No time to waste: the measures needed to transform the way we deal with our waste. Friends of the Earth outlines its vision for 2020
Our vision for the future is that by 2020 waste is viewed as a valuable resource. Where possible, materials are conserved and used to their full potential through reuse and recycling.
This year the Government is reviewing the national waste strategy for England, Waste Strategy 2000. The strategy made a start at setting out how we could deal with waste more sustainably by putting forward the waste hierarchy as a model for how we should best deal with our waste.
However, we still need to put in place the correct economic and regulatory framework to drive us toward that model in practice. Listed below are the measures that Friends of the Earth believes must be considered as part of the review to enable us to turn our vision into a reality.
The recycling targets included in the Waste Strategy 2000 and the associated statutory local authority targets have been very helpful for focussing all levels of Government on driving up recycling rates and improving recycling infrastructure.
With council targets only set for 2005/06, future targets should be set for local authorities as a matter of urgency so that there is enough time to plan ahead to reach higher recycling rates. Collection services have been improving and our national recycling rate has been rapidly improving over the last few years, but we must not be complacent.
The national targets are also being reviewed in light of the recent achievements in England. Friends of the Earth believes that the targets for 2010 and 2015 of 30% and 33% respectively are too low, particularly in comparison to the levels of recycling already taking place in other European countries.
We should be aiming to recycle half of household waste by 2010 and more than this in the longer term. Higher national targets have been supported by a number of stakeholders, including the Government's Strategy Unit and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
The Government is currently focussed on diverting waste from landfill and recently put in place the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme to limit the amount of biodegradable waste landfilled.
Whilst this is an important issue for the environment, and we must ensure we meet our EU Landfill Directive targets, we should not lose sight of the vast improvements that still need to be made on recycling and the positive role of the targets in driving up recycling rates.
Waste prevention targets
There must also be progress made on waste prevention. In the last Waste Strategy there were few measures put in place to reduce waste, despite this being the best environmental option and therefore being at the top of the waste hierarchy.
A national waste prevention target, coupled with local authority policy measures and advice, should be considered as part of the review.
To support a waste prevention target and higher recycling targets there should be greater emphasis on waste education and economic measures to encourage householders to reduce the amount of rubbish they produce, for example through variable charging.
Education and householder economic measures
The Recycle Now campaign, from the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme, has started to have a positive impact on public participation in recycling. This has been the first high-profile, national campaign of its kind and there is a need for its continued support.
There is still much to be done to motivate people to recycle and ensure that householders understand that recycling is of national significance as well as being important regionally and locally.
Variable charging for householders
However, it's not just increased waste education that will encourage people to think about what they consume and throw away. Charging householders for the amount of waste they put out for disposal has the potential to send a strong message to individuals about the environmental impact of their waste production.
Variable charging schemes have had a very significant impact in other European countries and, if implemented carefully, would represent an equitable way of charging people for their waste collection services, as opposed to a fixed fee within their Council Tax payments.
Giving councils the power to directly charge for waste management has received support from both the public and private sectors.
To ensure that these charging schemes can be put in place fairly there need to be good doorstep collection schemes in place for recyclable and compostable materials.
The Household Waste Recycling Act will ensure sure that everyone has at least two materials collected for recycling and composting from their home by 2010. However, the requirements of the Act should go further so that everyone has a wider range of materials conveniently collected from their homes.
The national economic framework
Increasing and extending the landfill tax
The Government has recognised that if the landfill tax is to become an effective economic instrument it needs to be much higher. The Government has set the target level at £35 per tonne, but with the current escalator of £3 per year that level will not be reached until 2011. A rise of £5 per tonne each year would mean the target could be reached by 2008.
The Government should also extend the landfill tax to become a disposal tax, to include incineration and other energy from waste options.
The landfill tax escalator is serving as a useful tool for diverting waste from landfill, but there is no similar driver for driving waste further up the hierarchy. Disposal taxes, including waste sent for incineration, have been introduced in other European countries to reflect the environmental costs of various waste treatment technologies.
Disposable products tax
There are an increasing number of disposable products coming onto the market which could exacerbate our waste problems. A disposable products tax would send an economic signal to consumers that disposable products should be avoided to prevent waste.
In Denmark, there is a general tax on disposable items, such as batteries, electric bulbs, tyres and pesticides. Similarly in Belgium there is a product tax on disposable drink containers and some types of packaging. The revenue from the tax could then fund the appropriate recycling or disposal of such goods.
Deposit refund schemes
Deposits on packaging have been phased out in the UK, but are still prevalent in other countries including Sweden, where a system operates for glass and plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
These schemes could be implemented to encourage reuse and recycling. A number of schemes have achieved return levels in excess of 90 per cent.
Virgin materials tax
The Government should also consider the implementation of a tax on virgin materials to increase the cost of products made from virgin materials in comparison to products made from recycled materials.
The principle of this type of tax would be to internalise the environmental costs of mining, harvesting and extracting virgin materials and boost the markets for recycled materials.
Tackling commercial waste
Recycling infrastructure and producer responsibility
Waste Strategy 2000 concentrated on measures regarding municipal waste, but we also need to tackle the other waste streams, in particular waste from the commercial sector.
Some of this stream is similar in composition to household waste, particularly glass bottles, cans and paper and there may be environmental benefits in collecting these together for recycling. Operational and funding systems for doing this should be investigated.
There have been some successful producer responsibility schemes for specific sectors, such as the voluntary agreement on the recycled content of newsprint.
The Government should look at where similar approaches can be taken in other sectors with the aim of closing the loop in terms of recycling end products into new materials for the production process.
A legislation framework is also needed so that statutory targets can be imposed if voluntary agreements do not achieve the desired results.
Progress has been made over the past few years: recycling has improved and there is more funding available for waste management. Still, the current focus is on delivering basic waste management rather than transforming the way products and services are produced and consumed.
The review of Waste Strategy 2000 presents an opportunity to reassess our current policies and to set the UK on the path towards a sustainable use of resources.
By Georgina Bloomfield, Waste Campaigner, Friends of the Earth.
For more information email Georgina Bloomfield at Friends of the Earth or call her on 020 7490 1555.
Friends of the Earth