Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Sixth Report



1. "Waste not, want not" was almost the motto for the Select Committee on the Environment when it inquired into Recycling in 1994.[1] Four years later it seemed advisable for us to revisit the topic to see what progress had been made.

2. In the four years, the political arguments in favour of waste minimisation and recycling have been substantially reinforced; similarly, the concept and range of what counts as waste has been clarified. However, on the practical side of making real progress in reducing the volume of materials used, recycling products which have reached the end of their useful life, recovering energy from waste and dramatically reducing rubbish going into landfill, there is very little progress to report. Few local authorities have come anywhere near the Government's target of 25 per cent recycling.

3. At present 20 per cent of the world's population uses 80 per cent of the world's resources: the other 80 per cent-the population of the developing world-uses only 20 per cent of these resources. Such inequality cannot continue. Traditionally it has been believed that as the less developed world developed it would use more and more resources, and that the world's supply of resources would expand to accommodate that; any shortage of raw material would either stimulate the search for new supplies or encourage the use of alternatives. Now, we are having to face the fact that such a level of resource use would push the world way beyond what is sustainable; so either the developing world has to be held back or the developed world has to find ways to sustain current standards of living using far fewer resources: may be as little as 10 per cent of the resources we use now. Such a revolution in resource use, and possibly re-use, is the real driving force behind today's needs for the developed world to take waste minimisation and sustainable development seriously.

4. As important is for us to understand and to look at the whole picture as far as waste is concerned. A cup and saucer appears to be a very efficient item in terms of waste minimisation and sustainability. It can be used over and over again, and even when it eventually breaks the bits may make good drainage in a plant pot. However, what really needs to be looked at is the waste which is created as the china clay is extracted, the energy used in manufacture, the number of rejected cups during manufacture, the wastage before the product is sold, and once sold, the water and detergent used in cleaning it after each time it has been used. In such a picture the difference between the throwaway plastic or cardboard cup and the china one may not be so clear cut. In this Report, we have chosen to look at that wider picture under the title Sustainable Waste Management.

5. Our terms of reference were:

  • the environmental impact of different waste management options and the validity of the waste management hierarchy;

  • the environmental validity of the EC and UK targets and the likelihood of achieving them;

  •  the impact of recent and proposed legislation such as the Landfill Tax and Packaging Directive upon performance against the EC and UK targets;

  • the role to be played by different waste management options in future UK strategy;

  •  the need for additional legislation or alternative policy instruments to achieve a sustainable balance of waste management options; and

  •  the roles, achievements and policies of DETR, the Environment Agency, local authorities and other public and private bodies concerned with waste management.

In the course of our inquiry we have received written evidence from over 120 individuals and organisations; have heard oral evidence from twenty organisations; and have paid visits to Hampshire, Liverpool and Manchester. We are very grateful for the information and assistance we have received. We also wish to record our thanks to our Advisers, Mr David Mills, Dr Judith Petts and Mr Howard Tollit, for steering us through this very complex subject.

6. Waste management is a very large subject, and we have therefore chosen to limit the scope of our investigations. Certain specific areas, such as the management of clinical and hazardous wastes, might merit an inquiry to themselves. For the purposes of this Report, and in response to the vast majority of the submissions we received, we are primarily concerned with the Government's strategy in relation to the municipal waste stream although we expect that our conclusions could be applied more widely.

The problem of waste

7. Waste is the by-product of human activity. Materials and products become waste when they no longer have a value to the person who has them; either because they are damaged, broken, soiled or contaminated, or simply because they are no longer of any use to that person.

8. Waste can be classified in a number of different ways. For example, according to whether it is solid, liquid or a gas; by its original use (food perhaps, or packaging); by type of material; by its physical properties (combustible or biodegradable); or by its source in households, industry or elsewhere. It is the latter-the source-which forms the basis of the definition of waste in the UK.

9. Modern lifestyles have led to a more acute waste problem. Packaging of goods can provide protection and give them a longer 'shelf life' as well as giving them added attraction. Modern lifestyles require and can make use of more 'convenience' products such as pre-cooked and chilled foods which generally require more packaging. People have increasingly high expectations of levels of food hygiene and safety of all products which they buy. They have high demands for products which make life easier and more enjoyable. Modern waste compared to waste prior to the 1960s contains a higher proportion of non-degradable materials such as plastics and of chemicals. Hazardous waste is often perceived to be an industrial problem, but households also produce such wastes: for example, oils, paints, domestic and garden chemicals, clinical waste, solvents and batteries.

10. Despite the fact that the 27 million tonnes of household waste produced in the UK each year represents only about 5 per cent of the total amount of waste produced it is one of the most difficult wastes to manage. It consists of a diverse mixture of materials (paper, glass, metal, organic material, plastic) with relatively small amounts of each. Packaging waste constitutes about 25-30 per cent of the household dustbin waste stream, putrescible materials about 25 per cent, glass about 8 per cent and plastics about 5 per cent.[2] The composition of the waste also varies seasonally (for example, greater amounts of garden waste in the spring and autumn), geographically and according to different demographic characteristics: areas with a high number of single person households produce more waste per capita. A significant proportion of the waste is organic with potential polluting effects upon disposal. In contrast industrial waste is often more homogenous, with greater proportions of individual materials, so making them easier to separate and either re-use, or recycle or treat.

11. Traditionally concerns about waste focussed on health and safety issues. Today, however, waste management is also a significant environmental issue. There is a need to conserve resources and also to prevent pollution of the environment when a material is consigned to the waste stream. All of the options for managing waste have the potential for adverse environmental impacts, although to variable degrees. Whilst minimising the use of resources clearly has to be the most important management activity, even this can cause problems if a full life-cycle assessment is not applied. Recycling requires materials to be transported-with resultant effects on air quality-and siting a recycling bin in a local street can lead to nuisance in terms of litter and noise. Composting can produce odour and potential water pollution problems if not controlled. Incineration produces emissions to air and an ash for disposal, both of which require strict control. Landfill has potential long-term impacts not least in terms of potential pollution of water resources as well as local nuisance problems during the operation of a site. Future generations will be able to study the lifestyles of today by digging into the landfill sites which we bequeath to them because the yoghurt cartons, cassettes, stereos, plastic bags and shampoo bottles will still be recognisable in tens or even hundreds of years' time. We currently dispose of 88 per cent of household waste to landfill sites, which is one of the highest proportions of any of the European Union member states.

12. There is little doubt that to the bulk of the population waste management is an "out of sight out of mind" problem. Indeed, the majority of people would not know what happens to their household's waste after it has been collected from them. They will also be unaware that the volume of waste is rising, despite all efforts to recycle (which, as we will suggest, are not adequate), and that many local authorities are running out of an adequate number of sites to dispose of the waste. Yet if waste should be left on the streets, or in storage, until suitable alternatives for management can be found, there would be an even bigger environmental and health problem than at present.

13. Thus the waste problem is social, political, economic, physical, environmental and local. Making decisions now, on how waste should be managed in the future, requires difficult choices to be made in each of these areas. Our inquiry has identified significant issues and problems relating to each of them.


14. Waste management throughout the European Union is governed by a Framework Directive on Waste Management.[3] This Directive, which sets out the essential requirements for member states in managing waste so as to avoid pollution and long-lasting negative environmental impact, requires each state to produce a waste management plan.

15. The current waste management strategy for England and Wales was published by the previous Government in December 1995, as the White Paper Making Waste Work: a strategy for sustainable waste management in England and Wales.[4] The paper set out the options for waste management presented by the waste hierarchy, together with targets for change towards more sustainable policies and case studies for specific waste streams. It is largely supported by the new Government.[5]

16. However, Making Waste Work was declared by the then Government to be "an advisory document" rather than a statutory plan. The document stated the Government's intention to draw up a statutory plan, but it was claimed that this could not be done until "1997 at the earliest": advice from the Environment Agency (at the time not even established), and the results of a national survey of waste arising were among the issues to be considered.[6] Such a statutory strategy was not published in the lifetime of the last Government but the new Government announced its intention to consult upon a statutory strategy a week before the start of our inquiry.[7]

17. It is important to stress from the beginning of our Report our profound disappointment, on the basis of the evidence we have received, that waste management in this country is still characterised by inertia, careless administration and ad hoc, rather than science based, decisions. Lip-service alone, in far too many instances, has been paid to the principles of reducing waste and diverting it from disposal. Central Government has lacked the commitment, and local government the resources, to put a sustainable waste management strategy into practice. The failure to publish a statutory strategy is a symptom, we believe, of the weakness which has afflicted government in considering this issue: the previous Government was quite right in saying that a statutory strategy could not be drawn up because none of the information required to draw it up was in place. It is barely in place now. In the following paragraphs we discuss the evidence reflecting this and other problems surrounding the UK's existing waste strategy, with a view to drawing lessons for the promised future strategy.


18. One criticism occurred repeatedly as we read through the evidence: that at all levels, local, national and even international, there is a lack of reliable information about the nature and volume of wastes arising.[8] Without such information it is impossible to determine how much waste exists to be dealt with and what type and size of facilities are needed to process it;[9] it is difficult also to set meaningful targets for options such as composting, or to monitor progress against them.[10] An associated problem is the lack of uniformly-applied definitions of waste across Europe, which would enable the UK's performance in waste management to be compared with those of other member states: for example, Germany includes figures for trade and commercial wastes within its statistics on municipal wastes, whereas the UK does not.[11]

19. On the matter of data available within the UK, Gill Weeks of Cleanaway Limited was particularly critical of Making Waste Work, pointing out that:

"Household and commercial data was from 1989 so that was six years old when Making Waste Work was published and the industrial figures are quoted back to the mid-1980s. Conceivably that data was already ten years old when the strategy was published."[12]

Jane Bickerstaffe of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) added that "the only way to know what is in waste is to go and measure it": she drew our attention to the cancellation of the National Household Waste Analysis Programme between 1994 and 1997, a move which she said had greatly disappointed her organisation.[13] The scale of the problem presented by this lack of information is illustrated by two discoveries during the course of our inquiry. The first was the publication of the new national survey of municipal waste arising, which revealed that six million tonnes more waste is produced each year by households than had previously been thought (representing an underestimation by a quarter).[14] The second occurred during the Environment Agency's first presentation of evidence, when officials admitted they were unable to tell us how much fly-tipping had been caused by the landfill tax because there is no "reliable base-line" information about the extent of the problem previously.[15]

20. The continuing lack of information in Government about waste is extraordinary: it would appear to be common sense that one first identifies the nature and scale of the problem before attempting to sort it out. The production of accurate statistics on waste arising, the composition of waste at the point of arising and on the demographic structure of households (which affects that composition) must be a Government priority. We do, however, note that the non-statutory designation of the White Paper and the commissioning of the new annual Municipal Waste Survey suggest the former Government came to recognise its failure and took steps to rectify it.


21. In the circumstances it is not surprising that we experienced considerable difficulty in encouraging witnesses to identify current trends in waste arising.[16] None would commit themselves over a term of 20-30 years. However, the Local Government Association did suggest that at present quantities of municipal (including household) waste appear to be increasing, with actual increases varying between 5 per cent per annum and 12 per cent per annum across the country.[17] Subsequently, it supplied specific examples including Leicester (8 per cent), Westminster (11 per cent) and Bexley (7 per cent) but warned that "growth in waste is affected by economic conditions as well as other imponderables, rendering it impossible to make meaningful long term projections" over the timescale we had suggested.[18] What the Association was prepared to state categorically was that the increases which are being experienced at present by local authorities "By and large ... overtake the ability to implement recycling schemes" and represent "a continuing spiral upwards which has an impact on costs and facilities".[19] Dr Kramer of the European Commission told us that waste generation is, to the best of the Commission's knowledge, rising across Europe also.[20]

The targets in Making Waste Work

22. The 1995 White Paper established a number of targets against which progress towards sustainable waste management would be measured. Of these, the targets which concerned us primarily were:

The first and second of these targets were described as primary targets, while the third (originally expressed in the 1990 White Paper This Common Inheritance) was described as a "secondary target" relating to a particular waste stream, the achievement of which would help to ensure the primary target was met. Further targets-which one might reasonably describe as tertiary targets -were set to assist in achievement of the secondary target. These specified:

  • 40 per cent of domestic properties with a garden to carry out composting by the year 2000;
  • easily accessible recycling facilities for 80 per cent of households by the year 2000;[22] and
  • one million tonnes of organic household waste per annum to be composted by the year 2001.[23]

These additional targets will be discussed further in paragraphs 78 and 101.

23. Opinions as to the value of the targets tended to be negative, for a variety of reasons. Kind descriptions stated that they were "well meaning"[24] if "often arbitrary"[25]; the less generous called them irrational,[26] "nonsensical",[27] and "random and developed under emotional pressure".[28] They were criticised specifically for attributing an environmental benefit to recycling without regard to the Best Practicable Environmental Option (see paragraph 35 below);[29] for the failure to take account of any economic implications;[30] and for the lack of a scientific basis and/or base-line data by which progress could be measured.[31] In contrast, Friends of the Earth claimed that the targets were not ambitious enough.[32]


24. We were struck both by the DETR's candid acknowledgement of the unscientific nature of the targets and by the degree of confusion amongst witnesses over the status of the targets.[33] At this point it is important to note that while the 'secondary' target for recycling calls for a rate of 25 per cent by 2000, the rate achieved by the end of 1997, as an average for local authorities across England and Wales, was between 6 per cent and 7 per cent.[34]

25. We put it to the DETR that, given current performance, the target is now unlikely to be achieved. While officials agreed that the rate of recycling is disappointing they would not be drawn on the likelihood of the target being reached: in any case, they argued, reaching or missing the target is beside the point since the targets were never prescriptive but rather "expressly aspirational ... [being] meant to try to galvanise thinking".[35] Other witnesses cast doubt upon this point, among them Terry Coleman of the Environment Agency. He told us that while employed by the DETR he assisted in the development of Making Waste Work but he has no recollection of the targets being described as 'aspirational' at that time.[36] Mike Childs, waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth, had first heard the targets described in this way "in the early part" of 1997.[37] The confusion has possibly arisen over the use in discussion of the term 'aspirational' where in Making Waste Work and the new guidance to local authorities on recycling, the targets are instead described as 'indicative'.[38]

26. The Minister affirmed that the targets had always been aspirational, arguing that it would be unreasonable of Government "to produce a mandatory target which in all honesty a very large number of the relevant parties ... could not meet".[39] However, he also stated that "local authorities are perfectly well aware that they are expected by Government to hit it".[40] The Government really cannot have it both ways.

27. We have also detected a degree of confusion over whether the recycling target is meant to be achieved by each local authority individually, or as a composite of local activity. The White Paper may be misread on this point but, since other targets refer specifically to individual actions by local authorities, we are inclined to believe the Government's statement that the 25 per cent target is for England and Wales as a whole.[41]

28. We consider that the uncertainty over the significance of the targets in Making Waste Work, and the continuing failure to provide either scientific justification or material support for their achievement has seriously damaged their credibility. We do not believe that the targets were ever aspirational, but if they were, they have provoked a negative response. We believe that the targets must now be re-affirmed with vigour.

29. These remarks conclude our general discussion of the existing UK strategy. In the following sections we consider the principles upon which a future waste management strategy should be founded, and two of the tools-the waste hierarchy and life-cycle assessment-which will enable those principles to be put into action. The first part of our Report will then conclude with a more detailed consideration of each of the options represented in the waste hierarchy.


30. While a future strategy-at the local, regional and national level-must be based on the scientific understanding of current data, it must also be firmly founded in principle. There are two guiding principles which, together, make a good foundation for future development: sustainable development and the Best Practicable Environmental Option (or BPEO).


31. The concept of sustainable development was first defined formally in the Brundtland Commission report of 1987, Our Common Future.[42] This definition, of "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" has been widely accepted but arising from it has come the term "sustainable" which, applied to single issue policies, philosophies and even products, can sometimes be far more difficult to understand. Some groups, notably WyeCycle,[43] have suggested that the application of the term to any waste management strategy is particularly inappropriate since there is no scope for waste within a truly sustainable system; instead, society should be aspiring to a 'closed loop' (cyclical and renewable) approach to resource use.[44]

32. Others, although sympathetic to this view, took a more pragmatic approach. While there was a clear consensus on the importance of reassessing society's approach to waste, and encouraging the reduction and avoidance of waste throughout the material life-cycle,[45] the Community Composting Network reminded us that Agenda 21, the statement of intent arising from the 1992 Rio Convention on sustainable development for the 21st century, "is about environment on one side and about people on another side but also about being sustainable from an economic point of view as well".[46] Michael Walker of the Composting Association stressed the importance of public acceptance, if any strategy is to be adhered to in the long term.[47]

33. A strategy for sustainable waste management, therefore, should be capable of moving an imperfect system towards one which is better, whilst taking into account the need for economic development and the needs and views of individuals within society. Implementing any such strategy will inevitably take time; while that change is taking place there will also be a responsibility to deal with wastes arising in the most beneficial and least environmentally damaging way possible. A scientific understanding of the options has a key role to play in determining which will be best in disposing of unavoidable wastes;[48] the response of society will also be a highly significant factor. In this first part of our Report we shall continue to examine the options available for treating and disposing of waste; in the second part we shall discuss the potential contributions to be made by individuals, communities, organisations and Government so that resource use-of which waste production and management is a part- in the future may be more sustainable than it is at present.

1  Second Report HC 63-I, 1993-94 Back

2  An Introduction to Household Waste Management, ETSU, Didcot 1998 p7 Back

3  75/442/EEC, amended by 91/156/EEC Back

4  Cm 3040, HMSO, London Back

5  Ev p 164 Back

6  Making Waste Work, Cm 3040 HMSO London 1995 paras 1.113-1.116 Back

7  DETR News Release 020 13 January 1998  Back

8  See for example Ev pp 12, 95, 110, 135, 148, 177, 220, 241, 264 Back

9  Q355 Back

10  Q451 Back

11  Q319 Back

12  Q317 Back

13  Q355 Back

14  Q123. The Municipal Waste Survey revealed production of 26 million tonnes per annum, as opposed to the previous estimate of 20 million tpa. Back

15  Q89 Back

16  For further information on waste arising see paragraph 10 Back

17  Q124 Back

18  Ev p 217 Back

19  Q127 Back

20  Q686 Back

21  Making Waste Work Cm 3040 HMSO London 1995 pp8-9 Back

22  The paper defines `easily accessible' as the provision of kerbside collection; or a bring scheme such as paper and bottle banks within about ½ mile; or the same scheme within 2 miles when co-located with frequently used facilities such as shops, sports centres or schools (p41). Back

23  Op cit., p9 Back

24   Ev p 9 Back

25  Ev p 150 Back

26  Ev p 275 Back

27  Ev p 12 Back

28  Ev p 148 Back

29  Ev pp 108-109 Back

30  Ev pp 59, 171 Back

31  Ev pp 12, 177 Back

32  Ev p 33, Q285 Back

33  Q116 Back

34  Q854 Back

35  Q16 Back

36  Q64 Back

37  Q293 Back

38  Making Waste Work, Cm 3040, HMSO London 1995 p9; Preparing and Revising Local Authority Recycling Strategies and Recycling Plans, DETR March 1998 Back

39  Q860 Back

40  Q858 Back

41  Q854 Back

42  World Commission on Environment and Development Back

43  Ev not printed Back

44  Ev p 228; for further discussion of a closed loop system see paragraph 60 Back

45  See for example QQ3, 102, 440; Ev pp 115, 272 Back

46  Q437 Back

47  Q440 Back

48  See for example Q561 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 30 June 1998