential to support an economy-wide drive towards greater resource efficiency. This should include embedding climate change and environmental sustainability at all stages of the national curriculum, encouraging a much higher uptake of STEM subjects, and broadening the scope of the Apprenticeship Levy Standards. To support workers in need of reskilling, the Government should continue to provide financial support for training, upskilling and retraining through the National Skills Fund and encourage Further Education Institutions to offer a broader range of flexible, short-term courses.
  • The Government should facilitate greater trade in circular products and materials, by featuring circular economy principles in the trade and sustainable development chapters of trade agreements. As the Aldersgate Group set out in a recent policy briefing, [5] Government must also use its trade policy to provide a level playing field to ensure that domestic businesses innovating in resource efficiency are not exposed to unfair competition from imports with lower environmental standards.

The report also calls for a range of measures to drive greater efficiency in the resource intensive sectors of construction and automotive. This includes the introduction of design regulations for buildings, streamlined lifecycle assessment methodologies for buildings and vehicles, and the introduction of mandatory product standards for construction materials and vehicle components.

Nick Molho, Executive Director of the Aldersgate Group, said: “Improving resource efficiency across the economy makes sense on all counts: it reduces demands on the environment, cuts emissions, makes our economy more resilient to supply shocks, and can grow supply chains and create jobs in areas such as recycling, repair, remanufacturing and reuse. The Government set some good ambitions in 2018 but the time has come to move to the delivery phase. What we need now need is an urgent, cross-government and systemic approach that improves product design, supports the development of new business models and engages citizens to help drive down resource consumption.”

Martin Casey, Director, Public Affairs, Europe at CEMEX said: “CEMEX welcomes this important report by the Aldersgate Group and the scope of its recommendations which can drive forward the goal of real resource efficiency across the whole economy. It’s vital that the policy framework, Government, and the regulatory bodies proactively take note and enable businesses to maximise their resource efficiency potential and deliver on the promise of a truly circular economy.”

Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director at SUEZ said: “If we can’t get BEIS, DEFRA, MHCLG and DfT to develop policies that complement one another and support societal change in a holistic way, then we may end up with any number of unintended consequences that undermine our drive towards greater resource efficiency and sustainability. This welcome report from the Aldersgate Group highlights another of SUEZ’s key concerns, namely a lack of real focus by Government on actually reducing consumption and incentivising reuse, refill and repair. The portfolio of recent policy reforms that have been consulted on all focus mainly on driving better recycling, with the DEFRA Waste Prevention Programme failing to deliver any real target for reducing consumption and highlighting the important role of the consumer in this process. The UK needs leadership around better citizen awareness campaigns, product eco-design, life-cycle thinking and closed loop materials management, and this must happen soon if we are to give ourselves a chance of decarbonising by 2050.”

Libby Peake, Head of Resource Policy at Green Alliance said: “We know that the overconsumption of resources is driving both climate change and nature’s degradation and yet it is very rarely addressed by government policy. The good news, as this report outlines, is that there are many simple actions the government could – and should – be taking to improve the situation which would not only be good for the environment, but also the economy and the public. It really is time to get on with it.”

Peter Jelkeby, Country Retail Manager and Chief Sustainability Officer, IKEA UK and Ireland said: “Developing a circular economy is essential for building a low-carbon business and society. At IKEA, our aim is to transform into a fully circular business. To do this, we are committed to designing all of our products using only renewable or recycled materials, and to develop circular services. As such, we fully endorse the recommendations in this timely report, and the call for Government to accelerate its progress on resource efficiency, ahead of COP26, making the UK a leader in this field. We also welcome the call for more green jobs, firmly rooted in the skills we will need to make the circular economy a reality. At IKEA, our Recovery department employs over 350 people in the UK. Not only do they play a vital role in helping us strive for zero waste, but they are also a living example of how we are creating the retail workforce of the future; supporting a circular, green economy and our collective journey to climate positivity.”

Anna Turrell, Head of Environment at Tesco said: “If we are to meet our shared ambition to deliver a net zero economy, we must rethink how we manage the resources available to us more efficiently. We support the Aldersgate Group’s recommendations that the solution is to create a closed loop circular economy and that this is going to require substantive actions from business, industry and government to achieve. We are playing our part and working with partners to reach this ambition by, for example on packaging, removing and reducing single use packaging wherever possible, introducing reusable alternatives, and working to ensure everything that’s left is recyclable as a part of a closed loop.”

David Symons, UK Director of Sustainability at WSP said: “Using materials more efficiently is an easy way to grow Britain’s productivity, increase resilience and help deliver a net zero economy. Government has a great opportunity to up the pace on waste management – growing the economy and delivering on one of the public’s highest priority environmental issues.”

Julia Barrett, Chief Sustainability Officer at Willmott Dixon said: “The built environment consumes almost half of the materials extracted globally every year, so as this report sets out, we need a systematic rethink of how we design, construct and use buildings. At Willmott Dixon we have set a target of zero avoidable construction waste by 2030 and welcome the recommendations put forward today: for Government to urgently accelerate the transition to the circular economy by using fiscal mechanisms to change behaviour, for government procurement to demonstrate leadership, and for the creation of cross departmental policy and standards to drive resource efficiency.”

[1] The Aldersgate Group’s new report Closing the Loop: time to crack on with resource efficiency is available here.

[2] The report will be discussed at a public webinar from 9.30am to 11.00am on Thursday 15th July, with panellists from multiple business sectors and civil society. You can register here.

[3] Sixth carbon budget data from Green Alliance (2018) Less in, More Out available here, and GVA data from Suez/Eunomia (2016) A resourceful future: expanding the UK economy available here.

[4] Cabinet Office (2020) Transforming public procurement available here.

[5] In June 2020, the Aldersgate Group published a report setting out why the UK’s trade policy should be aligned with its climate and environmental goals. This report is available here.