A conference hosted by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management attempted to tackle that very issue on Thursday, January 12.

Defra’s Anton van Santen told delegates British policy makers were partly to blame, and had sent out rather confused messages over the years.

While the importance of recycling and recovery had of course been recognised and promoted, he said, there was still little incentive to turn words into action as it was still cheaper to landfill waste than deal with it in a more sustainable fashion.

“We landfill 75% of our waste while other countries are landfilling less than 5%,” he said.

“So what can we learn and what is the relevance of the lessons we can learn today to our forward planning?”

According to consultancy SLR, publisher of the new report Delivering Key Waste Management Infrastructure: Lessons Learned from Europe, quite a lot.

Over the space of several months a team from the consultancy visited numerous waste management sites on the continent and looked at how culture, local needs and historical practices had shaped development of national and regional strategies.

The analysis showed a sharp contrast between those who were succeeding – including several countries which had already met their targets set by the EU for 2016 – and those which were struggling to get past the culture of landfill.

In many cases, it was public perception of waste that had allowed progress to be made.

The Danish, for example, welcome the construction of waste for energy plants on their doorstep for the cheap energy and heating they bring rather than fight them tooth and nail through fear of blight and pollution as the British might.

Meanwhile, by pricing landfill out of the market with hefty taxes the Austrians have forced regional authorities and industry to look at other ways to deal with waste.

“One of the overriding conclusions we came up with was that there is no single approach or system in place across Europe,” said SLR director Andy Street.

“But what we did find was that the best performers have been doing it for ten or 15 years and are ahead of the game.

“There is a firm political commitment and action has been taken to ensure the right bits of infrastructure are in the right place at the right time.

“Legislative measures are consistent with the waste hierarchy and encourage recycling, recovery and reuse and discourage landfill.

“With the poorer performers there has been a lack of an integrated approach therefore a lack of certainty and clarity for industry.”

The UK is making progress, concludes the report, but is still playing catch-up.

In order to join Europe’s top table of waste management several changes still need to be made, argues SLR.

First there must be alternative ways of financing projects such as prudential-style borrowing to make them more attractive to both investors and operators.

Second, regional planning authorities need to be given a clear mandate to lead waste strategies, thus distancing local politicians from potentially unpopular decisions and putting an end to the ‘not our problem’ culture that exists in some parts of local government in the UK.

Third, there should be a clear and consistent compensation system in place for those living near planned facilities to sweeten what can be a bitter pill.

And finally, there needs to be more joined up thinking with municipal solid waste and non-hazardous industrial waste considered together, rather than as entirely separate entities.

The full report can be found on the CIWM website.

By Sam Bond

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