Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report


195. Every individual and every organisation, public or private, bears some responsibility for the creation of waste and ultimately, how that waste is handled. To introduce changes to the system will require real effort from all. In this section, we consider what the implications of a target of sustainable waste management are for the main groups involved.


196. The Government is failing to seize the opportunity to change waste management. We have noted our disappointment with the treatment of minimisation, incineration and other aspects of the Waste Strategy 2000. The Government's embarrassing ambivalence towards incineration means that its policy is not clear and cannot be subjected to full scrutiny. On this policy, more than any other in the Waste Strategy 2000, it is clear that there is a lack of real "buy-in" to sustainable waste management as a goal for all Government Departments. Further proof is provided by the low targets set for green procurement across Government (see below).

197. The Strategy itself often uses the right words but the absence of strong and convincing policy levers to deliver the sentiments expressed is a major concern. More than any individual aspect of the Government's approach and strategy, it is the workman-like approach to waste, with a transparent lack of imagination or ambition, which has depressed us most. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Waste Strategy 2000 but it is not the document to fire business, Government Departments, local authorities and the public with a passion to make the much talked of 'step-change' required. As it stands, the Waste Strategy 2000 does not provide the necessary strategy to achieve a real step change in waste management. It is a flawed document which provides, at best, a partial vision of what we should be doing with waste. It is principally a response to the need to comply with EU legislation and fails to step out of this essentially defensive mode of thinking.

198. There are three specific aspects of Government policy which deserve some additional analysis here: the overall fiscal regime within which waste management operates, the formation of the Waste Resources Action Programme and the greening of Government Departments' procurement.


199. In attempting to move waste from the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, fiscal instruments are likely to prove one of the most flexible and versatile mechanisms. It is, therefore, disappointing that only a single inferior and rather ineffective instrument is in place: the Landfill Tax. Witnesses called for taxes on the use of virgin materials,[244] or a 'Sustainability Levy' which could be applied to all goods and services and would reflect the cost of disposal.[245] Certainly, there is much that can be done here both with new fiscal instruments and with the revenues raised from those instruments.

200. The Government told us that it had no plans to introduce a tax on incineration, nor radically to increase the landfill tax and use its revenues constructively within the waste industry. Officials from the DETR stressed that introducing new measures was "non-trivial".[246] The problems facing waste management are also non-trivial and it will take ambition in all areas of policy, including fiscal policy, to overcome them. Some witnesses suggested that a body be set up at arms-length of Government to consider the fiscal climate for waste management and what changes were required.[247] The UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, for example, has advocated the appointment of a task force to look at the use of economic instruments to minimise waste production and maximise recycling.[248]

201. We have recommended that the landfill tax be increased, and an incineration tax be introduced, and that much of the revenues from those two taxes be put to implementing a more radical overhaul of the waste management. But these are only the most prominent and clear-cut of the gaps in the fiscal regime. There is a need for some over-arching analysis which considers what the combined effect of such mechanisms is likely to be and spots where problems may arise or new instruments may be needed. If such a study had been undertaken rather earlier, it is possible that some of the most serious problems of the Landfill Tax and its credit scheme could have been avoided. We remind the Government of its commitment to expanding the use of environmental taxation. We urge it to take a considered and holistic look at the fiscal regime for waste management. This should, in particular, consider what instruments will be required to achieve the necessary long-term transformation of waste management. Without a consistent and coherent set of fiscal instruments in this area, we risk shifting waste from one technique to another without reference to any overall strategy.


202. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is a new body which was set up by the Government in the Waste Strategy 2000 and is intended to be developed as a partnership between DETR, DTI, the private sector, the Environment Agency and the devolved administrations. WRAP has a remit from Government to "overcome market barriers to promoting re-use and recycling" and started work on 1 January 2001. It will be given funding of £30 million by Government over the next three years. In addition, WRAP will seek funding from other sources, including the private sector, and will be eligible for funds from the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme.

203. A body like WRAP has been required for a long time and witnesses universally welcomed its formation. Many witnesses suggested that the initiative will require more funding if it is to have a significant impact:[249] Andy Moore from the Community Recycling Network described the funding available as "relatively measly."[250] Although this funding may be adequate if WRAP is to play a simple catalyst role, greater resources will be needed if it is to play a fuller role in creating and stimulating markets for recycled materials.

204. WRAP did not officially start work until 1 January 2001 but the Chairman, Vic Cocker, was appointed last year and we invited him to give oral evidence to the Committee. WRAP's performance before the Sub-committee was disappointing. In itself this is not so worrying; but WRAP will be responsible for persuading business, the public and Government of the need to co-operate and develop new markets for recycled materials. If it cannot persuade a sympathetic Committee that it is going to have an impact, it may struggle to convince those with less interest in these matters. In many cases, persuasion will be the only tool which WRAP has at its disposal.

205. We are concerned that the Waste and Resources Action Programme could fail due to inadequate resources or lack of persuasive powers. The Government must monitor the performance of WRAP and step in if the organisation is struggling to reach its objectives. We also suggest that our successor Committee conduct an inquiry into the work of WRAP during the next Parliament. Further, setting up WRAP should not be seen by the Government as solving the problem of markets and any proposals emanating from WRAP which require Government action must not simply be sidelined.


206. Considerable power can be wielded simply through the purchasing decisions made by Government Departments. For too long, the 'greening' of procurement (at both national and local government level) has been prevented by concerns about increased costs of less environmentally damaging goods. In the Waste Strategy 2000, the Government declare that:

"We will therefore pilot arrangements for a scheme under which environmental policy will require public procurement of certain recycled products, initially paper goods."[251]

Many firms, other public bodies and individuals have been purchasing recycled paper for many years and to be told that this is now going to be Government procurement policy impressed few.[252] For example, the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) told us that:

"Establishing a pilot as proposed in Waste Strategy 2000 is a retrograde step when the factors associated with the use of recycled paper for example are well understood."[253]

LARAC went on to say that the procurement plans in Waste Strategy 2000 failed to show decisive leadership.

207. The case for a broader and deeper procurement policy was outlined by Biffa Waste Services Ltd:

    "Green procurement extends beyond buying decisions on photocopy paper and office furnishings. Government spend is around 45% of GDP and 25% of employees are in the public sector. ... in the areas of energy procurement, building specifications, lighting systems, etc. there appears no strategic framework or direction driven from the Cabinet Office. Clear prioritisation of such initiatives in relation to energy and waste from schools, hospitals and offices would be a start"[254]

208. The absence of a credible and meaningful green procurement programme has been recognised by many for some time now. In our Report in 1999 on Reducing the Environmental Impact of Consumer Products, we noted that "if consumers are to make an effort to buy less environmentally damaging products, so should Government". This point can equally be applied to the need to convince the public to play an active role in changing the way we deal with waste. The Government has argued that the main barrier to greater 'green' procurement is the regulatory and policy framework within the European Union.[255] However, some Government Agencies have managed to develop more effective procurement policies than Government Departments. For example, if one takes a look at the format of the Environment Agency's procurement policy,[256] it embraces a whole range of factors including the environmental performance of the potential supplier.

209. The plans - or lack of them - for greening the procurement practices of Government Departments are perhaps the clearest indication that the Government fails to believe in transformation of waste policy. The need for a greener procurement policy extends beyond the simple creation of larger and more stable markets for less wasteful products. For example, WRAP is planning to pursue a 'Buy Recycled in Business' programme[257] but the force of the message is undermined by Government's failure to adopt the advice it offers to others. The Government's plans to 'green' procurement practices are woefully inadequate. We urge the Government to press ahead with a more ambitious and rapid program of greening its procurement practices. Buying recycled paper is a simple first step: if Government is to set other businesses an example and help provide stable markets for recycled materials, it will need to be dramatically more ambitious than is currently planned. We suggest that Government take the Environment Agency's procurement practices as a starting point from which to work. A web-site should be established so that central and local Government, along with the various agencies can share information on greening procurement practices.

Environment Agency


210. The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing the Waste Management Licensing Regulations which are intended to ensure that waste management activities do not cause pollution to the environment or harm to human health. Witnesses expressed concern about the Environment Agency's ability to regulate. In particular, those involved in novel techniques (such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis) and composting expressed anxiety that the Agency did not have staff with the necessary expertise to be able to regulate their activities. The Environment Agency appear to have partially accepted that there is a problem, stating that it "has recognised the need to improve the competence of Environmental Protection Officers who are new to waste management."[258]

211. But perhaps the most significant doubt about the Agency's abilities relates to the public's confidence in them to regulate facilities to protect public health. This concern relates most topically and acutely to incineration, as we noted in an earlier section of the Report. The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee on proposals for the construction of new waste incinerators and is also responsible for regulating emissions from existing incinerators and for overseeing the disposal of the ash they produce. Public Interest Consultants noted the problems here:

    "too often planners abdicate responsibility for emissions and health to the Environment Agency which leads to immense frustration in local communities who are particularly mistrustful of the role of the Agency in relation to health issues."[259]

212. When appearing before us, witnesses from the Agency demonstrated the problem: although they did a perfectly adequate job of explaining how the emissions standards are set for incineration, they failed to explain how the public could be convinced that incineration was safe. This is all the more important because the Agency's credibility as a regulator has been damaged by the case of the Byker incinerator, where potentially hazardous ash from the incinerator is alleged to have "blown all over the surrounding neighbourhood"[260] despite numerous visits from the Agency's inspectors. The Agency does not help itself in dealing with those outside the Agency in the manner in which it handled enquiries by Public Interest Consultants. The Agency adopted a less than open attitude to dealing with the enquiries, answering them in a technically accurate fashion but failing to respond sensibly to the direction of the questioning.[261]

213. Communicating with the public about this issue is, of course, no easy task since it requires an explanation and interpretation of risk, a notoriously difficult concept to treat well in public information terms. Nevertheless, the public's ability to take part in the waste debate rests to some extent upon a better understanding of risk. We recommend that the Environment Agency work with the Department of Health to produce an information pack on the health risks which can be associated with waste management facilities. It is vital that the Agency work with the public to ensure that they are enabled to make informed contributions to the debate about waste management facilities. The costs or charges which are made for this information should be low enough to ensure that there is no impediment to a full debate taking place.

214. Fly-tipping was once again raised as an issue.[262] We have dealt with this matter in previous Reports: in our most recent one on The Environment Agency we noted our disappointment that, despite our previous warnings and recommendations, "the Government and the Environment Agency have failed to take the necessary action to prevent the illegal dumping of waste."[263] Evidence that this is still a problem was disappointingly commonplace during this inquiry. For example, the National Farmers' Union told us that a survey of farmers carried out during the year 2000 found that more than half thought fly-tipping was "a major on-going problem" and one quarter said that there had been a significant increase during the last year.[264]

215. A Fly-tipping Forum has been set up to examine the issues of fly-tipping, the main problems being both catching the offenders and ensuring that the penalty provides an adequate disincentive. On the latter point, Mr Meacher told us that:

     "I would hope that ... where there have been serious or repeat offences, where the magistrates court can only fine up to £20,000, that they would refer the matter to the county [crown] court where there is the option of imprisonment for up to two years and an unlimited fine. I wish to give the message that we are getting very serious about fly-tipping."[265] .

To combat the problem of catching fly-tippers, the Environment Agency has submitted a case for additional resources for an environmental crime unit although they go on to note that "it seems unlikely that these resources will be forthcoming."[266] Fly-tipping continues to be a problem and it is clear that better enforcement and greater punishment are required. To ensure that perpetrators are caught, we recommend that the Government fund the Environment Agency's proposal for an Environmental Crime Unit. So that a true deterrent is offered, we also urge magistrates to make full use of their powers to fine and, where necessary, to pass cases to the Crown Court.

216. The other recurring issue in our waste-related inquiries has been the matter of 'sham recovery' of waste. This takes place when inert waste is disposed of illegally on sites which are exempt from waste management licensing requirements, under the guise of waste being 'recovered' for use, for example for landscaping on golf courses. Our Reports on Sustainable Waste Management (1998), The Operation of the Landfill Tax (1999) and The Environment Agency (2000) have all drawn attention to this problem. Our oft-repeated concerns have yet to elicit any initiative from the Government. As we noted earlier, the review of exemptions from the waste management licensing system is urgent not only to help stop sham recovery, but also to aid those undertaking community composting.[267] In December, Mr Meacher promised us a consultation document on revising exemptions "in the next few weeks"[268] but in a later written answer to a parliamentary question, this had slipped to "this spring".[269] This is not good enough - it is time that the Government stopped pondering and published its plans for revising exemptions.

217. One of the concerns is that these exempt sites are effectively unregulated by the Environment Agency. The Government's response to our Report on The Environment Agency states:

     "The Committee is also incorrect in describing exempt sites as 'unregulated'. Exempt sites are controlled under the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994 and must be registered with the Agency, which has a legal duty to subject them to appropriate periodic inspection."[270]

However, Bob Parish of the Environment Agency was quoted in a recent Big Issue article as saying that the Agency could only get to visit 10% of exempt sites annually: "that means that at the minimum we visit a site every 10 years."[271] In evidence to the Sub-committee, Steve Lee, Head of Waste Regulation at the Environment Agency, noted his dissatisfaction with the current level of inspection and told us that the Agency had put forward proposals to the Department which would ensure that "those types of operation are subject to prior verification by us and are subject to an annual fee payable to us to make sure that we are funded to do the inspection."[272] As we noted earlier, the review of the Waste Management Licensing exemptions is long-overdue. We await the consultation document to tackle the matters of inspection and enforcement.

218. The Environment Agency must crack down on illegal avoidance of the landfill tax. On average, an exempt site will currently be inspected every ten years. Such a low frequency will do little to deter those aiming to cheat the system. We recommend that exempt sites be visited at least once every year and on any occasion when a complaint is made. We expect the Government to make available the resources necessary to enable the Agency to do this.


219. We have noted earlier in this Report that the quality and quantity of data on waste arisings is rather poor and recommended that the Agency carry out more work in this area and also aim to publish its findings rather more promptly. There is a more general and over-arching criticism of the Environment Agency: that it is failing to influence the strategic debate. This is a point we have made before, in our Report on The Environment Agency, in which we concluded that:

This applies nowhere more aptly than to waste management. For example, much is made of waste minimisation on the Environment Agency's website. However, as we have already noted, the Waste Strategy 2000 is extremely thin on waste minimisation and how to go about it. Similarly, given the Environment Agency's green procurement policy (which is rather good and comprehensive), it is disappointing that the Government's plan includes only a weak commitment to procurement, starting with recycled paper.

220. Peter Jones of Biffa Waste Services summarised the problem thus:

    "I think there is a role for the Environment Agency to become involved in this more strategic debate, because, after all, they will be responsible for training and developing the people that could be regulating these plants in the future. At the moment they are very much ex post. They are after the event."[274]

In defence, the Environment Agency argue that their role is "to supply impartial information and advice to decision-makers."[275] But, as our Report on the Agency made clear, there is no reason why the Agency should not claim for itself a broader role and aim to influence policy initiatives to a much greater extent than it manages at present.

221. From the content of the Waste Strategy 2000, it is clear that the Environment Agency is still failing to take a convincing and persuasive approach to influencing environmental strategy. Although we note some recent improvement in the Agency's performance, it is vital that it become a champion for the environment and sustainable development. It must aim to persuade Government of the merits of adopting a more ambitious waste strategy which is based around the pursuit of sustainable waste management.

Ev p188 (HC 903-II) Back

Ev p126 (HC 903-II) Back

Q71 Back

Ev p104 (HC 903-II) Back

Ev not published Back

Ev p65, p206 (HC 903-II) Back

Q684 Back

Waste Strategy 2000, Part 1, page 27 Back

See, for example, the report from the Environmental Industries Commission, "Delivering Waste Strategy 2000: Breaking the Landfill Habit.", Ev p41, p186 (HC 903-II); Q586 Back

Ev p41 (HC 903-II) Back

Ev p103 (HC 903-II) Back

The Government's Response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's Report: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Consumer Products, Cm 4435, August 1999, paragraph 29 Back

See Back

Ev p216 (HC 36-II) Back

Ev p188 (HC 36-II) Back

Ev p194 (HC 903-II) Back

Q123 Back

See Ev p165 (HC 36-II) Back

Ev p225 (HC 903-II) Back

The Environment Agency, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 34-I (1999-2000) Back

Ev p224 (HC 903-II) Back

Q1252 Back

Table on Ev p192 (HC 36-II) Back

See Paragraph 87 Back

Q1262 Back

Parliamentary Question in the name of Mr Andrew Bennett, MP, Number 150452, Answered 28 February 2001 Back

The Government's Response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's Report: The Environment Agency, Cm 4832, Paragraph 57 of response Back

"Where there's muck there's brass", Big Issue, October 30-November 5 2000, pp22-23 Back

Q953 Back

The Environment Agency, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 34-I (1999-2000), paragraph 20 Back

Q34 Back

Ev p188 (HC 36-II) Back

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