About 177 million tonnes of waste is thrown away every year in England. This is a poor use of resources and has detrimental economic and environmental impacts. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to move towards a 'zero waste economy', yet since April 2014 the Department has "stepped back in areas where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure".
Sustainable waste and resource management should play a key role in achieving one of Defra's four key priorities to improve the environment. The Environmental Services Association has estimated that a more circular economy could help to generate 50,000 new jobs with £10 billion investment and boost the United Kingdom's gross domestic product by £3 billion. We recommend that, rather than stepping back from areas of waste management, Defra should take the lead role and responsibility for waste management policy and ensure that the value of waste as a resource is fully realised.
In 2012/13, about 43% of household waste was recycled in England but the annual rate of increase has started to slow. We are concerned that England will not play its role in meeting the European requirement for the United Kingdom to recycle at least 50% of its household waste by 2020 without significant Government intervention. This is particularly worrying in light of recent proposals from the European Commission to increase household recycling targets to 70% by 2030. Given current performance, meeting higher household recycling targets in England would be challenging, but we suggest that Defra aspires to achieve recycling rates at the maximum feasible level (with or without European targets). While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to address this challenge, there is more scope for Defra to facilitate and encourage learning from best practice to help local authorities to gravitate towards the best possible recycling service in their area.
We are concerned about the limited availability of waste treatment capacity in England and the resulting popularity of exporting refuse derived fuel to Europe. Defra has a role to play in ensuring that the right amount of the right type of infrastructure is available and must provide the waste sector with clear guidance on how much waste treatment capacity is needed in England to gain an optimal balance between export and local treatment.
In relation to anaerobic digestion plants, we agree with Defra that the greatest benefit of this technology is in dealing with waste, not purpose-grown crops. Anaerobic digestion is the most preferable recovery option for food waste, yet about four million tonnes of food waste still gets sent to landfill each year. The Government must find ways of diverting more food waste out of the residual waste stream by methods which are economically and environmentally viable and suitable to local circumstances. More work is needed to address the numerous issues raised by the practicalities of separate food waste collections.
We urge Defra to ensure that only genuinely residual waste is sent to energy from waste plants such as incinerators, and we ask the Department to assess whether the current use of gate fees is sufficient to achieve this aim. We do not believe that high levels of recycling are incompatible with the use of energy from waste plants, as long as only genuinely residual waste is sent for energy recovery. We also recommend that the Government encourages the use of heat outputs from incinerators to gain maximum efficiencies from the process.
Waste fires are a serious problem affecting local communities and waste operators. A number of significant incidents were brought to our attention during the course of this inquiry. We commend the work of the Environment Agency and the Chief Fire Officers' Association in relation to this concerning issue and expect Defra and DCLG to support the development of the fire code of practice by the Chief Fire Officers' Association.