Waste & Recycling – Review of the Year 2006

European legislation was the main driver behind changes in the waste and recycling sector during 2006, with the WEEE Directive taking centre stage.

The year saw the notion of producer responsibility pick up pace, as regulations designed to make manufacturers pay for the waste produced by their products began to bite.

As Europe’s flagship waste policy, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive, showed its success in countries which had met the deadline for its adoption, latecomers like the UK continued to struggle with the implications of the regulations and ironed out wrangles about exactly who would pay, how they would pay and where the waste would be processed.

The End of Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive mirrored WEEE and took car scrapping down a new road, making it a legal obligation to recycle the vast majority of parts rather than following the traditional route of keeping the steel and dumping the rest.

There were even moves to introduce producer take-back for plastic waste from farms – a bigger waste stream than might be supposed – and action was not restricted to the EU, as demonstrated when computer manufacturer Dell announced it would voluntarily take back its unwanted equipment in the United States.

Waste managers in the UK continued to look to the continent for inspiration – and a source of envy – as the message that Britain was lagging behind many of its neighbours continued to be drummed home.

Progress was made, albeit it faltering, as recycling rates rose and levels of municipal waste finally fell, but there were still many hurdles to overcome.

One of these problems was the public reaction to suggestions that people should be charged according to the amount of waste they produce – an incentive which has been proven to work all over Europe and advocated in the UK by think thank the IPPR and the Local Government Association, a kind of trade association for councils (see related story).

The tabloids, however, took a different view, screaming about the ‘spy in your bin’ as they referred to the microchip which would register bins as belonging to a particular address to allow local authorities to work out the bill for each property.

2006 was also a big year for green procurement, particularly in the public sector, with a host of authorities and organisations from Whitehall to village halls waking up to the savings that could be made by buying products and services which produced less waste in the first place or were based on recycled materials.

The global battles against plastic bags has continued around the world, with legislative progress aimed to restrict the proliferation of bag waste being made in Kenya while individual communities such as Collingwood in New Zealand’s Golden Bay have taken informal steps to ban plastic bags.

In the UK Scotland, which had looked set to follow in the footsteps of Ireland and introduce its own plastax, scrapped the idea at the eleventh hour claiming that the campaign for a levy on plastic bags had done a great deal to raise the issue’s profile and legal measures were no longer necessary.

A number of large retailers also took steps to reduce plastic bag waste, among them furniture giant IKEA which hiked up prices on its disposable bags while slashing the cost of its reusable bags and several major supermarkets announced plans for biodegradable bags, bonus loyalty points for customers who did not take bags or future charges for bags.

The summer saw two great escapes, as both a tortoise and, a week later, a hamster managed to survive being recycled – or at least going through the mechanised sorting process – after accidentally ending up in the rubbish.

Progress was made in the realm of battery recycling and disposal, with the EU setting tougher recovery rates (related story) as trial programmes looking at effective methods of collection sprang up in the UK and elsewhere

(related story).

Another big story – and its spin offs – rumbled along throughout the year in the UK, following the progress of the Government’s review of England’s waste strategy. The launch of the review in February generated the first exchange in a war of words over the suitability of incineration as a solution to the UK’s waste woes and set the scene for a debate which would continue throughout the year.

Defra spent much of the year countering attacks from environmentalists, health groups and the nimby hoards whilst trying to push the message that most countries with high recycling rates also had high levels of incineration.

At engagement after engagement, Defra officers told industry representatives that energy from waste would not usurp the place of recycling in the waste hierarchy and it was to be considered primarily as a disposal option with the added benefits of providing a small amount of energy and producing less greenhouse gases than landfill.

Whether incinerators eventually plug the gap remains to be seen, but dumping waste in a hole in the ground looks set to become an economic no-no according to leaked correspondence between Environment Secretary David Miliband and the Chancellor which suggested the current accelerator on landfill gate fees was too little too late and a much more substantial price hike was needed to make recycling, recovery and burning the most attractive option.

Of course, making landfill unaffordable does make side-stepping legal dumps in favour of a quiet country lane or patch of industrial wasteland more tempting to the unscrupulous so the other big story of the year was, predictably, about the fear of fly-tipping and the measures needed to tackle it.

Sam Bond

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