Public & private sectors seek firm targets as national waste strategy takes shape

The National Waste Strategy programmed to emerge from the DETR during 1999 will have major implications for all sectors of the waste management process, covering priorities in minimisation, collection, treatment and disposal, affecting local authorities, the waste management industry, regulators and manufacturers of waste handling and treatment equipment. In this special feature LAWE highlights key policy issues addressed by Ministers and in the extensive responses from leading bodies in the field hoping to help shape the UK’s waste policy for the next century.

The consultation exercise on the Labour Government’s revised National Waste Strategy set out in Less Waste: More Value has drawn a massive response from environmental and waste interests.

Manitou forklift handling waste

The IWM, the CPRE, the ESA, the LGA and LARAC have all joined in the debate, the outcome of which will set priorities on how the UK tackles its mounting waste problem well into the 21st century.

According to the latest recruit to the Ministerial team at the DETR, Alan Meale, the Government has been looking forward to receiving a wide range of innovative responses to the consultation.

The Junior Environment Minister told the ESA Conference recently that he was very keen that the consultation initiated in June by Michael Meacher ought not to be seen as an end to that debate, as the Government developed and drafted the new waste strategy for England and Wales which was intended for adoption before the end of 1999.

Threat or challenge?

On specific issues he said: “Some waste companies see waste minimisation as a threat, perhaps because they believe there is a direct correlation between the quantities of waste they handle, and their company profits.”

The Minister said that he believed that waste minimisation ought not be viewed as a threat: but as a challenge. A challenge to waste companies to develop, to diversify and to evolve.

“Similarly,” he told the ESA conference, “we must learn to view the waste that is collected not as a problem to be dealt with, but as a resource – perhaps the last resource – to be exploited.”

Turning to materials recovery and recycling the Environment Minister pointed out that the forthcoming Landfill Directive would set reduction targets for municipal solid waste going to landfill, which the UK would have to meet over the coming years.

“It is clear,” he said, “that cutting the amount of waste we produce will not be enough to meet these new targets – therefore we need to divert waste towards the many materials and energy recovery options available.”

Less Waste: More Value recognised that there were barriers to increased recycling, and one of those was the underdeveloped state of the recyclable markets. The Minister saw a role for both the Government and the waste management industry in developing markets for secondary materials.

The Government has also responded to the Commons Environment Select Committee’s Report on Sustainable Waste Management, which although it was largely drafted before Less Waste: More Value was published, highlighted key areas which required an answer.

Alan Meale said that the Select Committee rightly drew attention to the lack of data on waste and he announced on 24 September that the latest Municipal Waste Management survey, covering the year 1996-97, would be published in December. He also noted that the Environment Agency had embarked on a major survey of industrial and commercial waste arisings, which would not only inform the strategy, but also provide baseline data for against which performance could be compared in the future.

IWM viewpoint

The Institute of Wastes Management (IWM), prefaces its detailed response to Less Waste: More Value, with a declaration that it is “firmly supportive” of the consultation paper.

Dealing with the proposals point by point the IWM comments:

There is an opportunity for all players in the industry and for the Government to take a lead in developing a perception of waste as a resource. This will enable the industry to promote recycling and reuse in a far more proactive way than is the case at present

A positive step would be that the word “minimisation” be replaced with “prevention” throughout the document. This would make the approach more active and positive

The Institute believes that there is a fundamental requirement in the development of a National Strategy for reliable, accurate statistics. The Institute looks to the Environment Agency and other bodies to make this information available at the earliest opportunity and to ensure a uniformity of approach

The Institute urges that all available waste statistical information is released at the earliest opportunity

The Institute supports the Government statement that the waste hierarchy as presented is theoretical in nature. The IWM supports the use of the theoretical hierarchy, and considerations such as the proximity principle: this latter concept would involve the reduction of transport of waste and recyclable materials, and enhance the role of local reprocessors, operators and involve the local community. All this should be considered in the light of BPEO.

Setting targets

On targets, the IWM believes that aspirational targets for waste management are no longer supportable. Targets must be based on sound scientific information and include accurate, baseline data, capable of proper measurement and explanation. Whether the Government sets targets at a national level or not, national targets will be interpreted by some local authorities or regions as local or regional targets or as their contributions to the overall goals. Performance indicators, benchmarking and output figures are being used to compare local authorities, all of whom want to be viewed favourably against their neighbours. This competition will be extended into recycling and other targets whether nationally set, or not

The Institute supports the use of Landfill Tax credits for a wider array of waste management initiatives, including waste minimisation, and would press the Government to widen the availability of credits put back into local authority supported recycling schemes

The Institute makes a plea that the future rises in Landfill Tax are of a more predictable nature, so that long-term budgeting for credit finance schemes can be put in place

The reference to the role of householders and consumers, and their potential environmental impact in waste prevention and minimisation is over-stated. The public can make a substantial contribution to recycling, however, their contribution to waste prevention and minimisation, as individuals, is very small. Similarly, too much is expected of consumers, who make purchasing decisions based on cost, value for money and availability, and little else, and have, by and large, not considered in their decision-making process any environmental issues

Industry and commerce have a far greater role to play in waste prevention, however, it is the waste management industry who must be seen to be taking a lead in an integrated approach.

The waste industry should continue to be actively involved in raising awareness of the options available for waste treatment and disposal, and to promote with the Government the concept of an integrated approach to the waste strategy.

Variable charging

On the headline-grabbing proposal raised by Environment Minister Michael Meacher at the launch of Less Waste: More Value, to set up variable charging schemes, the IWM takes a generally cautious view.

The Institute says: “It would seem sensible to allow local authorities to set up such schemes, or develop their own methods, to make householders more sensitive to the environmental impact of their waste. They can learn much from the development of such schemes in Europe, particularly in Germany, and overseas, particularly in the United States.”

The IWM points out that there are options for weighing individual containers and charging the householder for the tonnage produced, or alternatively, charging for the volume of the container and allowing individuals to decide on the size, and therefore the cost, of refuse collection and disposal. The Institute also reports that much work has been also been done on the environmental implications of these measures and whether they have resulted in increases in flytipping, increases in recycling or contamination of the recyclables.

“We should learn from this research and practical implementation prior to setting up such a scheme in the UK,” the IWM suggests.

The Institute adds: “There is a feeling, however, that a direct charge for waste production such as variable charging is not the answer to household waste reduction. The cost per household of waste management is barely significant and it does not seem possible to effect change by reflecting cost to individuals. Instead this an be achieved,” the IWM argues, “by public involvement, by encouraging and promoting change in attitude and behaviour.”

Aims needed says ESA

Commenting on the National Waste Strategy proposals at the ESA’s National Conference, the Association’s Chief Executive Peter Neill said: “The Government must work with current leaders of the waste management industry to develop a firm business plan that can be used to attract financial backing for projects with long payback periods. Operators can’t, and won’t, invest millions of pounds on a theoretical, contradictory, poorly researched strategy, which, on past experience, may well change.

“The waste management industry needs pragmatic, practical answers with a commercial and environmental perspective. Less Waste: More Value is a good start, but there is very little at this stage about how the aims will be met.”

Peter Neill called on the Government to:

Establish a Ministerial-led Advisory Stakeholders Forum

Establish a solid research base: determine the BPEO for managing waste on a site-specific basis, so strategy decisions are based on improved life cycle, risk assessment and cost-benefit research

Promote education and information initiatives: a high profile Government-backed initiative is needed to raise awareness and understanding about waste management

Recognise the limits of the waste hierarchy: a simplistic, conceptual framework and a rigid, pre-determined hierarchy is incompatible with BPEO and Integrated Pollution, Prevention and Control (IPPC) objectives

Set clear parameters for the strategy: Less Waste: More Value focuses on municipal waste, but it is not clear whether it is also attempting to set a framework for commercial and industrial waste

Summarise the known and expected legislative parameters: For example the draft Landfill Directive and the Packaging Waste Regulation requirements for recycling and recovery have already established some targets.

Local government response

Brian Briscoe, Chief Executive of the Local Government Association (LGA), also addressing the ESA Conference, said that the LGA had strongly welcomed the consultation document and its commitment to develop a waste management strategy underpinned by the principle of sustainable development.

Mr Briscoe said: “It is worth noting, though, that consultation papers do seem to be getting “greener” than ever – “greener” not in the sense of environmentally sensitive, but very much open for consultation and without firm proposals. Less Waste: More Value seems to ask an awful lot of questions and offer a relatively small number of proposals.”

The LGA welcomed in particular the emphasis on waste minimisation as the key operational principle to be adopted, while preferring, like the IWM , the term “prevention”, because it was more readily understandable. It also made the link with a wide range of other Government policies in which greater emphasis was being placed on prevention rather than “cure, such as in health, in crime and disorder and in fire safety.”

The LGA also backed the “sensible, flexible approach taken to the by-now familiar concept of the waste hierarchy.” The Association agreed with the Government that, whilst the waste hierarchy was in principle very sound, it could not be an absolute guide in all circumstances. There was often a complex judgement to be made about the interplay of various principles or factors, including BPEO, market prices for recycled products, the proximity principle and the financial and environmental costs of transportation of waste.

The LGA also expressed considerable doubts about the merits of the “controversial idea floated in the paper” for local collection authorities to charge householders separately for waste.

Mr Briscoe listed the LGA’s doubts as: the high cost of administering such a scheme; the scope for evasion and abuse; equity issues about a flat charge falling on large, low-income families; and evidence from, for example, the United States that the initial positive benefits of “pay-per-bag” dwindled over time.

The LGA spokesman also stated bluntly: “The target of recycling (and composting) 25% of household waste by the year 2000 is not going to be met: we are currently at only 8%.”

He called on the Government to address seriously the major issue of the volatility of the markets for recyclables, in conjunction with industry on one side and local authorities on the other. Reinforcing the ESA’s argument, he said that long-term investment decisions could only be made with a greater degree of certainty.

LARAC spells out priorities

On more detailed recycling and waste issues, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), as reported in LAWE October 1998, has listed priority issues and policies in its response to Less Waste: More Value.

Following a survey of members views several issues for urgent action were identified, including: funding for local authority recycling schemes; market development for waste paper and for other recyclable; and domestic waste minimisation.

On the hot topic of refuse charging 53% of LARAC members polled approved of the concept (17% strongly) with 32% disapproving.

LARAC reports that many members commented that, if the proposal was implemented, research and trials would be needed and a charging policy would need to be implemented very carefully.

Those disapproving of the proposal suggested that it would be difficult to implement, expensive and lead to more flytipping and penalise large and poor households. A few suggested that it would be seen as another Poll Tax.

Also commenting on the National Waste Strategy consultation document the CPRE said: “Local authorities need to influence the amount of waste produced by new developments if they are to reduce their own rising waste management costs and help protect the countryside.”

That, in a nutshell, is largely what the exercise is all about as the DETR gets down to the hard task of transforming the Less Waste: More Value proposals into a firm waste policy.

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