Target-driven regime bad for sustainable waste management

The tick-box culture of national targets and league tables are distracting the UK from the real goal of sustainable waste management.

Meeting targets set by central Government and efficiency savings have become the priority of local waste partnerships but performance against these artificial criteria may not provide an accurate picture of how well these partnerships are really doing, says a leading think tank.

A study funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) shows how regulatory and economic pressures can lead to local waste partnerships prioritising short-term targets instead of taking a more sustainable long-term view.

European Union legislation is imposing progressively tighter restrictions on the amount of municipal waste that can dumped in landfill sites, and authorities face individual recycling and composing targets.

As a result of the Government's 2004 Gershon efficiency review, local authorities are also expected to produce about £300 million of efficiency savings on waste services by 2007-08.

The research, led by the Open University's Jim Frederickson, suggests that although most waste partnerships seek to reduce disposal of waste in landfill sites by increasing recycling and composting there is far more limited promotion of management practices higher up the waste hierarchy such as waste reduction and reuse of discarded items - areas where there are not yet statutory targets.

"Performance targets can lead to perverse outcomes," said Mr Frederickson.

"The introduction of free garden waste collections is an example of what can be, a relatively easy gain in meeting targets to improve recycling rates even though this can increase the overall amount of waste collected.

"By contrast, community sector representatives can have difficulties in engaging local authorities support for projects to reuse furniture because re-use activities did not contribute to recycling targets."

David Gibbs



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