UK waste strategy includes statutory recycling targets

Local authorities in England and Wales have been set ambitious statutory targets for recycling and composting by UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher.

Other key measures in Waste Strategy 2000, the Government’s waste management strategy for England and Wales, announced by the Minister on 25 May, are:

  • tradable permits limiting the amount local authorities can send to landfill sites (see related story)
  • extending producers’ responsibility to recover their products, for example, newspapers and junk mail
  • extended use of the Landfill Tax credit scheme to deliver an increase in recycling, particularly of household waste
  • plans to require Government departments to buy recycled products, starting with paper
  • a Waste and Resources Action Programme dedicated to developing new markets for recycled waste (see related story)

The Government also plans to continue to raise public awareness, working with the National Waste Awareness Initiative.

Under the Waste Strategy – to meet what Mr Meacher acknowledges are “extremely ambitious ” targets to reduce the amount of waste disposed of to landfill – local authorities will have to recycle 17% of their waste by 2003, almost double the current average. By 2015, that figure will have to rise to at least 33%, around four times today’s rates. The Department of Environment, Transport & the Regions (DETR) says that the targets will be reviewed and “made even tougher if technology improves.”

Without determined action from everyone, the Environment Minister said, councils could otherwise be handling 50 million tonnes of household waste a year by 2020.

Emphasising that the central thrust of achieving these targets would be through a “huge increase in recycling” and composting, Michael Meacher was at pains to distance the Government from reports that it had plans to build a large number of waste incinerators to help achieve the declared goals (see related story).

DETR has been heavily criticised in the run up to the publication of its waste strategy by environmental groups and opposition parties over its alleged agenda to back a significant rise in the number of waste to energy plants (see related story).

Mr Meacher said that such reports were “unmitigated nonsense,” adding that “there are no Government plans to build X or Y incinerators.”

Placing this political hot potato firmly in the hands of municipal town halls, the Minister said: “It is a matter of local government decision.”

However, he did not rule out incineration completely, acknowledging that incineration may be needed to make sure the UK meets its obligations in reducing the amount of waste going to landfill set out in the EU Landfill Directive.

The UK has to reduce waste going to landfill from 85% to 35% by 2016.

Meacher said it would be “wonderful” if the UK could achieve the reduction through recycling, but “we have to be realistic.” The Minister said it was “only sensible to accept that there will be some increase in incineration.”

Commenting on safety fears regarding emissions from incinerators, Mr Meacher said: “I think the health risks are enormously exaggerated. Incinerators are now operated to a hugely tighter emissions standard, as a result of an EU Directive that came in during November 1996. That requires dioxin emissions, which are the main concern, to be no more than one part per billion.” He added that the recently agreed Waste Incineration Directive in the EU “will make dioxin emission standards ten times tighter still at 0.1 parts per billion. But I think we should get this in perspective: far more dioxins are created from burning wood or bonfires, for example at Guy Fawkes’ Night, than from incineration, but nobody thinks bonfires are a risk to health.”

The Minister was less forthcoming when asked how many new waste incinerators might be needed, declining to venture a figure.

He was also unwilling to offer an estimate of the cost of local authorities meeting their new recycling and composting targets, which require kerbside collection to be started by those areas not currently offering this service. He did not see the need for the council tax to be raised but said that the targets had been agreed across Government and that funding issues were being considered as part of the Treasury’s comprehensive spending review, results of which will be known in July.

The Local Government Association (LGA), in its response, picked up on the money issue, stating: “We need a more realistic funding issue from Government. Either local authorities should be given easier access to monies from the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme or there should be direct funding from the Government.”

Sir John Harman, Chairman of the Environment Agency, also welcomed the strategy, in particular its emphasis away from the time-honoured reliance on landfilling towards tackling growth in waste, increasing waste recovery and stimulating sensible recycling.

While Friends of the Earth’s senior campaigner Mike Childs gave a qualified welcome to the statutory recycling targets, he maintained that the new waste strategy had failed “to remove the threat of scores of new incinerators being built in communities across the country.”

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