UK waste summit convened to stave off waste crisis

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, called together key players for a one-day summit on 21 November to find ways to tackle the country’s growing waste problem.

The Waste Summit, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre provided a forum for Green groups, local government, the Environment Agency and business representatives to debate waste issues including waste minimisation, increasing recycling, and strategies for non-recyclable waste.

The UK must address the growing problem of waste because of its legal commitments to meet the requirements of the EU Landfill Directive, which requires the UK to reduce landfilling of biodegradable municipal waste by two-thirds of its 1995 level by 2020. The country produces over 400 million tonnes of waste annually, a figure that is rising.

The summit follows publication on Tuesday of a report from the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) on resource productivity. “Making more productive use of resources is essential for the future health of our environment, businesses and society,” said Beckett. “Our waste summit…has played an important part in taking the PIU’s report forward.”

She also announced that the PIU will start work on a new study with DEFRA and other departments that will review the government’s waste strategy. Starting in December, the PIU will report in summer 2002. Mrs Beckett will be the study’s sponsoring minister.

Beckett described last year’s UK Waste Strategy targets as being “challenging but achievable”, and added that, “this is the first time we’ve ever held a waste summit with the key players to tackle difficult issues, particularly how we can all reduce the waste that we produce”.

The Government has set statutory targets in England to help meet its Landfill Directive commitments. These aim to treble local authority recycling and composting of household waste by 2005/6. The Government also has a target to cut the amount of industrial and commercial waste going being landfilled in England. The Waste Strategy for England, published in May 2000, set out these targets and strategies for achieving them.

“The waste summit is just the start of a process in which we collectively as a country need to face up to the need to make some difficult choices and to take forward policies to deliver the waste strategy,” said the Minister. “There are profound disagreements about how much waste it is possible or desirable to recycle or compost, how much remains to be dealt with by other methods and what those methods should be. We have to get beyond the disagreements to a resolution. We must stem the growth in our waste mountain.”

The Environment Agency welcomed the waste summit, and said it hoped the meeting would prove to be the turning point in achieving sustainable waste management. Chairman Sir John Harman and Chief Executive Barbara Young attended to contribute the Agency’s view of sustainable waste management and to propose concrete solutions.

They called for local government to be given practical financial help to implement “challenging” new waste strategies, and for taxation and variable waste disposal charging, with revenues directed back to local authorities. Harman and Young also urged that waste reduction and recycling targets should apply to businesses as well as local authorities, and for companies to be required to report waste management performance in their statutory annual reports and accounts.

Also on the Agency’s wish-list were firm deadlines for completion of regional and local waste strategies and better planning and development control systems to deliver the waste handling facilities needed to fulfil waste strategies.

Sir John Harman added that waste management is a challenge that everyone has to face together – government, local authorities and the public. “Both landfill sites and incinerators are unpopular with people, yet household waste is growing by around three per cent each year,” he said. “If growth continues at that rate, we will need nearly twice as much waste disposal capacity by 2020 as we would if waste production remains at current levels. We must re-use more, re-cycle more, compost more and recover more energy from waste disposal processes.”

He called the summit timely, and said he hoped it would be successful in injecting urgency into the pace and scale of change needed to tackle the problem. “Strong signals need to be sent both to producers and consumers, and local authorities will need strong support to deliver necessarily ambitious local targets,” he added. “We need integrated solutions involving the right mix of regulation and economic incentives, and which also engage the public effectively. I hope [the] Summit will be the turning point we need in achieving sustainable waste management.”

The day after the summit academics at the University of St Andrews announced that they had been awarded nearly £900,000 for a four-year project looking at a number of historical themes relating to environmental waste. The new centre will look at the country’s recycling and trash culture and the management of household waste.

“This summer, environment minister Michael Meacher identified dealing with our ever-increasing piles of rubbish as one of the biggest challenges facing the UK,” said Dr John Clark, who will act as associate director for the project. “Although careful to separate environmental history from environmentalism, and to avoid simple lessons from history, the centre hopes that, by providing historical perspective, we can increase awareness of the complexities of environmental problems.”

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