Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report



  Archaeologists excavate the waste heaps of older civilisations and as they penetrate through the layers literally dig their way into the past. What societies throw away can tell as much about their nature and purpose as the edifices and monuments they more deliberately raise for the benefit of posterity. The ancient waste heaps are benign, organic and unextensive They are of interest to generations like ours and pose no kind of threat. Myth, scripture and philosophical dialogue suggest that other human activities going back into the unrecorded past may not have been so environmentally benign: semi-continents desertified by irresponsible pastoralism, a whole continent sunk beneath cataclysmic floods due to misuse of the forces of nature. The uncertain significances of myth can only suggest, but certainly Humankind, the Natural World and something of human and divine wisdom (even if only in documentary form) survived into modern times.

  Around World War I, the Liebigian revolution led to general use of artificial fertilisers and an early environmentalist response in the beginning of the organic farming movement. However, it has only been since the last months of World War II that dangers to the environment on an apocalyptic scale have emerged: first the nuclear and thermo-nuclear threat which rumbles on with such manifestations as Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, maverick nuclear powers, the Star Wars Project and various leaky installations and organisations (especially in Russia). A few years later (famously documented by Rachel Carson in "Silent Spring" and latterly by Colborne and Myers in "Our Stolen Future") there slowly appeared the dangers from a vast range of synthetic chemicals. These have already led to a worrying reduction in biodiversity and threaten to bring it to a catastrophic level. In particular, numerous halogenated hydrocarbons interfere with human and animal endocrine systems. They are prime implicants in reduced human sperm levels, cancer and birth defects. Of recent years Biotechnology has led on a new procession of spectres whose real outlines are as yet only dimly perceived. For the sake of completeness one could elaborate other barriers across the human path to the future, but they would be more eloquent by omission, although one cataclysmogenic field of technology still at the politically pre-emergent phase should be mentioned: microwave and electro-magnetic pollution of atmosphere, hydrosphere and even geosphere by international defence systems, mobile telephony, power grids and so on.

  Of course all these technological applications have perceived and even real benefits, but overall they represent greater threat than benefit. Of the tainted fruits of the Faustian contract, that which is most advanced in its deleterious effects, most intimately connected to our everyday lives and most readily ameliorated by individual action is that of waste: of the unassimilable by-products of personal and communal consumption. Waste and industrial and agricultural chemicals are the terrible triplets of the chemical nemesis outlined above. To a degree they are interconnected, industrial and agro-chemicals often entering the environment through the general waste stream. Domestic waste, although not the largest fraction by weight of the waste stream, is the most visible, the most complex and potentially one of the most geocidal.


  Landfill is currently by far the most adopted solution to the problem of what to do with domestic waste. However, it is now acknowledged by all European and English-speaking nations to be an unsustainable means of dealing with waste. Traditional waste disposal authorities and companies have turned their attention to incineration (with or without power or heat facilities). The advantage of this for them is that the management and profits structure remains almost unchanged, whereas sustainable wastes management needs radical, diverse, decentralised and more community-centred solutions. Incineration is in fact more environmentally damaging than landfill, as the combustion inevitably produces dioxins when there are halogenated materials in the feedstock. To filter these out of the flue emissions is only to put them into the fly ash which needs to be buried on a special site, unless it is added to the bottom ash. This seems to have been the case at Byker. Here it was spread on the ground where it was trodden upon, even handled and getting into the growing of food. This was an especially unwise disposal of incinerator ash, but burying such material, which can be considered on a par with radio-active waste, is equally irresponsible as it only hands the problem on to another generation when the intensely toxic component will eventually leach out into water supplies. (Note: the old canard about bonfires producing more dioxins than incinerators seems to refer in fact to barrel-burnings into which householders throw all kinds of noxious waste—a feedstock if anything worse than that of incinerators).


  The only solution to the chemical threat is to abolish the concept of waste altogether. There are now 13 zero waste authorities in New Zealand. Some of them are entirely dependent on the pristine quality of their off-shore waters to attract tourists. A zero waste strategy is the only way to preserve the environment which is the source of their livelihood. However, here in the UK where we have already learned to live with a degraded environment, a full awareness of the danger to human health, fertility and genetic integrity from synthetic chemicals can equally provide the dynamic for zero waste strategy. There are 100,000 synthetic chemicals in commerce globally and another 1,000 additional new substances coming onto the market each year. Braungart and McDonagh surveyed the 7,500 chemicals used to dye and process fabrics and found that there were only 34 that did not pose hazards through being persistent, mutagenic, carcinogenic or known to interfere with hormonal systems. They have designed what they call the Intelligent Product System which distinguishes three types of goods on the market: "Unmarketable Products" which impose a toxicological burden on the environment and which must therefore be eliminated by legislation and by making manufacturers responsible for the externalities associated with their product. The concept of Producer Responsibility needs to be extended from paying taxes for damage caused to not causing damage in the first place. There is of course a whole world of possibilities opened up by using natural rather than synthetic chemical substrates. Cellulose-based plastics are already on the market. There would also be "Products of Consumption" and "Products of Service". The former, which would include, for example, foods and cleaning agents, would yield products that are entirely bio-degradable. "Products of Service", on the other hand, would be items and materials that are continually reused or recycled for the very same purpose: for example, computer cases, motor car components and solvents (which would be filtered).

  Much that passes for recycling is in fact down-cycling. It is a linear process beginning with raw materials and gradually moving through ever humbler incarnations eventually down to a non-biodegradable or even toxic waste. Paper and plastics are examples of this. Intelligent Product System (Ecodesign) on the other hand follows cyclic processes. It substitutes for the traditional slogan of sustainable waste management: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"—"Eliminate, Reuse, Upcycle".


  It will not be possible to drift into Zero Waste. Although it would function organically rather than institutionally, and be operated more effectively by small and medium-sized organisations, a Zero Waste objective needs to be implemented vigorously and be adequately funded. Robin Murray in his "Creating Wealth from Waste" (DEMOS—1999) sees a "Zero Waste Agency" as the means to facilitate the total elimination of waste. The ethos of the Agency would be entrepreneurial rather than administrative, and outcome-orientated rather than concerned with the observance of procedures. The three main areas of activity for a zero waste agency would be information/education/co-ordination, funding and assessment.


  Traditionally the government funding agency, the Treasury, deplores the tagging of specific taxes for specific purposes. However, increasingly social justice and the achievement of radical programmes requires full hypothecation of taxes in particular areas. Directing vehicle taxes into road improvements and extending public transport is one example. Likewise the sum of over £500 million per annum from the two forms of waste taxation needs to be directed in its entirely towards a zero waste policy.

  The Landfill Tax 20 per cent offset giving the payer freedom to allocate funding to "environmental" causes has in effect been useless because of the tendency of the payer to pursue self-interest in its allocations: "sweetening" communities suffering from its operations, introducing anti-competitive clauses in its awards, using the money actually to promote landfill and incineration, and perhaps worse goings-on, as alleged in The Guardian in 1999 and stoutly denied by ENTRUST.

  Producer Responsibility taxation is an interesting concept. While it is driven by the underlying thesis: "The Polluter Pays", there is a context of choice and even creativity. The traditional fiscal position is: "Pay!" whereas, in a producer responsibility situation there are two distinct options and every possible shade in between: "Pay—or mend your ways!" Moreoever, a type of currency is created (PRNs—packaging recovery notes) which makes possible a trade in pollution liability. This creates a dynamic for recycling and waste minimisation, though it does open up possibilities for avoidance. In practice, Producer Responsibility taxation has imperfections. The scheme needs adjustments and levels of penalisation need racheting up. Again, see Robin Murray's "Creating Wealth from Waste" for a more detailed critique and proposals for improvement.


  To some degree the language of "Waste Strategy 2000" is that of the more advanced thinking on the subject, yet in essentials it is a broken-backed, schizoid document. For to argue in all seriousness that incineration can have a place in a sustainable waste management strategy is to take up a position well abandoned by other European and English-speaking nations, which have without exception given up on the building of new incinerators. Waste Strategy 2000 attaches much importance to the waste-to-energy and combined heat and power facilities that can be added to incinerators. Yet in a recent Radio Four "Straw Poll" debate featuring the leading pro- and anti-incineration proponents in the UK it was quoted without challenge that a large one million tonne WtE incinerator like SELCHP generates only one 34th the electricity of an average power station. In addition, SELCHP belies its name and should be called SELP as the heat-delivery option has not been taken up. Seemingly this is because domestic heating is superfluous for six months of the year and does not justify the expense of installation and maintenance. If you add to this the fact that there have been around 90 "incidents" in a year of operation and the up-to-recent description of SELCHP as a state-of-the-art installation is seen as hyperbole. Overall one is left by "Waste Strategy 2000" wondering why the UK is so exceptionally susceptible to corporate lobbying. This intransigence of government in the face of public opinion is paralleled by that in the genetic engineering debate.

  From the viewpoint of Zero Waste the only course is to treat all incineration as an intolerably polluting form of disposal. Incineration has been identified as the main source of dioxins in many countries including USA, Japan and Europe (A.K.D. Liem and J.A. Van Zorge: "Dioxin and Related Compounds: Status and Regulatory Aspects."—Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 2 (1) 1995, pp 46-56). Its fiscal status should reflect its environmental status, with the following consequences:

    1.  It should cease to qualify for NFFO funding. Incinerators do, after all, burn fossil fuels, plastics principally. Also, that materials are burned that could have been recycled means extra fossil fuels have to be consumed in manufacturing materials from the raw state.

    2.  Incinerator operators should no longer be entitled to issue PRNs. Burning something cannot rationally be considered to be recycling it, even with some form of energy recovery, so marginal is this form of valorisation.

    3.  It should attract a disposal tax similar to that imposed on landfill, but at stiffer rates to reflect the even greater environmental damage caused by incineration.


  These three stages of cyclical materials recovery also represent the three levels of government at which they operate: local, regional and central.

  Collection of wastes, especially domestic, is best left to the private entrepreneurial sector because the salvage of useful materials is essentially an economic activity and appropriate to the economic sphere. The role of local and central government must be simply to regulate (in as "hands off" a manner as possible) all this activity. Especially important is to maintain the recycling credits system, giving it security and setting it at fair levels.

  The big waste companies are best at simple, large-scale operations. The complexity of high level materials reclamation from the domestic or even commercial streams is beyond them. Increasingly they will be less involved in landfill and incineration as these run down, but there will still be ample scope for activity in the bulk shifting of industrial materials and also in the field of reprocessing.

  Multi-separation doorstep collection of domestic waste is the only way to achieve high level/total retrieval. Retrieval from a conveyor-belt at a centralised MRF cannot deliver this and leads to unpleasant, disinspiring working conditions. The Germans have gone a long way down the MRF road. A useful consideration of German practice is in the appendix to "Re-inventing Waste—A London Waste Strategy" (Ecologika, LPAC and Environment Agency).

  Undoubtedly the single factor that would act most powerfully to drive up recycling rates would be to extend the charging by quantity of unsorted waste that applies in the commercial sector to the domestic sector. Provided adequate weekly doorstep collections of all recyclables (including compostables) were available, initial public resistance should soon convert to approval. Such measures seem to work effectively on the continent and it enables producer responsibility taxation to be matched by consumer responsibility taxation.

  Reprocessing plants for all the main materials need to be available on a regional basis. At the moment recyclate has to travel too far. Green glass from Devon, for example, has ended up in Argentina and China, and the bulk of its recyclable paper travels to Kent. Waste mileage, like food mileage, leads to global warming and other kinds of pollution. The miniaturisation of reprocessing plants has already been carried some way and there seems to be no reason why even comparatively low-population regions should not be served by their own facilities. Even markets for their products should as far as possible be within the region, but of course this is hardly controllable due to the very nature of economic activity. Particularly in the light of the current fuel price crisis, rail offers by far the best means for the bulk movement of materials, within as well as without a region.

  The observations on market development in "Waste Strategy 2000" are one of its strongest features. Central government needs to act very strongly and imaginatively on raising and stabilising prices for recyclate. At the moment the tragedy is that it is more profitable to bury or burn waste than it is to recycle it. One is surprised not to hear much mention of taxes on raw materials. This is surely the ultimate tool for putting life into a nation's efforts towards sustainable waste management. Very probably one reason for this silence is that such instruments are anathema to the World Trade Organisation. All things being equal, free trade is to be encouraged, but fair trade has to take priority, and what can be more fair to the world than preserving its environment?

  Hopefully the observations in this submission have not put delivering sustainable waste management into too broad a context. If the kind of measures suggested are implemented, it should help to remove one of the most serious challenges to the physical survival of the human race from among the host that loom here at the beginning of the Third Millennium.

September 2000

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 March 2001