Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report


DELIVERING SUSTAINABLE WASTE MANAGEMENT

Local Authority Targets

57. To meet the national targets for recycling and composting, the Government has put forward the following statutory standards for 2003:

  • authorities with 1998/99 recycling and composting rates of under 5%, to achieve at least 10%;

  • authorities that recycled or composted between 5% and 15% in 1998/99 to double their recycling rate;

  • the remaining authorities to recycle or compost at least one third of household waste.

The Strategy calculates that achievement of these targets will result in an overall recycling rate of around 17% by 2003 and also states that standards will be set for 2005 and 2010 to ensure that the national targets are met.[96]

58. As is clear from the format of the targets for local authorities, the current recycling performance of local authorities varies dramatically, from as low as 1% to 35%.[97] Some of this variation can be put down to the different nature of local authorities: for example, higher recycling rates can be more difficult to achieve in some types of rural or semi-rural areas, as compared to urban or suburban areas. It is also often considered easier to achieve higher recycling rates in more affluent urban areas than in poorer parts and more difficult to raise rates where the housing is predominantly high-rise. A good deal of the variation, however, can be put down to the differing levels of commitment to recycling found amongst local authorities.

59. We have already noted the importance of kerbside collections of separated materials for recycling. Witnesses were convinced that such collections would be required if local authorities were to achieve the targets set. Essex Waste Disposal Authority told us that:

    "It is necessary for the districts to implement kerb-side separation, not only of dry recyclables but also of organics, if we are to stand any chance of getting to these challenging recycling levels that have been set for us by the Government."[98]

60. Perhaps the most important question raised about the targets as they relate to local authorities is whether they are achievable given the funding made available to local authorities.[99] Given that it is generally accepted by everyone (including the Minister) that kerbside collections systems will be required to meet the targets, one might imagine that the introduction of these systems has been costed and the necessary funding made available. There appear to be no such costings or rationale behind the funding made available which includes an additional £1.127 billion for the local authority function which incorporates waste, a further £50 million from the New Opportunities Fund for household recycling schemes and £140 million of challenge fund money.

61. The cost of kerbside collections is often quoted at £5-£20 per household per annum and a similar amount would be needed for collections of organic materials.[100] Once one has included improvements to civic amenity sites and efforts to educate and inform the public to ensure their participation, a rough estimate of the total cost would be about £20-£25 per household per annum. To provide such services to, say 80% of households would cost around £400 million every year. In general, witnesses from local authorities tended to believe that the funding available was insufficient for them to reach the targets.[101] We consider the detailed aspects of funding to local authorities in a later section of the Report and, in particular, we consider the need for transitional funding to enable local authorities to set up kerbside collection schemes in the first place.

62. The limited funding available to increase recycling infrastructure may threaten the achievement of the national targets for recycling. However, it is not possible to comment with certainty since the funding made available does not appear to have been based on any costings. Although the national targets for recycling and composting cannot be considered ambitious, the derived targets for local authorities may prove to be more than challenging within the confines of the funding available. To enable the true situation to be determined, we recommend that the Government publish clear costings of how local authorities will be able to achieve the recycling targets using the funding made available to them.

MARKETS AND PRICES

63. The problem of finding adequate and stable markets for recycled materials is a well-documented one. Apocryphal stories of green glass being shipped to Brazil to be landfilled and newspaper collected for recycling being dumped in UK landfill sites litter the media coverage of this issue.[102] Similarly, the 'German experience' is often quoted where collection of recyclables pre-empted the formation of proper markets and much material ended up in landfill.[103] Witnesses stressed that these stories were not representative of the real situation:

    "The Community Recycling Network and its members have in general found ways of marketing its materials for many years. There seems to have been a myth developing that there is a problem with markets. This is not the case, in the CRN's experience. There is sometimes a problem with price, and it may be that, in the short term future, some supporting financial mechanisms are needed on prices for recyclables, but this is not the same as a market problem. The necessary markets, for the most part, exist."[104]

Similarly, the Recycling Consortium told us that the lack of markets "is an issue but it is probably not as much of an issue as some people like to make out."[105] Robin Murray argued that the main barrier to the expansion of recycling was the financing of supply and asserted that "I actually do not see it, for the most part, as an obstacle of markets."[106]

64. But others were less convinced that markets would be adequate to sustain an expansion of recycling activity. For example, the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers noted that "previous targets (for producer responsibility matters) have failed to result in either long-term or stable markets for local authorities."[107] Similarly, the Local Government Association suggested that those authorities currently recycling at levels of 25% "have reached a plateau from which it is not possible to move without considerable cost and the creation of local artificial and heavily subsidised markets."[108]

65. Clearly, if recycling is to be expanded dramatically, then stable markets with reasonable prices will be necessary. The risk that large amounts of paper, plastic and glass collected for recycling would have to be disposed of by landfill or incineration is a sobering one. One of the strongest measures which Government could take would be to aim to break down those performance standards which specify the use of virgin materials and, where possible, to invert them so that they specify a given proportion of recycled material.[109] Public procurement along these lines could also help provide a big boost to markets for products with high proportions of recycled materials. But many of the routes to more stable markets are difficult to legislate for, and rely on innovation more than any specific policy initiative.

66. We were told of the change in approach to markets, away from closed loop (the recycling of materials back to the same use) towards a more flexible, open-loop system, in which materials employed for one purpose may then be recycled for use in a range of different processes.[110] For example, green glass can be used in road-making and also has high value as a filtration medium. Clearly, if more and different markets for recycled materials are created then it is likely that the prices paid for those materials will be rather more stable and less influenced by variation in the demand for one of those markets. Another way round this problem for those working with recyclates was provided by Mr Dougherty, an adviser to WRAP, but previously responsible for a market development initiative in Washington State in the United States:

    "So even working with main factors of plastic products, say industrial containers, we would work with them to define the level of recycled plastic they could use; for example, from 20 per cent to 80 per cent. When the price of recycled plastic was high they would use little or none, and when it was low they would use 80 per cent. So we always worked with them to make sure that it was to their financial advantage."[111]

67. We are encouraged that the Waste and Resources Action Programme is set to tackle the problem of markets immediately after its formation although we are anxious that it does not get bogged down in detailed research in this area.[112] The problems of markets are real ones but an extremely important point was made to us by the Recycling Consortium:

    "We struggled for 20 years plus with the idea that recycling should pay for itself. We do not expect landfill sites to pay for themselves. We quite accept that, with landfill sites, if the standards increase it becomes more expensive. We do not say to the landfill operators, 'I am very sorry but you will have to find that money from somewhere else.'"[113]

We agree with the Community Recyclers. No other waste management option is expected to pay its own way and it has perhaps become a cultural expectation that 'recycling' should pay for itself and should not be carried out if the price paid for the recycled materials does not cover the expense of recycling. There is no justification for this apparently logical argument since recycling is simply another option in the waste hierarchy. As such, we see no reason that measures to develop markets should not involve subsidy, at least in the short to medium term whilst recycling is growing.

68. We agree with Robin Murray that the problem of markets for recycled materials is "a challenge for innovation, it is not an argument against the broad strategy proposal [to expand recycling]".[114] Nevertheless, there are problems with markets and in our previous Report on Sustainable Waste Management, we concluded that the Government would need to intervene in markets to secure stability.[115] This continues to be the case and the problems of markets for recycled materials must not be allowed to threaten the development of recycling. We are encouraged that the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is planning to tackle this area. Where considered appropriate, WRAP should be able to recommend with confidence the introduction of subsidies for particular markets, or other measures requiring Government action.

PRODUCER RESPONSIBILITY

69. 'Producer responsibility' is the phrase used to define systems where the manufacturer of a given product is required (or volunteers) to take responsibility for the handling (and sometimes final destination) of some or all of the waste associated with that product. Perhaps the best known example from previous years was the system of deposits on bottles of fizzy drinks, a scheme which unfortunately ceased in the 1970s. A similar system (without deposits) continues to operate for the delivery of milk. More recent initiatives have resulted in the packaging regulations, which require a given proportion of packaging materials to be reclaimed by the manufacturer.

70. Many witnesses argued that greater producer responsibility would be required to change the waste management system and expressed disappointment with the provisions made in the Strategy.[116] For example, the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers wrote that:

    "the producer-responsibility obligation should be strengthened within the national waste strategy and highlighted to reflect the need for industry to be the primary agency responsible for delivering a reduction in the nation's use of resources."[117]

Witnesses also stressed that producer responsibility was the main mechanism to ensure that manufacturers end up sharing the with householders the costs of improving waste management. Waste Watch commented that:

    "the lack of hard hitting producer responsibility measures means that society at large will continue to pay the full price of waste disposal, not the producers of products that ultimately become waste."[118]

71. Few witnesses declared themselves opposed to producer responsibility measures although many were critical of the packaging regulations. We have considered the Packaging Regulations in detail in a previous Report[119] and we will not go over them in detail here. Perhaps the main point is that the Packaging Regulations appear to be a good example of how not to introduce effective producer responsibility requirements. The Regulations came into force in 1997 and set targets for recovery and recycling of packaging waste. Obligated businesses must recover and recycle packaging waste: 50% must be recovered in 2001, with at least half of that recycled. Many witnesses noted the apparent failure of the Regulations to reduce the amount of packaging.[120] The complexity of the Packaging Regulations means that manufacturers and specifiers of packaging do not directly experience the costs which those Regulations impose on the users of packaging. As a result, it is arguable whether there is any real incentive for those manufacturers to reduce packaging or to redesign it such that it is easier to reuse or recycle. Although it seems that the Packaging Regulations have had only limited success in increasing the amount of packaging being recycled, they have at least forced companies to monitor the amount of packaging that they use.[121] However, this must be considered a poor return for such a complicated and expensive system. The Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system for demonstrating compliance with the packaging waste obligation is too complicated and has resulted in large sums being distributed to reprocessors, thereby contributing little to the objectives of the system.

72. To return to the bottle-deposit system, we heard from Valpak and Incpen about the decline and subsequent abandonment of this system in the UK. Mr Turner from Valpak told us that:

    "One of the reasons for the change was the amount of waste in the returnable system. The losses incurred in returnable systems through fraud, breakage and the winter - one of the major problems in the winter when bottles are stored outside is people forget that they fill up with water and freeze so it is a total loss situation. The whole thing became extremely expensive."[122]

Quite simply, these reasons sound like excuses - they are simply problems which could have been (and should have been) overcome.[123] Instead, for short-term cost-saving reasons, an essentially effective scheme was abandoned. We were encouraged that the Minister backed the re-introduction of such a scheme.[124]

73. In general, it seems that the Government only uses producer responsibility systems where it is required to do so to implement an EU Directive. Amongst the Directives which will require this approach in the near future are the End of Life Vehicles Directive, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and the Batteries Directive. Although Patricia Hewitt, Minister of State for the Department of Trade and Industry, declared that producer responsibility has got a "very important role to play in ensuring that we get much greater recycling and reuse...",[125] this role is not evident from the Waste Strategy 2000, nor from the rest of her oral evidence.

74. The emphasis is made clear in the memorandum from the DTI:

    "the DTI's general preference is to encourage a voluntary approach to producer responsibility ... DTI is closely involved, with other Departments, in the identification, initiation and development of any new producer responsibility measures."[126]

75. To date, voluntary initiatives in producer responsibility have made little impact. Aside from the recycled content of newspaper[127] and a putative attempt to tackle junk mail, there are no meaningful examples which have arisen as a result of Government initiative. When questioned further about this, the Minister could offer no new areas (other than those which will soon be covered by Directives) in which the Government was working to secure a voluntary agreement on producer responsibility.[128] Problems with voluntary schemes of many different types have been well documented elsewhere: there are questions of enforcement, usually an absence of sanctions for those failing to play their part and, as a result, the 'free rider' problem of companies not playing their part and relying on others within the sector fulfilling their share.[129] Ultimately, since producer responsibility attempts to make polluters pay, it is not difficult to see why voluntary initiatives of this sort are so scarce. Polluters rarely offer to pay.

76. We did not gain the impression of the DTI acting as a persuasive arm of Government, pressing sectors of business to develop producer responsibility initiatives. Similarly, the CBI appeared to be adopting an essentially defensive approach to waste management and, unfortunately, this attitude extended to producer responsibility. Indeed, if the evidence from the Confederation of British Industry was representative, it is difficult to imagine that this is a fertile area without much greater effort (and the threat of legislation) from Government, preferably without the need for arm-twisting from Europe. The lack of energy and initiative displayed by DTI in this area is perhaps an indication of a wider problem: Peter Jones from Biffa Waste Services Ltd told us that there was a need for DTI to 'buy in' to the need for greater producer responsibility and accept that this would involve increased costs for industry. [130] As an example of what can be done with producer responsibility, we have put in Appendix 3 details of the Swedish and Belgian schemes which applied the principle to batteries.

77. Another example of the problems posed by the Government's current approach to producer responsibility is provided by cars: although the End of Life Vehicles Directive will ultimately require manufacturers to take responsibility for cars once they are no longer used, there appear to be no transitional arrangements. This is a major problem for local authorities: the number of abandoned vehicles has risen by some 300% during the last two years as a result of the collapse of the scrap metals markets.

78. Producer responsibility is one of the strongest mechanisms to transform waste management but the Government appears to have a rather sluggish attitude to developing it and applying it to more product streams. Unless this instrument is used more extensively and effectively, the costs of transforming waste management will fall predominantly on the taxpayer in general, rather than industry and the consumers of specific products. In this area, the 'strategy' appears to be to implement any relevant EU Directives whilst paying lip service to developing voluntary initiatives. The stated reliance on a voluntary approach is unlikely to deliver improvements in any but the most straightforward product streams. We await the extension of producer responsibility initiatives to a much broader range of products within the waste stream, including cars, batteries, tyres and chewing gum.

Composting

79. Composting is the most effective way of dealing with garden and other 'green' wastes. Kitchen waste can also be composted under certain conditions. People often refer to a composting 'hierarchy'[131] - best is home composting; then community composting, whereby organic waste is composted locally within and by the community; then centralised composting, managed by the local authority. Home is considered the most attractive since it involves no additional transport and the compost produced can be used in the householder's garden, thereby returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil. In this way, home composting can also be considered to be very much in line with efforts to minimise waste production.

80. The scale of composting is not fully known since a good deal of it takes place in gardens and is not monitored or measured. The Composting Association survey of 1999 found that around 900,000 tonnes were being composted each year outside of householders' gardens with the vast majority, 800,000 tonnes being processed at 59 centrally-run sites. The targets of relevance to composting are the following:

  • to recycle or compost at least 25% of household waste by 2005

  • to recycle or compost at least 30% of household waste by 2010

  • to recycle or compost at least 33% of household waste by 2015

  • to recover value from 40% of municipal waste by 2005

  • to recover value from 45% of municipal waste by 2010

  • to recover value from 67% of municipal waste by 2015

When asked about the practical implications of these targets, Dr Jane Gilbert of the Composting Association told us that:

    "A rough estimation by 2003 ... is that in England and Wales we need to see somewhere in the region of about two million tonnes per annum composted ... But preliminary results from the Association's survey ... [show] that in England and Wales in 1999 only about 580,000 tonnes of material, municipal waste, was composted in England and Wales. So we are going to need to see virtually a four-fold increase by 2003."[132]

81. In 1998 we concluded that "We are convinced by the evidence we have received that a future national composting strategy should require the use of source separated waste, to produce an environmentally beneficial end product."[133] The evidence we heard during the course of this inquiry strengthened our belief that this conclusion remains the right one.

82. The alternative to composting of separated organic materials is composting mixed municipal waste. Inevitably, the final product which results from such a process will be of a lower quality than is produced by composting sorted organic material. The Composting Association wrote of their concern that a lack of resources will hinder waste separation at source resulting in 'mixed waste treatment options' which will produce large quantities of very low-grade product fit only for daily landfill cover. The potential to use composted mixed municipal waste for agriculture is probably limited: the National Farmers Union told us of their concern about contaminants getting into the food chain and the need for "traceability"[134] - a requirement which can probably never be fulfilled for mixed municipal waste. The Composting Association noted that a number of mixed waste plants abroad failed "because of the poor quality of the material, and particularly the inability to extract small glass fragments from them."[135]

83. It seems unlikely that mixed waste composting will ever produce a compost of a high enough standard to find acceptable uses. It is also an inefficient use of waste materials. Source separation remains the key to a better waste management system: an expansion of composting, like recycling, will be of greatest merit if it makes use of materials which are separated out by householders. The use of mixed waste to make a compost-like material is a poor alternative which must not be allowed to prosper at the expense of schemes based on source separation and a higher quality product.

84. Standards for compost are important. They reassure those planning to use the compost and give them confidence in a consistent product. Many memoranda suggested that the lack of an agreed definition of compost and the absence of statutory standards for compost posed a significant barrier to increased composting.[136] The Composting Association wrote that these problems:

    "have the potential to seriously undermine the existing confidence built up over the past decade by operators committed to producing and marketing good quality composts. Today's society has witnessed a number of significant food scares and the Association expresses concern that unless clarification of the terminology and uses of compost is made, similar difficulties may beset the composting industry."[137]

Given the importance of widely accepted standards of compost, it is somewhat disheartening to hear that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has offered only "goodwill" in aiding the Composting Association to establish standards.[138] The Association has received no Government funding to aid the development of standards despite the fact that the research, development and implementation of standards is quite clearly a matter of waste policy. Furthermore, the standards which have been developed have no statutory backing.

85. It is interesting to note that standards are one of the main components of the draft working document on the treatment of biodegradable waste, which was published by the European Commission in October 2000. Despite this, an official from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions told us of his hope that the Commission would not produce a Composting Directive since "it is very difficult to see what an EU Directive would achieve."[139] It is tempting to point out that such a Directive might at least force the UK Government to support composting standards to a greater extent than it has so far managed. We are pleased that the Composting Association has established a system of standards for the quality of compost but are baffled and disappointed that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions did not actively assist the Association in doing this. We expect the DETR to take an active role in implementing these standards and ensuring that they become established. If the standards fail to be accepted, we recommend that the Government act to make the standards for compost statutory.

86. There are two specific issues which are of importance to the promotion of household and community composting, which, it is worth recalling, are above central composting in the hierarchy. First, given that home composting is the most attractive form, it is frustrating that it is to be excluded from contributing towards local authority targets for composting. The decision was taken because "there are no reliable ways of measuring either quantities or standards."[140] But it is estimated that between 200 and 300 thousand tonnes of materials is composted by households, a significant quantity even when compared to the 500 thousand tonnes collected for central composting.[141] There are various methods which a local authority could use to estimate how much home composting is being carried out. For example, by surveying a sample of households or following up the purchase of home composters. The exclusion from the targets will mean that local authorities no longer have any incentive to facilitate and encourage home composting.[142] We were at least encouraged that Mr Meacher was able to allay the fears of the Community Composting Network[143] by stating that community composting would count towards the targets. Although we appreciate the difficulties of counting home composting towards local authority targets, its exclusion is unacceptable. If it is not counted, there is no incentive for local authorities to encourage this, the most desirable form of composting. The Government, the Local Government Association, the Composting Association and the Community Composting Network should work together to find an acceptable proxy for the amount of home composting in the targets for local authorities.

87. The second matter is the continued delay in reviewing the exemptions from the waste management licensing system. We were informed that the current exemptions system effectively makes community composting an illegal activity. The Community Composting Network wrote that:

    "The existing Exemption from Waste Management Licensing Regulations for small composting sites makes it impossible for community composting to sell their product. CCN received a written assurance from the Minister for the Environment in January 1999 that the existing exemption would be revised, followed by an oral assurance ... that the consultation document on the revised exemption would be published in November 1999. The consultation document remains to be published."[144]

When we confronted the Minister with this matter, he apologised for the delay and promised to publish the consultation "in the next few weeks".[145] Clearly this matter needs prompt resolution and we urge the Government to publish the consultation document on revised exemptions from the Waste Management Licensing system. This has now been promised for more than two years but has yet to appear. These delays pose problems for many, not least those involved in community composting.


96   Waste Strategy 2000, Part 1, page 23 Back

97   From the Audit Commission's Local Authority Performance Indicators for 1999/00 - England (www.audit-commission.gov.uk) Back

98   Q560 Back

99   The matter of funding to local authorities is considered more comprehensively later in this report (see paragraphs 193-195) Back

100   Beyond the Bin: The Economics of Waste Management options - A Final Report to Friends of the Earth, UK Waste and Waste Watch by ECOTEC Research and Consulting Limited (2000). Back

101   Ev p42, p47, p115, p200 (HC 903-II) Back

102   Ev p3 (HC 903-II) Back

103   Ev p72 (HC 903-II) Back

104   Ev p206 (HC 903-II) Back

105   Q681 Back

106   Q20 Back

107   Ev p127 (HC 903-II) Back

108   Ev p96 (HC 903-II) Back

109   Ev p107 (HC 903-II) Back

110   Q685 and Q1050 Back

111   Q1051 Back

112   Waste Strategy 2000, Part 1, Page 26, paragraph 3.2  Back

113   Q682 Back

114   Q7 Back

115   Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98), para graph 100 Back

116   Ev p21, p41, p127, p210 (HC 903-II) Back

117   Ev p127 (HC 903-II) Back

118   Ev p297 (HC 903-II) Back

119   Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98), para graphs 156-176  Back

120   Ev p17, p297 (HC 903-II) Back

121   Q694 Back

122   Q728 Back

123   See also Ev p164 (HC 36-II) Back

124   Q1129 Back

125   Q1019 Back

126   Ev p206 (HC 36-II) Back

127   In April 2000, the Government reached agreement with the Newspaper Publishers Association on future target levels of recycled content of newsprint. The newspaper publishers have agreed to commit to the following targets: 60% recycled content by the end of 2001; 65% recycled content by end of 2003; and 70% recycled content by end of 2006, subject to review in 2001 and 2003. Back

128   Q1020 Back

129   Q748 Back

130   Q22 Back

131   Ev p25 (HC 903-II) Back

132   Q245 Back

133   Sustainable Waste Management, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 484-I (1997-98), para graph 110 Back

134   Q262. 'Traceability' is knowing precisely what materials have been used to make the compost. Back

135   Q225 Back

136   Ev p49, p168 (HC 903-II) Back

137   Ev p168 (HC 903-II) Back

138   Q220 Back

139   Q80 Back

140   Q1205 Back

141   Q1205 Back

142   Ev p293 (HC 903-II) Back

143   Q218 and Q1206 Back

144   Ev pp111-112 (HC 903-II) Back

145   Q1262 Back


 
previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 March 2001