Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report


The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. Waste is not one of the more captivating environmental issues which attract high-profile international conferences and a running media commentary. Instead, it is characterised by a lack of public profile and knowledge: many businesses and most householders have an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to waste disposal with few considering what happens after the 'black sack' or wheelie-bin is collected. Increasingly, though, as a society we are all being forced to look at waste issues rather more closely and make tough decisions about precisely what we should be doing with our waste. This Committee has a long history of consideration of this issue and has produced a number of Reports on waste issues during the last ten years.

2. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of conducting inquiries into waste matters is that a sense of déjà vu pervades some of the evidence we receive and, ultimately, the Report we produce. For example, in 1998, we stressed that:

Although the case for waste minimisation and more efficient resource use is now widely accepted, such inequality has continued more or less unchallenged since we wrote those words. Action to bring more efficient resource use and help minimise waste has been conspicuous by its absence.

3. We also expressed our:

    "profound disappointment ... 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. Cental Government has lacked the commitment, and local government the resources, to put a sustainable waste management strategy into practice."[11]

Although some progress has been made since then, the thrust of our conclusions is little changed more than two years later.

4. As such, it is difficult fully to express our disappointment with the continuing inertia and low level of expectation which characterise waste management in this country. As a nation, we produce too much waste, we fail to re-use, recycle or compost enough of what we do produce and we now appear to be planning to shift a good portion of that waste from the least attractive option, landfill, to the second least attractive one, incineration. Yet some cities and countries around the world are being ambitious and are aiming to provide the much talked about 'step change' in waste management. For examples of the enthusiasm we are talking about, one can look to the 'Zero Waste by 2020' plan for Western Australia,[12] Canberra's success in increasing its recycling rate from near zero to 59% in just 8 years[13] and Flanders' shift from 18% to 59% recycling in seven years. These places started earlier than us and have aimed higher. Such ambition brings the rewards of jobs, a cleaner environment and, ultimately, a more sustainable waste management system. But instead of using these as examples of what can be achieved, many seem happier to carp and question the potential to replicate such vision or achievement here in England.

5. The majority of those involved with waste in this country appear to be guilty of thinking without imagination and planning without ambition, of finding problems instead of solutions and aiming for short-term goals without a vision of the system of resource use and waste management which we should be striving for. The failure to implement real and ambitious change in waste management is all the more disappointing since the Government has had almost two full years between our previous Report and the publication of the Waste Strategy 2000. It is obvious to us that the Strategy fails to reflect the thrust of that Report and that many of our recommendations have been disregarded.

Our Inquiry

6. As already noted, we discussed Sustainable Waste Management at considerable length in 1998. In May 2000, the Government unveiled its Waste Strategy 2000 and we considered this to be an appropriate point to revisit this subject. Our terms of reference were to examine whether the policies set out in the Waste Strategy 2000 are sufficient to deliver sustainable waste management, and whether the necessary measures, including provision of financial resources, were in place for those policies to be implemented. Specifically, we asked whether the Government's Waste Strategy 2000, as it applies to central government, local authorities and other public and private bodies, would result in:

  • an increase in recycling of waste, particularly by greater development of markets for recycled material (including compost) and the use of producer responsibility measures;

  • increased use of incineration as a waste disposal/recovery option and what the implications of such an increase would be;

  • a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfill and the effects of the Landfill Tax and its associated Credit Scheme;

  • a reduction in, and better management of, hazardous waste;

  • significant action to improve the example set by Government in exercising 'green' procurement policies; and

  • sufficient action to educate the public about the importance of sustainable waste management.

7. In response, we received 123 memoranda of evidence and held eight oral evidence sessions in the final three months of the year 2000. During the course of the inquiry, we heard from the full range of those involved in waste management. We were enthusiastically and ably assisted by Dr Dominic Hogg of Eonomia Research and Consulting and David Mansell, our specialist advisers, and we offer them our thanks.

8. Waste management is a complex and sprawling subject and we neither attempted to cover all aspects, nor to replicate our 1998 inquiry. As such, this Report does not attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis of waste management but rather focuses on those areas we examined during our inquiry. We particularly concentrate on those areas where change is necessary and, in most cases, heavily overdue.

What's the Problem?

9. The simple statistics of waste make depressing reading. In total, we in England and Wales produce some 106 million tonnes of industrial, commercial and household waste each year. Such a statistic means little without context: this is equivalent to each of us producing more than 20 times our own body weight in waste every year. Further, we produce around 300 million tonnes annually of construction and demolition wastes, agricultural wastes, mining wastes, sewage sludge and dredged spoils. These wastes are not considered further in this Report. Here, we focus on the 106 million tonnes figure, and particularly on the 28 million tonnes of municipal waste which is produced.

10. The majority of waste is currently dumped in landfill sites: of the 106 million tonnes, 66 million tonnes find their way into landfill.[14] The municipal waste stream is the most likely to end up there, with 23 of the 28 million tonnes produced being disposed of in this way. From both an environmental and an economic perspective, landfill is probably the least attractive option for handling waste: in most cases, it is possible to recover some value from materials which are being landfilled. Also, the availability of capacity for landfill is dwindling in some regions: many sites are now full and it is proving difficult to identify new sites. The need to reduce landfill has now been formalised in the EU Landfill Directive which requires the amount of biodegradable municipal waste which is landfilled to be reduced in stages, ultimately to 35% of that landfilled in 1995 by 2020.

11. One of the other major pressures is that some parts of the waste stream may be growing rapidly. For municipal waste, the whole waste industry appears to be using a working assumption that this stream will grow by up to 3% year on year into the future. This would imply a doubling of municipal waste in less than 25 years and places an acute pressure on the need to change waste practices if we are to reduce the amount landfilled during this time. Strangely, the 3% figure is rarely challenged, still less confronted, despite the fact that the consequences are so unpalatable.

12. 'The problem', defined simply, is what do we do to reduce the amount of waste being produced and divert much of what we do produce away from landfill? Do we do the bare minimum or do we use this time as an opportunity to bring about a real step change in how we view and deal with waste? Do we aim to nudge waste gradually up the waste hierarchy or do we take this opportunity to overhaul the whole system and aim to cultivate an approach which is fitting for a developed and civilised country entering the 21st century? Perhaps the real problem is one we have already defined: that those involved with waste continue to prefer inaction, or at best 'nudging', rather than 'overhauling'.

What's the Government doing about it?

13. The Government published the Waste Strategy 2000 in May 2000. The Strategy summarises the waste situation and contains some targets for changing the amount of waste dealt with by particular techniques. There are, however, few major new policy mechanisms detailed in the Waste Strategy 2000 and the majority of expectation for change is handed down to local authorities.

14. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Strategy, its publication ended a period of limbo for waste policy. The 1995 White Paper Making Waste Work: a strategy for sustainable waste management in England and Wales was only "an advisory document" according to the Government at the time.[15] In July 1999, the present Government issued a consultation document A Way with Waste and after a conspicuously lengthy consultation period and a still longer drafting period, the final Strategy was published. It is unfortunate that the Strategy took so long to complete and this delay must be partly responsible for the very limited progress which has been made in areas such as recycling, which has increased from 5% of the municipal waste stream in 1994 to 9% now.

15. The Strategy is largely based around achieving various targets. Many of these apply to specific waste streams but there are also some over-arching targets:

  • to recycle or compost at least 25% of household waste by 2005;

  • to recycle or compost at least 30% of household waste by 2010;

  • to recycle or compost at least 33% of household waste by 2015;

  • to recover value[16] from 40% of municipal waste by 2005;

  • to recover value from 45% of municipal waste by 2010;

  • to recover value from 67% of municipal waste by 2015;

The targets set for the UK in the Landfill Directive are also considered in the Strategy:

  • by 2010 to reduce biodegradable municipal waste landfilled to 75% of that produced in 1995;

  • by 2013 to reduce biodegradable municipal waste landfilled to 50% of that produced in 1995;

  • by 2020 to reduce biodegradable municipal waste landfilled to 35% of that produced in 1995;

It is important to note that the achievement of these Landfill Directive targets will depend partially on the rate of growth of waste since they are based on absolute levels of waste in 1995, rather than the relative proportions of waste landfilled in the future.

16. Although these targets are clearly meaningful and, if achieved, will mark some progress in waste management, many witnesses suggested that they were unambitious compared to those which are being set elsewhere in Europe. For example, Table 1 below shows the UK targets for recycling against those set in other countries. It is immediately apparent that the UK is amongst the less ambitious. Even where other countries are currently not achieving high levels of recycling or other waste targets, it is noticeable from the table that they have set ambitious targets for the future.

Table 1: European Recycling and Composting Rates and Targets

CountryRecent Recycling/Composting Rate Targets
Austria45% Must source separate/home compost. Waste landfilled must be less than 5% volatile organic solids.
BelgiumFlanders (F) 59%Brussels (B) 8%Wallonia (W) 21% F: Minimum levels of service provision for local authorities
Denmark30% 30% recycling/composting of household waste by 2004, 40-50% in longer-term
Finland33% Recovery of 70% of MSW by 2005, mostly through recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion.

Recovery of 75% of biowaste by 2005 through composting and anaerobic digestion.

Recovery of 75% of paper and card by 2005. From 2005, no MSW may be landfilled unless biodegradable fraction has been separated at source.
France7% 50% of municipal waste to be collected for recycling or composting
Greece8% 25% of BMW to be composted by 2005
Italy9% National law established minimum level of source separation of 35% by 2003.
Luxembourg25% Organic components of MSW and comparable source have to be composted or treated, and a central aim is the separate collection and treatment of organic waste.
Netherlands44% Aim was 60% recycling by 2000
PortugalNo data Recycling of MSW 15% in 2000 and 25% in 2005;

Composting of MSW of about 15% by 2000 and 25% by 2005;
UK9.5% 25% of household waste recycled or composted by 2005;

30% recycled or composted by 2010;

33% recycled or composted by 2015

17. Witnesses were supportive of the general thrust of Waste Strategy 2000 but gave it only lukewarm or partial commendation.[17] Aside from the targets set, we heard many criticisms of specific aspects of the Strategy: that it failed to adequately reflect the need to minimise waste production, that it was over-focussed on achieving the targets in the Landfill Directive,[18] that it provided a "charter for incineration",[19] and that it was dominated by municipal waste, to the exclusion of the larger streams of commercial and industrial waste and the problematic 'hazardous waste'. But more general criticisms were also levelled: many considered that it did not provide the document with the vision, initiative and ambition which is required at this stage of developing the national waste strategy. A few quotes demonstrate the level of feeling:

    "Sustainable waste management in England and Wales is not a question of technical ability, but one of political will. ... Waste Strategy 2000 fails to provide the political will."[20]

      "Waste Strategy 2000 is an eloquent document but it is a relative desert in terms of delivery mechanisms."[21]

      "The Environment Minister was saying that we had to appreciate when he launched the document that this was a massive change. I did not pick up in the document elements of massive change..."[22]

      "could be much more substantive and much more strategic"[23]

      "there is little evidence that the deep changes needed to policies, practices and public attitudes will be brought about by Waste Strategy 2000."[24]

These criticisms come not only from those one might expect to voice disappointments - the environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - but also from those involved in developing waste strategies and the waste industry themselves.[25]

18. The most serious criticism of the Strategy is that it is a misnomer: that there is no strategy, or vision, rather a list of aspirations and some relatively weak levers to achieve those aims.[26] Certainly, it is difficult to avoid such a conclusion when examining Chapter 3 of the Strategy, 'Levers for Change'. To produce real shifts will require major new policies, not just a little tinkering with existing ones and a bit more funding. Perhaps the most graphic analogy was provided by Waste Watch, who commented that:

    "If the targets in Waste Strategy 2000 were the equivalent of trying to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, then the tools available to date are the equivalent of fielding a team like Oldham Athletic - with very real limits on the resources available for new signings!"

Leaving aside the varying ability of the football teams of North-West England, WasteWatch went on:

    "What is significantly lacking in Waste Strategy 2000 - and lacking in the general debate - is any meaningful discussion of the sorts of measures that may well be required if we are to truly make 'step-changes' in waste management and resource use more widely."[27]

19. That the document fails to provide a real vision or strategy is extremely worrying. The clear implication is that those developing waste policy are merely responding to the thrust of policy at European Union level without a concept of where the UK should be heading. By failing to offer an ambitious vision of what we should be trying to do beyond that which is effectively required to meet the EU Directives, the Waste Strategy 2000 lets down those in the industry and large numbers of citizens who are looking to offer something dramatically better than the status quo. There is no vision or goal of a sustainable waste management system defined in the Strategy - it provides merely checkpoints of improvement but no defining goal.

20. The absence of strategy is best demonstrated by the example of the proper role of incineration. The Strategy does not define what it sees as the appropriate scale or level of incineration and Ministers and officials refused to define this when they appeared before us. The gap between recycling and recovery targets invites authorities to deduce that they should 'recover' the difference, so that as much as 33% of the waste stream could be incinerated by 2015. So, without such guidance and with the pressure to reduce the amount of waste landfilled combined with only limited support for increasing recycling, incineration takes on a looming presence and could quickly eat into the potential for increased recycling and composting in future years.

21. The Waste Strategy 2000 fails to offer an inspiring vision of sustainable waste management. It sets some useful short and medium term targets, but without the inspiration provided by a longer-term vision of what we are trying to do, it risks succeeding in its own narrow terms whilst failing to provide a foundation for a more sustainable system.

What can we do with waste and can we avoid producing it?

22. This question can only be answered properly if we have a comprehensive understanding of who produces waste, what the composition of that waste it, why they produce it and how it might change under different circumstances. However, the quantity and quality of data on waste has been an enduring source of disappointment to us since 1994, when we first considered waste matters in depth. In 1998, we concluded that:

This concern was reiterated in our 1999 Report on The Operation of the Landfill Tax.[29] Although the situation has improved a little since then, the data now available is by no means adequate.[30] The Community Recycling Network told us that it "has no confidence" in the data used to formulate the Waste Strategy 2000 and they pointed out that data on waste continues to be produced without agreed methodologies.[31] This inevitably undermines the quality of the data and the validity of year-on-year comparisons. Further, even well-informed witnesses were unable to explain how the quantity and composition of household waste varies from household to household with the usual socio-economic variables such as income and number of adults.[32] Such relationships are of more than just academic interest: they can be used to design and refine kerbside recycling schemes, to develop an accurate and realistic business plan and to ensure that local waste management strategies are robust and realistic. We have reproduced in Appendix 1 some details of waste composition from the data available and in Appendix 2 a critique of the data available by our advisers, David Mansell and Dr Dominic Hogg.

23. But it is not only the quality and quantity of data which is available which concerns us. We are disappointed at the delays which have characterised the production of the outputs from the first national waste survey. The Strategic Waste Management Assessments finally appeared near the end of our inquiry: many witnesses noted that the delays in producing these assessments had, in turn, delayed the production of regional waste strategies and local waste plans.[33] The Planning Officers Society told us of the problems faced by their members because of the lack of data:

    "they have been very seriously inhibited by the non-availability of information at the regional level ... We await the results of the 1998 industrial and commercial survey from the Agency ... Without information, you cannot start the planning process."[34]

24. The Environment Agency told us that their initial bid for funding to carry out a further national waste survey had not been accepted but that they were still talking to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about finding the necessary funding.[35] The Agency also told us of their wish to move towards a rolling system of continuous data gathering.[36] We remain extremely disappointed with the data available on waste arisings: the data available is incomplete, unreliable and often published too late to be of use. This situation has hindered the development of both national and local waste strategies. Only with adequate data will we able to tell whether policy measures are successfully influencing people and businesses' waste decisions and determine what further measures are necessary. We recommend that the Government make sure money is made available to the Environment Agency to enable it to carry out continuous monitoring of waste. We also urge the Environment Agency to process the information more speedily than they have thus far managed.

25. The burden of data collection could be considerably eased if businesses started to monitor their waste production and practices and keep information in a standard format.[37] If this data were then automatically passed to the Environment Agency, the workload for the Agency would be reduced and the reliability and accuracy of waste data enhanced.

10   Page xi, Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98) Back

11   Page xiv, Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC484-I (1997-98) Back

12   Waste 2020 Draft Strategy. Towards zero waste by 2020 Western Australia, August 2000 Back

13   Q16 Back

14   Of this 106 million tonnes, around 30 million tonnes are currently recycled or composted Back

15   See paragraph 16, Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98) Back

16   'Recover value' in this context means to recycle, to compost, other forms of material recovery (such as anaerobic digestion) and energy recovery Back

17   See, for example, Ev p5, p20, p40, p87 (HC 903-II) Back

18   Ev p37, p112, p205 (HC 903-II) Back

19   Ev p149 (HC 903-II) Back

20   Ev p39 (HC 903-II) Back

21   Ev p114 (HC 903-II) Back

22   Q142 Back

23   Q22 Back

24   Ev p57 (HC 903-II) Back

25   See, for example, Ev p35, p70, p100 (HC 903-II) and Ev p179 (HC 36-II) Back

26   Q22 Back

27   Ev p300 (HC 903-II) Back

28   Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98), para graph 20 Back

29   HC150 (1998-99), paragraph 19 Back

30   Ev p145 (HC 903-II) Back

31   Ev p205 (HC 903-II) Back

32   Q920, QQ181-184, QQ414-420 Back

33   Ev p40 (HC 903-II) Back

34   Q202 Back

35   Q925 Back

36   Q927 Back

37   Later in this Report, we consider the merits of environmental accounting for business Back

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