Circular economy and waste


Waste and what can be done with it

Almost all societies use things and materials to live and thrive. What happens with these things once they are no longer in use is often an indicator of how sustainable that society is. Often, the things we no longer have use for result in waste, which commonly (and legally) is described throughout the UK as “… any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard.” For more information please see the sections below. 

There have been efforts since the 1980s to reduce waste by encouraging the recycling and reuse of materials rather than simply throwing them away. This helps preserve the materials or object and maintain them as a resource; limiting the need to extract new raw materials for any replacement materials and also reduce the environmental, social and economic costs of disposing of those materials as waste.

In recent years, the four UK governments have worked towards creating a ‘circular economy’ which over the next decade or two, aims to reduce significantly the resources that are thrown away while easing the pressure on our natural resources. The circular economy is explained below. At present, government statistics suggest that well over 200 million tonnes of waste is produced in the UK every year. This includes construction waste (generating around 3/5 of all waste), commercial and industrial waste (generating 19%), household waste (12% of the total) and other activities (at 7%). Precisely what happens to waste changes from year to year. However, to give an indication of the extent, around 44% of all household waste is recycled in one way or another.

One of the key problems with waste is when it is not disposed of properly or lawfully. An example of this is fly-tipping which can seriously impact a local environment and community. The law around waste is complex and anyone responsible for disposing or dealing with waste will need to obtain specialist advice and guidance to ensure that they comply with the relevant law and policy. Many of the laws around waste are underpinned by criminal offences such as depositing waste without an environmental permit under s. 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Many of these are punishable by imprisonment and unlimited fines. By way of illustration a range of waste offences in England can be found here.


What is meant by a ‘circular economy’ and why is it a good thing?

The detail of what happens to waste is complex and changes each year, but to give an indication of where the UK is in terms of where recycling waste goes; the 2020 recycling rates for household waste was around 44% across the UK, although Wales reached 56%.

Creating a circular economy means making changes to the way we produce and consume things, so that we can reduce, reuse and recycle more of the materials and products we use in our everyday lives. The aim is to prevent waste, which will reduce environmental pollution such as discarded plastic in our rivers and oceans. A functioning circular economy will also reduce carbon emissions through greater emphasis on efficiency and reuse, which in turn supports efforts towards mitigating climate change. Put simply, circular economy may be defined as a model of production and consumption that involves reducing and reusing materials so that we no longer create waste. There are any number of definitions. However, it is helpfully explained here taking a broad societal approach.

You can click on the headings below for an overview of UK policy across the four nations, and where to go for further information.


Law and policy


The UK government has announced proposed policy changes in the 2020 Circular Economy Policy statement, to support the move towards a circular economy model. Resources and waste policy in general in the UK is devolved to the four nations. Below are links to the current policy documents, which include references to the relevant law.


Resources and Waste Strategy - 2018
Waste management plan 2021 for England

Northern Ireland

Waste and recycling information for Northern Ireland 
Waste management plan for Northern Ireland 2019 


Scottish government policy: managing waste


Welsh government: Recycling, waste and the circular economy
Plan for a circular economy in Wales 2021: beyond recycling

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