News Analysis - Wrong emphasis on waste targets, warn peers

28 Aug 08
As councils congratulate themselves on increasing household recycling rates, a House of Lords committee has highlighted a problem that could wreck the drive to cut down on landfill. Of Britain's waste, 91% is produced not by households but by shops, factories and offices.

29 August 2008

As councils congratulate themselves on increasing household recycling rates, a House of Lords committee has highlighted a problem that could wreck the drive to cut down on landfill. Of Britain's waste, 91% is produced not by households but by shops, factories and offices.

The Lords science sub-committee, in a report last week, stressed that industrial and commercial waste hugely outweighs the rubbish produced by residents.

The chair of the Lords committee, Labour peer Lord O'Neill, warned that the increases in recycling rates for domestic waste reported earlier this month account for only a 'tiny fraction' of the UK's rubbish. 'It is time for the government to move its priorities from household waste to the far greater problem of industrial and commercial waste,' he said. The targets regime for local authorities 'must be changed to give priority to ensuring that businesses are doing their bit', he added.

Paul Bettison, who chairs the Local Government Association environment board, tells Public Finance that the Lords' report pointed to the confusion around the role of local authorities in dealing with commercial waste.

'There is a willingness [to collect commercial waste] and some councils have found the money and are doing so. There are some areas that are very good at this, like Islington.'

The problem, he says, is how to fund collection schemes and better facilities, but the increasing value of recyclable material may present a revenue-raising opportunity for councils.

Bettison suggests it could be a long time before there are real economic benefits. Concern has also been raised over some contracts with recycling firms that might mean local authorities

do not gain from the sale of retrieved materials.

In line with government thinking on trying to limit the amount of rubbish being generated in the first place, the Lords committee also raised the issue of a variable VAT regime, so that products using 'sustainable materials and less virgin raw resources' become more economically attractive. VAT could also be reduced for servicing and repairing products to curb an increasingly 'throwaway' society.

At the Treasury, efforts have been under way for some time to cut VAT rates on energy-saving and energy-efficient products. A spokesman says: 'We are also providing incentives for business to reduce waste through increases in landfill tax that will see the cost of dumping waste double over the next three years, and through changes to the way brownfield waste is dealt with.'

The Lords report, published on August 20, prompted the LGA to call for the introduction of a 'polluter pays' principle to help local authorities manage rising costs and act 'as an incentive for businesses to produce less waste'.

The pressure on town halls to take an increased role in dealing with commercial waste comes as they are faced with rising landfill taxes, coupled with heavy penalties from the European Union for landfill waste.

Bettison says the landfill tax escalator – which means the cost of dumping waste goes up by £8 a tonne each year until 2011 – was initially welcomed by the LGA. 'The landfill tax made landfill more expensive, and we applauded that. But even with the huge increases in recycling rates, we need to invest more in recycling.'

Bettison says Prime Minister Gordon Brown – who introduced the tax escalator as chancellor – had assured the LGA that the revenue from the tax would go back into helping councils boost recycling, but this has not materialised.

Despite a willingness to do more, without extra resources, financially squeezed town halls cannot invest sufficiently in this area, Bettison insists.

Although the average domestic recycling rate is now just shy of 34%, more could still be done to reduce household rubbish. Giorgia Iacopini, a researcher at the New Local Government Network, tells PF that the current level of landfill use cannot continue.

She says: 'Landfill doesn't make sense financially. Council tax bills will rise – nobody thinks it is an economically sustainable way of doing things. The data suggests that we have on average about nine years of landfill space left. For London and the Southeast, it is about four years. It's not practical and is very expensive with the rise in fuel and transport costs.'

Iacopini, author of an NLGN report on tackling the landfill challenge, says energy-from-waste schemes, such as incinerators, presents an opportunity to widen the debate around waste disposal and give people a choice in economic terms. Energy from waste can also come from anaerobic digesters, which process food waste, and are increasingly regarded as viable option.

'We need to think of energy from waste as something that is beneficial in economic and financial terms. The issue is whether we have the right framework for this to happen. We need to move at a faster pace.'

As far as domestic waste is concerned, controversy continues over pay-as-you-throw schemes, which could penalise householders who fail to recycle, for example by fining those whose non-recyclable rubbish exceeds a certain level. This has caused problems for the government's plans to allow councils to impose penalties and offer incentives to boost recycling. Following May's local elections, stories appeared suggesting the plans would be scrapped, a claim hotly denied by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Some councils have already moved to fortnightly collections of general rubbish to accommodate collections of waste categorised as recyclable, such as paper or garden waste. Others have made recycling effectively compulsory, backed up with the threat of fines.

Bettison, a Conservative councillor, is critical of those who have used these proposals as a 'political football'. But shadow local government secretary Eric Pickles has repeated accusations that Labour is 'hammering householders with heavy-handed bin taxes, bin fines and bin cuts' – although it is not only Labour-led councils that are taking action.

Bettison suggests that threatened public opposition to waste disposal policy does not always materialise. There haven't been riots in the streets where fortnightly bin collections have been introduced, he says.

A Defra spokeswoman says that a 'carrot-and-stick approach appears to be more successful than the carrot only' when it comes to encouraging recycling. The department is pressing ahead with incentive and penalty schemes, with strict criteria.

But, as the Lords committee has now made clear, the bigger question of industrial waste has yet to be seriously tackled, and may prove the real key to whether targets can be met.



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