A waste of paper

EBM looks at the current state of the UK's waste policy and asks whether DEFRA is failing to deliver the leadership and clarity needed to create a coherent national waste strategy

Hot on the heels of the Environmental Audit Committee's scathing indictment of UK waste policy comes DEFRA's response to the Strategy Unit's 2002 report, Waste Not, Want Not, which called on the government to take urgent action to head off the UK's coming waste crisis.

Committee chairman John Horam MP said: "There is a widening gap between the government's targets on waste disposal and what is actually happening in practice." He described progress since the Waste Strategy 2000 as "depressingly slow" and government targets as "too timid and too exclusively focused on the household waste stream - even so, we are not on course to meet them".

There appears to have been little movement on waste policy, yet a look at the DEFRA response to the Strategy Unit's recommendations does little to inspire confidence that the government is taking the kind of concrete action required. While it does contain some definite goals within set timeframes, the response is littered with vague promises to "undertake further investigation", or "determine options". It promises that studies will be initiated and that policy will be considered, reviewed, revised - and so on. There is even a plan to "report on the review".

Cautious optimism

But those in the waste field remain, somehow, cautiously optimistic that real action is appearing over the horizon, although there is an air of desperation about their support.

Dr Jane Beasley, communications manager for the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management, did her best: "We are pleased that all the recommendations in the Strategy Unit report have been responded to in some form - none of them have been dismissed outright. The good thing is we have had a response, which shows that the government's commitment to waste is ongoing, no matter how slowly."

Environmental Services Association chief executive Dirk Hazell, described the UK as "on a slow boat to sustainability" a positive statement of sorts, as it "acknowledges movement in the right direction".

Kay Twitchen, Essex county councillor and chairman of the Local Government Association's waste executive, said: "We are making progress, but it's almost in spite of all these reviews and reports. The secretary of state needs to say: 'This is what we are going to do, this is how we are going to do it, and this is how it is going to be paid for'. Then everyone - the waste industry, local government and the public - would understand where we are going."

The Landfill Directive - currently the primary driver of waste policy, although only one of a raft of measures coming out of Europe - is the biggest problem. Most are agreed that the UK will fail to meet its requirements, which makes DEFRA prevarication even more mystifying. "I find the timidity from government a bit strange," says Twitchen. "We've signed up to these European directives, so why not be robust about it, lead from the front, and get on with it?"

Hazell says that there are three things the government should be doing. "None of this is rocket science," he says. "The first is regulation. Making the regulatory system consistent with the Landfill Directive is the single most important thing.

"It would also help if the planning system wasn't such an obstacle, because we are facing at least 2,000 new pieces of infrastructure in the next 10 years. The third thing is funding for the municipal waste stream. All those things need to change, and bearing in mind the looming timetables, sooner rather than later."

Taking policy further

But simply complying with the directive is not going to be enough. Doreen Fedrigo, research and policy manager at Waste Watch, believes that the UK must take a much longer-term view. "It's still all about meeting the Landfill Directive, but we can't stop there," he says.

The Engineering Employers' Federation (EEF) also has serious concerns about the lack of coherence in DEFRA's waste policy, and has met environment minister Michael Meacher to voice them.

The EEF's head of environmental policy Helen Woolston, said: "I'm really concerned that there is no national strategy on waste. As far as we can see, the government is still dealing with all the separate forthcoming waste issues in a stovepiped fashion - today we'll worry about landfill; tomorrow we'll worry about hazardous waste."

Lack of coherence, direction and clear decision-making are bogging down waste policy, and the results could develop into a huge headache - and embarrassment - for DEFRA and the Labour government.

Twitchen is unequivocal. "The government has to face reality - these targets are there and they cannot be met overnight. We need a real sense of political direction and enthusiasm, and we need proper funding for local authorities to deliver," she says. "We have to say this is a problem - a crisis. We have to change the way we do things and get everyone talking, thinking and taking action on waste, instead of just a few nutcases like me."



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