UK: Waste Not Want Not

Last Updated: 18 January 2001
Article by Claire Brook

The Government has finally published 'Waste Strategy 2000', its new strategy to manage waste in England and Wales. The fundamental principle of this strategy is one of sustainable waste management with the prime objective of reducing waste. In launching the strategy Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, commented that, "we want to get away from the throwaway society" in order to deal with the growing 'waste mountain'.

A quick glance at the figures helps to put the problem of waste management into context. The Government puts the amount of waste generated annually in England and Wales at around 100 – 130 million tonnes. Municipal waste (household and other similar waste) accounts for around 27 million tonnes. Every household produces an average of 1 tonne of waste per year. This is the equivalent of filling Trafalgar Square to the height of Nelson's Column every day. The vast majority (85 per cent) of household waste is currently disposed of in landfill sites – it doesn't take an environmental strategist to work out that this requires substantial tracts of land which can be rendered largely unusable as a consequence.

The Government estimates that municipal waste is growing at the rate of two to three per cent per year. At current levels it is therefore predicted to almost double in 20 years although some commentors believe this estimate to be too conservative. A recent study by the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers recorded growth of 5.4 per cent in a single year. However, it is difficult to predict any trends since annual municipal waste surveys only began three years before the draft strategy was completed.

The Government's sustainable waste management strategy adopts a two pronged attack on waste. Targets have been set to recycle or compost 30 per cent of municipal waste by 2010 and to recover value from 45 per cent by the same date. Currently, only eight per cent of household waste is recycled.

Sweden recycles 96 per cent of household glass while Britain only manages 24 per cent. It is clear that the UK does not lead the way in this field and the strategy acknowledges this. Looking at the current disposal of waste the Government's targets appear somewhat ambitious. However, an additional impetus is provided by the EC Landfill Directive, agreed by the European Community Council in April 1999 and which must be incorporated into English law by July 2001.

The Landfill Directive is regarded by some commentators as the key component that will shape waste management over the next 20 years. The Directive seeks to harmonise controls on landfills throughout Europe as well as to reduce the amount of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas produced from biodegradable waste. Biodegradable waste consists of food, garden waste, paper and paperboard all of which is capable of undergoing anaerobic or aerobic decomposition.

The Directive sets a series of progressive targets, the first of which requires the amount of biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill to be reduced to 75 per cent of the total amount produced in 1995. This first target should be met within five years of implementation of the Directive. The target becomes 50 per cent after eight years and 35 per cent after 15 years. Most EC countries have signed up to meet these targets, however the UK is expected to take advantage of a four year extension period. In any event, complying with the Directive will require a huge change in the way in which municipal waste is dealt with. The Government estimates that 60 per cent of the annual 27 million tonnes of municipal waste is biodegradable. Using this estimate, 3.2 million tonnes of biodegradable waste would need to be diverted each year to meet the first target. If municipal waste grows at the predicted rate of 3 per cent per annum, implementing the Directive is estimated to cost £495 million per year.

The consultation paper on limiting landfill proposes four possible options to achieve the targets set by the Directive; (1) A total ban on all landfill of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW); (2) A ban on landfill of specific BMW such as paper and card; (3) Permits for landfill site operators to accept BMW; (4) Permits for waste disposal authorities to landfill BMW.

The Government currently favours options (3) or (4), which would avoid the onerous task of separating waste. However, the key question remains – who should be responsible for the restrictions on landfill, the local authority or landfill site operator?

Providing permits to the landfill site operators would largely maintain the status quo, keeping the decision on the provision of landfill with the site operators. This would also minimise disruption to the existing commercial relationship with Local Authorities. However, providing permits to the local authority would complement their role as the planning, collection and disposal authority. The latter option could provide the most integrated approach. Ultimately, sustainable waste management will rely on a whole raft of measures of which limiting landfill is only one element, just as waste management is only one aspect of managing the environment. The next debate will be the extent to which incineration is seen as the key to sustainable waste management – could this be 'out of the frying pan, into the fire!' for the Government?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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