Government reports paints unsatisfactory picture of waste management services

A report by the governmental Audit Commission has drawn on over 100 best value inspections of waste-related services to challenge both councils and central government on their approach to waste issues.

Waste management – the strategic challenge offers councils tools to improve their services, following inspections of about 20% of authorities on aspects of waste management in the first year of the best value inspection service. In 1999/2000, more than 29 million tonnes of municipal waste was produced at an overall cost for collection and disposal of around £1.5 billion. The major challenge facing central government and local authorities, the report says, is to maintain user satisfaction and control costs, whilst reducing the need for waste disposal. The top priority is waste reduction, followed by re-use and recycling, with waste disposal being the least desirable option.

The Commission has identified many strengths, but also weaknesses, in how councils manage waste services – and how they are achieving improvements. For example, many councils are likely to find it difficult to meet the Government’s recycling targets (see related story); those making good progress are taking hard decisions about how to improve their traditional services. At the same time the Commission makes it clear that recycling waste is only part of the story, and that efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated are equally, if not more, important.

If statutory targets are to be met and sustainable waste management achieved, waste collection and waste disposal authorities need to develop closer partnerships working with each other and with other key stakeholders including the private sector, the Commission says. Other recommendations for local government include:

  • adopting kerbside collection of recyclables to increase recycling rates;
  • developing ways to reduce the whole waste stream, such as home composting;
  • making long-term commitments to better waste disposal facilities, for example energy from waste, composters or reclamation plants; and
  • developing joint initiatives with other authorities and with the private and voluntary sectors to minimise waste and increase recycling rates.

Central government needs to increase efforts to inform and educate the public about the urgent need to minimise waste, as well as to explore possible incentives to encourage the reinvestment of recycling credits and landfill tax credits in improvements to waste services, the Commission says. It should also accelerate strategies for reducing waste, such as packaging, before it reaches households.

The Audit Commission’s work has identified a wide range of detailed operational practices that councils have adopted in addressing these challenges. The Commission will shortly publish a companion paper setting out this material, underpinning the strategic issues raised in this paper.

“The management of waste is one of the key environmental concerns facing society and we all have a part to play in improving how we do this,” said Andrew Foster, Controller of the Audit Commission. “Best value inspections reveal many councils rising to the challenges of developing their strategies in these areas, but the majority of authorities still have much progress to make. We are determined to use this and future reports to help drive forward improvement, by disseminating good practice from the best and highlighting other learning or trends.”

Waste management – the strategic challenge is available from Audit Commission Publications on freephone 0800 502030, priced £15.

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