Waste policy and strategy in the UK is determined, to a large extent, by EU Directives. The 1975 Waste Framework Directive instructed Member States to produce waste management plans and also established a hierarchy of waste management practices, indicating the relative priority to be applied to different methods of dealing with waste. (Figure 1).
Figure 1 : The EU waste management hierarchy
Note: The first cone in the figure shows the more desirable options nearer its apex and also reflects the current unsustainable situation because of the proportion of its segments. The aim of waste management policy is to invert the cone, so that the volume of waste being dealt with at each level decreases towards the least desirable option.
Measured against this hierarchy, Northern Ireland's waste management performance is poor. It is heavily reliant on landfill and has made limited progress in reducing the amount of waste produced or in developing recycling initiative and facilities. Its wider performance in transposing EU environmental Directives has also been slow. Although now cleared, a large backlog, peaking at 45 pieces in 2002, created the risk of infraction fines for the UK which would, in turn, have resulted in shortfalls in the NI public expenditure budget.
Central and local government each has a key role to play in NI's waste management activities. The Department of the Environment is responsible for policy and legislation and for developing and implementing Northern Ireland's Waste Management Strategy. The latter role has primarily been undertaken by its Environment and Heritage Service. At a local level, Councils are responsible for waste management plans in order to establish a regional network of facilities to support a reduction in the amount of municipal waste sent for disposal and to increase the use of recycling. Combined expenditure by the Department and Councils is estimated at between £90 million and £120 million annually.
In accordance with the 1975 Waste Framework Directive, the Department of the Environment produced a NI Waste Management Strategy in 2000 and, because they had responsibility for delivering key aspects of the Strategy, required local Councils to produce associated waste management plans. Both the Strategy and the plans were deficient, and Councils were slow to produce their plans, only completing them in April 2003.
Since its launch, there have been problems in the implementation of the Waste Management Strategy. For example the Greening Government initiative was a major theme in the Strategy but the Department has shown poor leadership in this area, with little progress in initiating key measures. The targets in the Strategy and the data used to measure achievement have also been deficient. Illegal dumping has remained a problem, particularly in border areas, and has required the allocation of additional staff resources to address the issue.
A specialist Advisory Board, appointed by the Department, reported on the poor rate of progress in the Strategy's implementation. The Board made recommendations for improvement, some of which the Department has been slow to implement. The Department is currently consulting on a new Waste Management Strategy, due for publication in March 2006. A number of other outstanding issues are also currently under consideration. These include a review of environmental governance and exploring the potential funding sources for the £270 million to £300 million investment required to deliver its waste management targets.
On the basis of a Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Committee took evidence from the Department and the Environment and Heritage Service on delays in completing Northern Ireland's legislative framework; problems in implementing the Waste Management Strategy; and the improvements that need to be put in place for the future.