Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report



  111.    A good deal of the evidence concerned the validity of the waste hierarchy and its role in the development of more sustainable waste management (cf paragraphs 4-9): in brief, we were told that-

  *  the hierarchy is a political "wish list", which nevertheless was agreed unanimously by the Community in 1989 and therefore has been part of the EU's environmental agenda for over 8 years;

  *  it is not based on science or on relative environmental impacts in any rigorous way, but in many respects still makes good sense intuitively;

  *  the previous UK Government endorsed it in Making Waste Work; and

  *  the Making Waste Work targets have timetables for implementation which the Government, local authorities and others have failed to implement

  112.    Although Dr Krämer, for the Commission, argued that because the waste hierarchy was political in origin it could not, in effect, be questioned, we find this argument difficult to accept. The hierarchy is a guiding framework, not a straitjacket. Landfill has an inevitable, key role in waste disposal strategies: it should not by implication be stigmatised by its position at the bottom of the hierarchy.

  113.    As a general principle, we do not support the choosing of options which are "higher" in the hierarchy than landfill if their environmental impact is less favourable. Equally, if the environmental impacts are equivalent, we would not support an option which is economically less favourable than landfill, after such factors as transport, distance and market demand have been taken into account. In either case this could be an argument against recycling schemes which intuitively might seem more attractive than landfill.

  114.    We agree with the arguments in Making Waste Work that universal adherence to the hierarchy in all circumstances may not therefore accord with the principle of Best Practicable Environmental Option, but it should be recognised that BPEO has yet to be rigorously defined in the context of waste management.

  115.    In our view, the Directive does not explicitly advance the cause of sustainability. Useful though the "hierarchy" may be as a concept, it is perhaps better to see it less as a chain (or ladder) and more as a matrix of opportunities and options, together forming an integrated strategy in which BPEO will guide policies in specific circumstances-for example, reflecting the widely differing conditions of scattered rural communities and large conurbations. This has been well put by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, in a draft of the National Waste Strategy: Scotland:[53] "At its very simplest, sustainable development can be construed as attempting to move away from a linear-based system of resource utilisation-process-waste generation to a more closed-loop approach maximising the efficient use of resources and minimising waste". We should like to see this matrix approach better reflected in the Directive or at least in its national transposition.

  116.    It is perhaps not surprising that this view on the waste management hierarchy does not significantly differ from that expressed in a previous Report by the Committee, Packaging and Packaging Waste.[54]


  117.    The DETR's compliance cost assessment (reproduced with English Nature's evidence on pp 27-30) estimated that on the basis of the Commission's proposals the additional annual costs to the UK by 2010 would be in the range of £262-695 million, most of this being attributable to meeting the biodegradable waste reduction targets and ending co-disposal. It also estimated that between £3 billion and £7 billion of capital investment would be needed, mainly on incinerators. It was this that had led to the ministerial concern about a "dash to incineration" (Q 158).

  118.    The DETR's assessment was, however, criticised by Friends of the Earth, who argued that the calculations should be exclusive of the costs of meeting the Government's existing targets in Making Waste Work (pp 54-5). It was also criticised by the Energy from Waste Association, who argued that by 2010, with increased composting and recycling, only 35 new EfW plants would be needed to enable the UK to meet its targets, as opposed to the DETR's estimate of between 50 and 160 plants.

  119.    English Nature, whilst recognising the danger that increasing restrictions on biodegradable waste going to landfill might lead to less environmentally friendly disposal practices, including incineration, felt that the compliance cost assessment made insufficient allowance for the public's response to increased council tax levels (assuming it could perceive the link with waste volumes). They also argued that the assessment did not take fully into account the "externalities" of landfill, and that there was a case for increasing the rate of landfill tax to cover the full economic cost of disposal (pp 25, 36).

  120.    We felt that it was outside the scope of this enquiry to pursue the question of compliance costs in detail. We are inclined to agree with English Nature that the CCA estimates are so broad, and depend on so many assumptions, that it is difficult to take a firm view on costs. The Government is, however, right to be concerned about the magnitude of the range of possible costs in relation to the proposals of Article 5. We therefore reiterate the point which we made in paragraph 97 about the need for a more realistic timetable, particularly bearing in mind the UK industry's considerable investment in efficient landfill facilities which still have many years of economic life left.


Life Cycle Analysis and Cost Benefit Analysis

  121.    Both the Environment Agency and the IWM emphasised the importance of life cycle analysis (LCA)-ie a "cradle to grave" analysis of waste streams-as a technique for determining the BPEO for dealing with particular types of waste. The Agency was funding research on LCA; and the Institute would have liked to have seen its value as a decision tool explicitly recognised in the Directive (p 37; QQ 2, 96, 103).

  122.    Reference was made by several witnesses to the Coopers & Lybrand report to the Commission (see paragraph 3), which through the application of cost benefit analysis (CBA) had come to the qualified conclusion that landfill could be a sounder option, economically and environmentally, than incineration, even with energy recovery. Dr Krämer expressed the sceptical view that CBA and LCA were imperfectly developed and could be manipulated to justify or refute any conclusion: they had not yet produced any satisfactory answers to questions about the long-term environmental effects of landfill compared with those of other waste management options (QQ 275-7).

  123.    We find it intriguing that the Commission should dismiss research commissioned from Coopers & Lybrand as being ineffective and inconclusive. As a result, the researchers' conclusion that landfill can be a more environmentally benign process than incineration carries no weight with the Commission. We recognise, however, that the techniques of CBA and LCA in this context are fraught with difficulty. For example, the economic case for choosing between landfill and other options can be precarious, in that it is highly dependent on the assumptions that are made about the balance between carbon dioxide and methane produced by particular sites.

Economic instruments

  124.    There were passing references in the evidence to the opportunities for using economic instruments to discourage landfilling and to encourage the choice of options higher up the hierarchy. For obvious reasons, the landfill tax was felt to be a particularly suitable instrument in the context of the Directive, although Friends of the Earth and English Nature argued that the tax needed to be increased if it was to achieve its full purpose (Q 148, p 36).

  125.    The European Parliament has proposed the insertion in the Directive of a new Article (supported by an additional recital) on economic instruments. This reads: "The Council, on the basis of a proposal from the Commission, shall adopt economic instruments such as a tax on landfill. In the absence of Community measures, Member States are encouraged to adopt such measures to promote the objectives of the Directive."

  126.    The landfill tax is, in our view, a highly appropriate form of economic instrument to underpin the process of reducing dependency on landfill. We therefore support the European Parliament's proposal for a new Article which would require the Commission to bring forward proposals for the use of economic instruments by the Community, or (failing that) to encourage Member States to adopt measures themselves to promote the objectives of the Landfill Directive.


  127.    As we mentioned earlier, it was outside the scope of this enquiry to take detailed evidence on waste management policy at large. Nevertheless, given the objectives of the Directive, we thought it was important to consider how far the Commission's proposals were likely to result in movement up the waste management hierarchy towards waste minimisation, recycling and energy recovery, and towards more environmentally friendly disposal options.


  128.    Apart from Friends of the Earth, most witnesses were sceptical about the Directive's likely effectiveness in stimulating waste minimisation and recycling: most shared the view of the Minister for the Environment, Mr Michael Meacher, that the targets and timescale proposed by the Commission would create demand for greater use of incineration (paragraph 57). In Making Waste Work the last Government set out a number of targets:

  *  to recycle or compost 25 per cent of household waste by 2000

  *  to increase the use of recycled waste materials as aggregates in England from 30 million tonnes in 1995 to 55 million tonnes per year by 2006

  *  to recover 40 per cent of municipal waste by 2005

  *  40 per cent of domestic properties with a garden to do composting by 2000

  *  all waste disposal authorities to cost and consider the potential for establishing composting schemes by the end of 1997

  *  easily accessible recycling facilities for 80 per cent of households by 2000

  *  1 million tonnes of organic household waste per annum to be composted by 2001.

  129.    Statistics on municipal waste recently published by DETR[55] show inter alia that in 1995-96 6.5 per cent of household waste was separately collected for recycling or composting; that about 18 per cent of English and Welsh households were covered by kerbside collection for recycling; and that centralised composting and home composting accounted for 10 and 7 per cent respectively of total materials recycling. Other figures from the survey do not allow direct comparisons to be made with the targets.

  130.    DETR has recently issued revised guidance to local authorities on the preparation and revision of statutory recycling plans made under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Replacing guidance issued in 1991, the new guidance takes account of developments in the technical field and in the market for recyclables, and is intended to help local authorities meet the target of recovering value from 40 per cent of municipal waste by the year 2005.[56]

  131.    Although they were only indirectly relevant to the enquiry, the economics of recycling, especially the significance of transportation costs, were touched on in a number of the oral evidence sessions as well as in some written submissions. Professor Porteous estimated that collection costs could be as high as £100 per tonne, and argued that recycling was only worthwhile if it saved more oil, coal or natural gas and produced less pollution than alternative waste management options of which the costs were the same or less (p 183). SEPA pointed out that recycling was unlikely to be economic in predominantly rural areas and in environmental terms could conflict with the proximity principle of the Waste Framework Directive (pp 187, 192). The familiar topic of "mountains" of recycled materials (or materials collected for recycling) was discussed, in our view inconclusively, with Friends of the Earth and the Commission (QQ 143; 272-4).

  132.    Recycling is a subject which would have warranted a separate enquiry and report in its own right. Some of the ground has been covered in the Committee's 1993 Report on Packaging and Packaging Waste:[57] for present purposes we offer a relatively brief summary of points noted from the evidence and our conclusions:

  *  in all countries the markets for recycled products are imperfectly developed, but this is not a sufficient reason to downgrade the position of recycling among the waste management options

  *  economic incentives or simple regulation are needed to get markets going: the Commission will be bringing forward proposals for specific measures to stimulate demand for recyclates

  *  we share the basic aim of the hierarchy, and have seen a number of useful local authority initiatives which deserve encouragement

  *  in the UK especially more commitment and effort for recycling is required through the use of regulation, eg by requiring newsprint to contain a minimum percentage of recycled material

  *  the logistics of recycling are critical to its viability: for instance, it is inefficient for separation of paper and cardboard to be done at transfer stations and recycling facilities-it should be done at the point of collection

  *  recycling for its own sake is not necessarily economic (for instance, the Peterborough scheme, which the Sub-Committee visited, at the moment runs at a loss), and may not be the BPEO in all cases. Although a number of witnesses spoke of the need to stimulate markets for recycled materials, they had few practical suggestions on how this could be done

  *  recycling can make demands upon the environment, for instance in the form of transport costs, energy consumption, air pollution and noise: it is therefore not necessarily the BPEO in sparsely populated areas

  *  enthusiasm for recycling should not lose sight of the fact that some materials (eg motor oil) are more easily and economically recycled than others; mixed plastics remain a problem; again the Commission is considering ways of addressing this

  *  rigorous life-cycle analysis is the key to finding the BPEO for dealing with particular waste streams, including minimisation or recycling.

  133.    Although adherence to the hierarchy needs to be checked case by case against the principle of BPEO, we fully support the importance which the Commission attaches to recycling as a component of sustainable waste management. We believe the United Kingdom Government needs to be more positive with initiatives in this area of environmental policy. We welcome the DETR's new guidance to local authorities as a useful first step.

  134.    We think it would be useful if the Government, when responding to this Report, were to give an account of progress on matters which were the subject of recommendations in our 1993 Report on Packaging and to set out its views on the wider policy issues raised in the Report, most of which we feel remain valid.

53   Consultation draft to be published later in 1998 (typescript of March 1997 as supplied by SEPA to Sub-Committee C). Back

54   26th Report, 1992-93, 19 October 1993, HL Paper 118-I: see especially paragraphs 46-47. Back

55   Municipal Waste Management 1995/96, DETR, January 1998. Back

56   House of Commons, Written Answers, 27 February 1997, cols 404-5; Waste Policy Guidance: Preparing and Revising Local Authority Recycling Strategies and Recycling Plans, DETR, March 1998. Back

57   Appendix 5 to the Report contains a specialist adviser's paper on economic instruments: it is useful to compare this with the Environmental Services Association's supplementary written evidence on possible measures to promote recycling (pp 113-5). Back

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