Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report


17 March 1998

  By the Select Committee appointed to consider Community proposals, whether in draft or otherwise, to obtain all necessary information about them, and to make reports on those which, in the opinion of the Committee, raise important questions of policy or principle, and on other questions to which the Committee considers that the special attention of the House should be drawn.


6692/97 COM(97)105 Final Proposal for a Council Directive on the landfill of waste


Most pollution comes from getting rid of wastes at the least possible cost[1]


  1.    Landfill (or landfilling) is the term used to describe the deposit of waste in, on or above[2] land; it can also mean the waste disposal site itself.[3] It does not distinguish between highly engineered, lined, strictly operated and regulated waste management operations or unregulated and illegal waste dumps.

  2.    Properly controlled landfill is an economic and environmentally sound operation, with additional beneficial effects in the restoration, for example, of exhausted mineral workings. When not adequately controlled, landfill can have adverse environmental impacts through the release of waste decomposition products, including "landfill gas" (principally methane and carbon dioxide) and leachate-a potentially highly polluting liquid.

  3.    All waste management strategies have to include landfill, which is used in all European Union Member States. In the United Kingdom the majority of household, commercial and industrial waste is landfilled. A 1996 study for the European Commission (referred to in this Report as the Coopers & Lybrand Report) showed that the percentage of municipal solid waste landfilled by EU Member States ranged from 19 to 99 per cent, with the UK at 85 per cent. In five Member States the percentage landfilled was over 85 per cent.[4]


  4.    The concept of sustainable development (or "sustainability") is fundamental to environmental policy. The definition and application of the concept has been the subject of innumerable reports (including one in 1995 by an ad hoc Select Committee of this House[5]), studies, symposia and international conferences (notably the United Nations Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and the Kyoto Summit of 1997), as well as initiatives by governments around the world.

  5.    The most commonly cited definition of sustainable development is that of the 1987 Brundtland Commission-"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The theme of sustainability runs throughout European Community environmental policies and programmes, in particular the series of Environmental Action Programmes. The latest and the most comprehensive of these (the Fifth Programme) was adopted in 1993[6] and, like its predecessors, is the subject of a continuing process of review.

  6.    The then United Kingdom Government's response to commitments entered into at Rio was published in January 1994 as Sustainable Development: the UK Strategy,[7] and has been the subject of annual updating reports. The Government at the same time established the Government Panel on Sustainable Development to advise on strategic issues arising from the Sustainable Development Strategy and other post­Rio reports on climate change, biodiversity and forestry. The following year (January 1995) the Government set up the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, as a forum for discussion on major issues in this field. Its purpose is not only to advise Government but also to identify ways of achieving development in a sustainable manner and to build consensus between people who have different perspectives and different responsibilities. After the present Government took office the Deputy Prime Minister was appointed President of the Round Table; the Chairman of the Round Table (previously Joint Chairman with the Secretary of State for the Environment) is a former Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

Environmental impacts of waste management

  7.    It is not surprising that effective waste management has been seen as fundamental to achieving the aims of sustainable development. All human activities are potentially sources of waste, which ultimately has to be returned to the environment. Some of it (including biodegradable waste) will in time be degraded, diluted and dispersed through natural processes leaving the environment essentially unchanged; risks from persistent or hazardous components may cause permanent changes to the environment. Procedures to dispose of waste must continue, but it is necessary to bring the environmental impacts down to sustainable levels.

  8.    Management of waste has a wide range of potential environmental impacts, the nature and severity of which will depend on the type of waste, its harmful characteristics, the method of disposal and the state of the receiving environment. The following table summarises the main potential environmental impacts on different receptors (air, water and land) by different categories of waste management activity:

Potential environmental impacts of waste management practices[8]


LandfillEmissions of methane and carbon dioxide; odours Contamination of ground and surface water; leachate Accumulation of hazardous substance in soil; restriction on other land uses
Incineration Emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and other potentially hazardous gases, methane, dioxins/furans Cooling/scrubber water discharge Discharge of flyash; scrubber residues, slags and scrap, including heavy metals; restriction on other land uses
CompostingEmissions of methane and carbon dioxide;[9] odour, ammonia and aerosols Leachate emissions Restriction on other land uses
RecyclingEmissions of dust; noise Waste water discharges Landfilling of final residues
Transportation Emissions of dust, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide; release of hazardous substances from accidental spills Risk of surface water and groundwater contamination from accidental spills Risk of soil contamination from accidental spills; visual intrusion

  9.    Sustainable landfill may be defined as landfill that is necessary for society and is managed without causing irreversible harm to the environment, so as to ensure that no risks or resource compromises are presented to future generations. In essence this means that, within a generation, any landfill should reach a state where it needs no active controls to contain the wastes, the landfill gas or the leachate produced.[10]


  10.    The enquiry was carried out by Sub-Committee C (Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection), whose Members are listed in Appendix 1. The Specialist Adviser was Mr David A Mills CChem MRSC FInstWM. Oral and written evidence was received from the bodies and individuals listed in Appendix 2. The Sub­Committee wishes to record its thanks to Mr Mills, the witnesses and the hosts at its visits to Peterborough, Edinburgh, Fife, Dundee and Stirling for their helpful advice and information.

  11.    Inevitably it was impossible to conduct an enquiry into landfill without considering wider aspects of waste management, particularly since the principal aims of the Directive are to influence the behaviour of waste creators and disposers and to encourage alternatives to landfill. Although much useful evidence was received on the wider implications of the Directive, it would have been outside the scope of this Report to cover waste management policy and practice comprehensively, in the manner of the previous Government's White Paper or the present Government's review (see paragraph 19). The Report therefore concentrates on the aspects of the Commission's proposals which are most pertinent to the current negotiations between Member States and to the Government's wish to achieve a Common Position during the United Kingdom's Presidency. At the same time it offers some opinions on matters which Member States need to consider when drawing up their strategies for implementing the Directive.

  12.    The core of this Report falls into three parts: Part 2 examines the origins and development of the Landfill Directive and its place in Community waste management policy as a whole; Part 3 analyses the proposals and their practical implications for waste management policy and practice in the United Kingdom; and Part 4 looks at the broader implications of the Directive, for example for recycling and energy recovery. We decided it would be helpful to the reader in this instance to provide a continuous blend of evidence, findings and comment on each aspect of the Directive in turn. Our main conclusions and recommendations are highlighted in bold type, and are brought together in a self-contained form in the final summary in Part 5.[11]

1   Sir Frank Fraser Darling 1903-79, Reith Lectures (1969), quoted in the 11th Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Managing Waste: The Duty of Care, Cmnd 9675, HMSO, December 1985. Back

2   Known as "land raising". Back

3   Article 2 of the draft Landfill Directive defines landfill as "a waste disposal site for the deposit of waste on to or into land, including internal waste disposal sites (ie landfill where a producer of waste is carrying out its own waste disposal at the place of production) and excluding facilities where waste is unloaded in order to permit its preparation for further transport for recovery, treatment or disposal elsewhere, and temporary (ie less than one year) deposit of waste prior to recovery, treatment or disposal".  Back

4   European Commission, Cost-benefit analysis of the different municipal solid waste management systems: objectives and instruments for the year 2000, report commissioned from Coopers & Lybrand and CSERGE, March 1996. The comparative statistics have to be approached with caution, as the basis of calculation varies from country to country.  Back

5   Report from the Select Committee on Sustainable Development, Session 1994-95, HL Paper 72. Back

6   OJ No C138, 17 May 1993, p 1. Back

7   Cm 2426, HMSO. Back

8   Source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency, adapted from European Environment Agency, Europe's Environment: The Dob_íš Assessment, p 345, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1995, ISBN 92-826-5409-5. Back

9   On the question of emissions of greenhouse gas from composting see paragraphs 136-7. Back

10   Definition provided by the Environment Agency (p 9), citing work by the Institute of Wastes Management (slightly modified by the Committee). Back

11   In view of the large number of submissions from people and organisations involved in the waste management industry (operators, consultants, trade associations and the main professional institution) and the high degree of consensus among them, we refer in many passages in the Report to "the industry" or "industry witnesses" collectively, without giving references to individual evidence sources. In these instances we are referring primarily to the Environmental Services Association, the Institute of Wastes Management, Aspinwall and Company, Robert Long Consultancy Ltd and Shanks & McEwan Group PLC; the Confederation of British Industry, the Local Authority Waste Disposal Companies Association and the Local Government Association made very similar points in their evidence. Back

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 1998