Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report



Effect on landfill practice in the United Kingdom

  56.    There was widespread support from witnesses for the objectives of the Directive in seeking better standards of waste management, uniform and higher standards of licensing and operation, closed site aftercare, implementation reporting, etc. Many of these reflected what had long since become standard practice in the UK. In fact, apart from Friends of the Earth and the Commission, the principal interest groups-the sponsoring Department, the regulatory agencies (the Environment Agency and SEPA), the industry, local government, and the professional body-supported the objectives of the Directive but were united in their opposition to the prescriptive methods by which those objectives were to be achieved. In particular, since the need to contribute to the solution of the global warming problem by reducing methane emissions was seen as the overarching aim of the Directive, witnesses felt that Member States should have discretion to choose the most appropriate measures to suit particular circumstances. We heard a consistent defence of the British way of doing things, supported by the argument that "modern" UK landfill practice fully met the objectives of the Directive. The ESA followed up their oral evidence with a detailed list of suggested amendments: we have not thought it appropriate, particularly given the pace at which the draft Directive is now completing its stages through the Council and the European Parliament, to include a detailed commentary in this Report on the ESA's proposals, but we note that in many instances they coincide with our own views.

  57.    The general consensus among witnesses for the Government, the regulators and industry was well summed up by the Minister for the Environment, Mr Michael Meacher, who told the House Commons European Standing Committee A on 12 November 1997 that: "We are not convinced that incineration before landfilling is necessarily more sustainable than straightforward landfill in well-managed sites with good quality methane capture. There are certainly situations in which incineration with energy recovery makes sound environmental sense, but it must be carried out to the strictest environmental standards and must take place as part of an integrated strategy that encourages the minimisation and recycling of waste. Frankly, the dash to incineration required by the Directive would not allow for that, which is a problem. Our preferred approach would be to remove that part of the Directive. It would be more sensible to focus on the environmental harm that the Directive aims to avoid-that is, methane emission-in line with current regulatory practice in the United Kingdom. It seems likely, however, that almost all other Member States will accept the targets in principle. We may therefore need to consider a compromise solution to impose targets that can more sensibly be met."

  58.    A different overall view of the Directive was presented by Friends of the Earth. Mr Childs saw the Directive playing a positive role in reducing greenhouse gases, and considered it should set targets for reducing all kinds of waste currently landfilled. He suggested the Directive should state explicitly that the preferred response to the reduction targets was not incineration but recycling and composting, citing a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency which concluded that recycling was superior to incineration in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and created more jobs. He did not challenge the view that UK landfill standards were high in the international context, but that did not invalidate the case-on precautionary and sustainability grounds-for seeking to reduce dependency on landfill (pp 51-2; QQ 135, 139). For the Commission, Dr Krämer compared the likely effect of the proposed Directive with what had been achieved by the 1980 Drinking Water Directive[36] in terms of raising standards and stimulating investment across the Community: "We believe that it is good to set standards for landfill and it is high time to set relatively stringent standards....We have to begin somewhere and pick up the challenge of environmental impairment through landfill" (Q 282). The Energy from Waste Association was similarly enthusiastic: "far from inhibiting sustainable waste management in the UK and imposing unwarranted additional costs, the Directive has the potential to be the single most significant driver for the development of a new, sustainable approach" (p 158).

  59.    The United Kingdom waste management industry and the regulatory authorities have good reason to feel proud of the high standards which have been developed for landfill over the years, much assisted by the town and country planning system-now in place for over half a century. The case they put to us was well argued. When asked for comments, however, on the contrary views held by Friends of the Earth, for instance, and the Commission, we felt they were somewhat less persuasive. Arguments about the merits and demerits of landfill may never be resolved to everybody's satisfaction, but we are in no doubt that substantial continuing use of landfill will remain an essential element of the national waste management strategy for many years to come.

Subsidiarity and Proportionality

  60.    In its Explanatory Memorandum, the Commission states that the proposal is compatible with the principles of subsidiarity, in that it seeks to introduce uniform standards for landfilling throughout the Community and to eliminate distortions such as unnecessary transportation of waste. It adds: "The introduction of limits for landfilling of biodegradable waste...also represents a high level of respect for the principle of subsidiarity....The proposal will allow Member States flexibility in choosing which way the reduction targets are to be order to ensure that (they) can apply the best option to meet their particular national conditions."

  61.    Whether the draft Directive in fact passed the test of subsidiarity was much commented on in evidence. The DETR, in its own Explanatory Memorandum, expressed the view that "the proposal for limits on the amount of biodegradable waste landfilled itself is unnecessarily restrictive of Member States' freedom to continue the development of their own approaches to reducing methane emissions from landfill". This view was generally echoed by the industry. The issue, therefore, was whether the prescribing of reduction targets (whilst recognising that the methods of achieving them were for Member States) was itself a legitimate action to be taken at Community level.

  62.    A number of witnesses argued that all that was needed was proper implementation throughout the Community of the Waste Framework Directive: the Institute of Wastes Management (IWM) felt that the Framework Directive already addressed issues such as prevention or reduction of waste, recovery and reuse, and avoidance of unnecessary transportation, and that the UK waste management licensing arrangements had already provided "a very positive framework" for all of this (Q 84). Dr Krämer's response to this was that the purpose of the Framework Directive was to lay down broad principles, including the requirement for licensing and management plans, but that specific Community standards were needed to raise the general standard of landfill in the Member States and to provide a proper basis for the Commission to monitor implementation and, where necessary, to take enforcement action. "I simply do not see how it can be argued that there should be sustainable waste management and appropriate protection to the environment and any further details should be left out for reasons of subsidiarity" (Q 280).

  63.    Some of the witnesses' comments on subsidiarity and proportionality are reported elsewhere in relation to particular aspects of the Directive, but a snapshot of views may be helpful at this point:

  *  The proposals are broadly acceptable in that Member States can decide how to reduce biodegradable waste going to landfill, but they are not acceptable in terms of meeting the objectives, notably methane emission reduction;

  *  they are widely seen as disproportionately prescriptive: witnesses feel the Directive should be concerned with how to landfill, not with what to landfill;

  *  such prescriptiveness may, in some cases, run counter to BPEO and sustainability;

  *  according to the ESA, the Council's Ad Hoc Group on Climate considered the limitation of waste inputs to be a costly and ineffective way of reducing methane emissions (p 90);

  *  a key recommendation in the Commission's Communication on methane reduction strategy (paragraph 49) is the need for higher levels of methane recovery; but in relation to global warming, biodegradable waste reduction could actually work against the objectives of the Directive, by reducing methane generation to volumes and rates at which recovery is impracticable (methane and CO2 control is not possible during the early and later phases of landfill site operation);

  *  the Directive is based on the implicit belief that it must be environmentally preferable to sort and pre­treat the biodegradable components of municipal waste rather than post­treat their breakdown products (leachate and gas)-a proposition which may be true but is not necessarily so, and has not been proven scientifically or economically.

  64.    The Protocol on Subsidiarity and Proportionality[37] attached to the Treaty of Amsterdam states inter alia that, for Community action to be justified, the issue under consideration should have transnational aspects which cannot be satisfactorily be regulated by Member States; that actions by Member States alone or lack of Community action would conflict with the requirements of the Treaty (eg the need to correct distortion of competition); and that action at Community level would produce clear benefits, compared with action at Member State level, by reason of its scale or effects. It goes on to make the point that Community measures should leave as much scope for national decision as possible; that care should be taken to respect well established national arrangements and legal systems; and that, subject to the need for proper enforcement, Community measures should where appropriate provide Member States with alternative ways to achieve the objectives.

  65.    We recognise the view of the waste management industry that some aspects of the draft Directive are over-prescriptive and arguably contrary to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, in the sense that it focuses on the reduction of biodegradable waste going to landfill as a particular means of achieving the broader aims of Article 1. However in our view the industry's stance has insufficient regard for the reality of policies and attitudes in other Member States or for the mechanics of Qualified Majority Voting (cf paragraph 20). These factors will continue to influence the Environment Council's deliberations and the Common Position which is due to emerge shortly.

  66.    Although there may be some room for argument on whether the tests set by the Amsterdam Treaty's Protocol have been fully met, we are satisfied that the Commission's proposals are in principle consistent with subsidiarity, if one takes into account the unquestionably transnational nature of the global warming problem, the well established aims of the Community in the environmental field, eg as expressed in the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, and the justifiable concern about the risks to the environment from continuing large-scale disposal to landfill of untreated biodegradable waste, even in well engineered sites. We would, however, qualify this by saying that the overall timescale for change must be proportional to the costs which the Directive would impose on Member States and that there must be some flexibility for Member States to decide when and how to meet the intermediate targets. We return to these questions in paragraphs 93-7.

  67.    We have noted already in paragraph 24 that it is only in the recitals that the Directive explicitly mentions the need to tackle global warming by reducing methane emissions as being one of the aims of the proposal. Although it would not necessarily resolve the argument about proportionality, we think it would be helpful if methane reduction as an aim of the Directive were to be stated explicitly in Article 1. For the UK at any rate it is a more significant policy aim than the harmonising of standards for landfill management, which is of more relevance to some of the continental Member States, where standards may not be so high.

36   80/778/EEC, OJ No L229, 30 August 1980. Back

37   See glossary. Back

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