1st August 2019

Enforcement and the environment

A new initiative designed to tackle ‘fatbergs’ raises the issue of how already cash-strapped trading standards services can be an effective part of environmental protection enforcement.


By Mansoor Iqbal
Freelance writer for JTS
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Environmental problems in general often require a response which relies on a range of regulatory mixes
Leaving the EU might look like a good thing from a local resource point of view; less so from a saving a planet one

Toxic air quality contributes to the deaths of 9,000 Londoners per year. Around eight million pieces of plastic make it into the sea every day. Climate experts warn that if we do not get global warming into check, limiting the rise in average temperature to 1.5°c above pre-industrial levels, we will suffer devastating consequences. Clearly, action is required.

There is a widespread appetite to address these issues, as recent protests and school strikes across the world demonstrate. One notable initiative concerns one of the most everyday actions of them all: flushing the toilet. Specifically, the flushing of wet wipes. Such plastic-containing items can take 450 years to break down, and mix with kitchen fats and grease in sewers to create ‘fatbergs’. Along with other blockages, these cost the UK £100m per year to address.

Water UK’s ‘Fine to Flush’ campaign will see newly developed products which do not contain plastics (after being subjected to rigorous testing) labelled as being fine to flush.

Of course, this depends on consumer awareness, both around the correct disposal of traditional wet wipes and the availability of as-yet-unreleased safer products. There is an improvement in the former: awareness that no currently available wet wipes can be flushed down the toilet in the UK increased from 49% to 64% between 2017 and 2018, according to a Lanes Group survey.

“We’re going to see a lot more of those sorts of claims,” says Andy Allen, Service Director of Delivery Excellence at CTSI, when asked about the labelling of such items.

“This is going to be an issue that affects consumer choice, or pricing. We might see more environmentally friendly things becoming premium items.”

Soft and hard measures
Consumer choice has a significant part to play, Allen adds, in protecting the environment. “It’s not about banning this or banning that; it’s about clarity of information, so consumers are able to make an active choice.”

But will clarifying the information available to consumers be enough? Perhaps not, says Professor Rosalind Malcolm, Director of the Environmental Regulatory Research Group at the University of Surrey. “Given heightened consumer awareness on plastics this would work reasonably well. But stronger regulation is called for. For example, ecodesign regulations plus improved enforcement, which requires a commitment to resourcing.”

Dr Ole Pederson, Reader in Environmental Law at Newcastle University, also questions the strength of the current legislation. “I suspect some people would argue that the real problem is the relative lack of strength of the law itself”, he says. “The Climate Change Act 2008 might be a good example. In a nutshell, the Act sets very impressive and ambitious targets but there are questions about how enforceable they might actually be.”

Any vagueness, then, may see environmental goals relegated to the level of ‘nice to have’. On the other hand, unambiguous assertive regulation is likely to garner results, say Malcolm.

“Industry likes clarity and certainty so although it will oppose any new regulation and sometimes mount huge lobbies against it, it will normally attempt to comply once it is in place. Indeed, they tend to use it to competitive advantage against smaller, less well-resourced businesses.”

Is there then a need for regulators to come down hard, imposing stricter rules and taking punitive enforcement measures? That is, perhaps, too simplistic. As with anything that requires significant changes in behaviour from industry and consumers alike, a combination of tougher and gentler measures might be most effective, reflects Pederson.

“Environmental problems in general often require a response which relies on a range of regulatory mixes, including combinations of ‘soft’ measures like labels and ‘harder’ measures like direct regulation and enforcement,” he says.

“In particular when dealing with problems like waste and wipes, it is likely that a regulatory approach relying only on,
say, direct regulation would be seen by many as being disproportionate and overly harsh.”

On this point, it should be noted that in the Lanes Group survey mentioned above, 59% of respondents were against any sort of blanket ban on wet wipes. Of those in favour of a ban, only 15% would go so far as to ban baby wipes. Overly stringent regulation is unlikely to be welcomed – and perhaps would be considered a gamble in these politically fraught times.

We might look at something like the carrier bag charge as an example of successful environmental legislation, pitched at the right level. The 5p charge is small enough to avoid provoking a backlash, while being high enough to prompt a reduction in single-use carrier bags. The government reported an 83% decline in those issued by the biggest supermarkets in the first two years of the ban.

Funding is key
One of the reasons that this initiative has been so successful, says Allen, is that it is practically self-enforcing. The volume of consumers, as well as the public demand for it, means that any violation will be quickly picked up.

This is key, because when it comes to enforcement, trading standards is faced with a significant and all too-familiar challenge, alluded to above by Malcolm: resources. More specifically, a lack thereof.

“At local government level, priorities take precedence,” says Allen. “Ten years of austerity has meant that prioritisation has become even more important. Resources have been stretched.”

Consequently, it seems that the environment has been relegated to the backburner at this level. While climate change may be the biggest challenge facing humanity and the planet today, local government – and trading standards by extension – is not adequately kitted out to take action.

This is not because it does not have a part to play. Adequately resourced enforcement agencies could have a considerable role says Malcolm (the gaps that are left are currently being addressed by litigation, she adds).

Neither is there a lack of willingness, says Allen. The problem is simply the challenge of enforcement with 50% fewer resources; meaning that even positive legislation coming from central government, such as forthcoming restrictions on certain plastic items, threatens to put services under strain.

Brexit blues
In these difficult circumstances, Brexit might foster mixed feelings, Allen continues – it’s impossible to conclude here without mentioning the B-word.

“The EU is looking at banning a larger amount of plastics,” he says “So, leaving might look like a good thing from a local resource point of view; less so from a saving a planet one.”

Uncertainty remains the order of the day, as with so many other Brexit-related questions. One thing is certain, however. For trading standards to be able to play a part in the battle against climate change, against plastic-ridden oceans, and against unbreathable air, there is
a need for Westminster to actively make a call to prioritise the environment, to ringfence funding, and to incentivise businesses, as well as
inform consumers.

There is no lack of skills or desire within the profession, asserts Allen. Given sufficient resources, this could even, he concludes, be trading standards’ chance to step up to the front line in the fight against climate change.