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What goes around, by David Meilton

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19 August 2005

Britain still dumps most of its rubbish in landfill sites, instead of recycling it. But tough new European Union regulations are set to change all that. David Meilton reports on how councils are coping with the new targets

Take a stroll down any residential street and you are liable to see a uniform parade of sentinels outside garden gates. If it's Tuesday, they might be green, on Thursday perhaps blue. More often, they will be the conventional grey or black.

In some places, rather than the upstanding sentries on wheels, you will observe an array of green plastic crates filled with an apparently random collection of debris. Ah yes, you will say. Recycling.

As Britain belatedly catches up with what has been commonplace in many European countries for years – the state-encouraged drive to recycle potentially usable cans, glass, packaging and newspapers – the march of the wheelie-bins has advanced apace.

The fact is that anything we cannot recycle or re-use has to be disposed of in one of two ways – incineration or tipping into a hole in the ground. Both methods are environmentally questionable and expensive.

In June this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, into whose basket of responsibilities recycling falls, launched a renewed campaign, under the catchy title The Big Recycle, to persuade Britons towards the path of righteousness.

The new environment minister, Ben Bradshaw, appeared briefly on breakfast television and radio programmes, and made a series of short visits to recycling depots within easy reach of Whitehall – in Croydon, Deptford and Greenwich.

'There are good environmental arguments for recycling, and above all we really have to get down our landfill in this country,' exhorted Bradshaw. He admitted: 'In the European Union, only Portugal is worse than the UK in terms of landfill.'

The whole thing was then, to all intents and purposes, forgotten amid understandably more pressing concerns such as terror attacks and holidays. The buck was once again passed back to local authorities, which, with more or less efficiency, carry the day-to-day burden of disposing of our rubbish.

To some extent, this is an unfair analysis. There have been improvements. The Big Recycle was launched with new figures showing that UK households recycled around a third of all their packaging in 2004, compared with a quarter in 2002. This added up to 3.5 billion glass bottles and jars, 1 billion plastic bottles, 2 billion aluminium cans and 2.5 billion steel cans. Recycling in UK business is also up, with 66% of the 5.6 million tonnes of packaging used by industry recycled in 2004.

There can be few of us who are not more aware than we were, say, ten years ago, of the importance and spreading scope of the recycling movement, not the least because of that growing army of brightly coloured waste receptacles.

Only the recalcitrant few among us are still hanging on to our traditional and inefficient cast-iron dustbins. But is it enough? Do we understand – or, more importantly care about – the reasons why it is imperative to recycle as much as we can of what we cast off as rubbish?

No, say those whose mission it is to educate us and, in their own most extreme terms, save the world from the inevitable consequences of our profligacy.

When asked if recycling is important, 90% of us say yes – but only 50% regularly engage in the practice. The government estimates that 60% of all household waste could be recycled. Most of it just gets buried.

Defra has set waste Best Value performance indicators for all local authorities with waste management responsibilities, giving them individual standards for recycling and composting in 2003/04 and 2005/06. On average, authorities were asked to double their rate of recycling by 2003/04 and to triple it by 2005/06. No decision has been taken on extending the targets beyond 2005/06.

The overall aim of these targets, incorporated in Defra's Public Service Agreements, is that nationally at least 17% of household waste should be recycled or composted by 2003/04 and at least 25% by 2005/06.

The bad news, for those of the Eurosceptic persuasion, is that most of these targets are in fact driven by the European Union Landfill Directive, now legally binding on the UK. The directive sets targets for the reduction of biodegradable waste sent to landfill at 75% of the 1995 level by 2010, 50% by 2013 and 35% by 2020. 'We have to hit the 2010 target otherwise we are subject to fairly swingeing fines, up to £500,000 a day,' a Defra spokesman told Public Finance.

The good news is that the latest Municipal waste management survey, published by Defra on August 1, shows that the first of these targets has been achieved (see box). A total of 4.5 million tonnes of household waste (17.7%) was collected for recycling in 2003/04, compared with 3.7 million tonnes (14.5%) in 2002/03. Defra is cautiously pleased. 'It's the first time we have hit the target, and in fact we exceeded it,' the spokesman said.

For campaigners, this is not good enough. 'The best performers in Europe, countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, are recycling something like 50% or above,' says Georgina Bloomfield, recycling campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

'Recycling in England has been improving, but we need to ensure that the momentum for providing better services continues. The government should set further statutory targets for local authorities as a matter of urgency to ensure collection services continue to improve. We should be aiming to recycle at least half our waste by 2010.'

The Green Party, unsurprisingly, agrees. Robin Harper, leader of the enhanced Green membership of the Scottish Parliament, told Public Finance: 'Our policy is zero waste. Certainly it is challenging, but it is so close to achievable that it's worth going for.

'Profit is one key motive: if you have a tonne of waste that goes to landfill, it costs £35. If you recycle, you can actually create £700 worth of new goods. Councils have to use more carrot than stick, because the benefits are so evident. They are only going to make progress if they encourage people to sort waste out at source.

'What you have to say to people is that, in a few years' time, if you recycle we will be able to reduce council tax because we won't have to spend all this money dealing with waste.'

Although Scotland and Wales have devolved powers in waste management, they are subject to the same EU targets. Scotland has ground to make up. On 2002 figures (see chart on page 23) it languishes right at the bottom of the European recycling league.

'Scotland has been bottom for the past 20 years,' says Harper. 'We will remain bottom until the Scottish Executive starts getting stroppy with councils.' He attacks the 'cosy consensus' between a Labour executive reluctant to set up any tension with Labour-run councils. 'Considering how urgent the problem is, it's time they took their responsibilities seriously.'

Wales is only two places above Scotland, and provides an object study in the problems to be faced. In October last year, the then auditor general for Wales, Sir John Bourn, produced a report on the regulation of waste management in the principality. It found that 26 million tonnes of waste were produced each year. On current trends and assuming a best-case scenario, existing landfill capacity will be exhausted before 2010.

Clive Grace, then director general of the Audit Commission in Wales, commented: 'With over 82% of Wales's waste currently being disposed of through landfill, diminishing landfill capacity and demanding European and national targets, the situation is clearly serious and unsustainable.'

Some local authorities are taking the lead in developing new strategies. Barnet, in northwest London, is pioneering compulsory recycling, which covers glass bottles, jars, tins, paper and magazines, threatening fines of up to £1,000 for persistent refusal to comply. Some local residents already face being taken to court.

Matthew Offord, the council's Cabinet member with responsibility for recycling, said: 'The idea is to try to get as many people as possible to engage in our recycling service. Our target is a recycling rate of 27%. We felt that we could stretch it to 30%. Our system isn't actually a punitive approach, it's about education, information and, most of all, making it as easy as possible.'

Bradshaw agrees that local participation is the key. 'There was a 45% increase last year in kerbside collections, and 80% of people in England now can have material collected from their homes. That makes it much easier for people, they don't have to lug stuff to the local supermarket or bottle bank.'

But are the targets for local authorities tough enough? For the Local Government Association the problem is, as usual, money. Giving evidence in March to the select committee of MPs that covers Defra, the LGA's essential message was that more resources were needed for local councils, particularly for those most at risk of missing their targets. The LGA complains about the lack of reliable information on future waste flows. Data gathered by the association from waste disposal authorities, setting out each council's prediction for the amount they will be sending to landfill over time, suggests it is highly unlikely that the 2010 landfill target will be met.

The MPs agreed. Their report, Waste policy and the landfill directive, said: 'It is not clear that either the [Environment] Agency or local authorities have sufficient resources to match the increasing demands placed on them.'

It added that more needs to be done to generate the necessary level of investment in new treatment facilities and to ease the planning application process, which – in the face of almost inevitable resident protests – often delays construction by years.

As well as setting targets for councils, the government has introduced various measures to speed them on their way. These include a tax on landfill, funding for schemes to stimulate waste minimisation, reuse and recycling, additional funding for local authorities, most recently through the Waste Implementation Programme, and a system of tradable landfill allowances.

The Treasury's stated intention is to increase the landfill tax – currently £15 per tonne - by a minimum of £3 per tonne from 2005/06 until it reaches £35 per tonne 'in the medium to long term'. The MPs want it raised to £35 per tonne 'as soon as possible, to provide a significantly increased driver for change and additional funding for programmes designed to reduce waste'.

But they note: 'It is open to any individual authority to divert spending to waste away from other services. There are always hard choices to be made in deciding how to divide up the cake, and it is clear that additional spending on waste would not be regarded as a priority by many local residents. This reflects the low priority of waste.'

The picture is not all negative. Municipal recycling has more than tripled since 1996/97 at an average increase of 18% per year. The household recycling rate has increased steadily from 7.5% in 1996/97 to 17.7% in 2003/04.

But figures for individual authorities show considerable variations in the proportion recycled or composted, the rate of increase and the extent to which they exceed or fall short of their set target. Lichfield in Staffordshire is top of the league, at 46%, far above its 26% target. In contrast, Liverpool, at the bottom, failed to reach its modest 8% target.

It is these poorer performers that Defra clearly intends to target. Amid the comforting rhetoric of co-operation and consultation, and cash channelled through the new Waste Performance and Efficiency Grant – worth £45m in 2005/06, £105m the following year, and £110m in 2007/08 – there is more than a hint of iron hand in velvet glove.

'There is a small minority that made no progress at all last year, with recycling rates languishing in single figures – this is not acceptable,' says Defra. 'The government continues to engage constructively with the poorest performing local authorities to ensure they receive the right support, or, if they continue to demonstrate no commitment to improvement, to take stronger action.'

You have been warned.

Waste not, want not

Some 400 million tonnes of waste are produced in the UK each year, a quarter of which is from households, commerce and industry. The remainder comes from construction and demolition, mining and agricultural activity, sewage and dredged spoils.

Between 1996/97 and 2003/04, total municipal waste increased from 24.6 million tonnes to 29.1 million tonnes - that is 18% or an average of 2.4% per year.

But there is evidence that the rate of increase is slowing, and even that generation is beginning to fall. About 29.1 million tonnes of municipal waste were collected in England in 2003/04, 1% less than the 29.4 million tonnes collected the previous year.

Most waste ends up in landfill sites but around 35% of industrial and commercial and 17% of household rubbish is recycled or composted.

In 2003/04, 55% of municipal waste came from regular household collections (excluding recycling collections). The next largest source (16%) was recycling material collected from household sources, such as civic amenity sites.

Areas that use wheeled bins generally generate more total waste and recycle less than areas that supply only plastic sacks or nothing. The household recycling rate in authorities with primarily wheeled bins is 16.5% compared with 19.3% in authorities with plastic sacks and 20.8% in authorities that do not provide any waste containers.

Research suggests the higher level can be partly explained by the tendency for wheeled bins to be used in areas with a higher proportion of detached and semi-detached housing and on average more people per household.

A total of 4.5 million tonnes (17.7%) of household waste was collected for recycling in 2003/04, compared with 3.7 million tonnes (14.5%) in 2002/03.

Almost all materials for household recycling were collected by local authorities, with private or voluntary organisations collecting only around 1% of the total.

Source: Municipal Waste Management Survey, August 1, 2005


 

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