Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Fifth Report


Environment Agency


171. The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing the Waste Management Licensing Regulations which are intended to ensure that waste management activities do not cause pollution to the environment or harm to human health. Witnesses expressed concern about the Environment Agency's ability to regulate. In particular, those involved in novel techniques (such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis) and composting expressed anxiety that the Agency did not have staff with the necessary expertise to be able to regulate their activities. The Environment Agency appear to have partially accepted that there is a problem, stating that it "has recognised the need to improve the competence of Environmental Protection Officers who are new to waste management."[265]

172. But perhaps the most significant doubt about the Agency's abilities relates to the public's confidence in them to regulate facilities to protect public health. This concern relates most topically and acutely to incineration, as we noted in an earlier section of the Report. The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee on proposals for the construction of new waste incinerators and is also responsible for regulating emissions from existing incinerators and for overseeing the disposal of the ash they produce. Public Interest Consultants noted the problems here:

    "too often planners abdicate responsibility for emissions and health to the Environment Agency which leads to immense frustration in local communities who are particularly mistrustful of the role of the Agency in relation to health issues."[266]

173. When appearing before us, witnesses from the Agency demonstrated the problem: although they did a perfectly adequate job of explaining how the emissions standards are set for incineration, they failed to explain how the public could be convinced that incineration was safe. This is all the more important because the Agency's credibility as a regulator has been damaged by the case of the Byker incinerator, where potentially hazardous ash from the incinerator is alleged to have "blown all over the surrounding neighbourhood"[267] despite numerous visits from the Agency's inspectors. The Agency does not help itself in dealing with those outside the Agency in the manner in which it handled enquiries by Public Interest Consultants. The Agency adopted a less than open attitude to dealing with the enquiries, answering them in a technically accurate fashion but failing to respond sensibly to the direction of the questioning.[268]

174. Communicating with the public about this issue is, of course, no easy task since it requires an explanation and interpretation of risk, a notoriously difficult concept to treat well in public information terms. Nevertheless, the public's ability to take part in the waste debate rests to some extent upon a better understanding of risk. We recommend that the Environment Agency work with the Department of Health to produce an information pack on the health risks which can be associated with waste management facilities. It is vital that the Agency work with the public to ensure that they are enabled to make informed contributions to the debate about waste management facilities. The costs or charges which are made for this information should be low enough to ensure that there is no impediment to a full debate taking place.

175. Fly-tipping was once again raised as an issue.[269] We have dealt with this matter in previous Reports: in our most recent one on The Environment Agency we noted our disappointment that, despite our previous warnings and recommendations, "the Government and the Environment Agency have failed to take the necessary action to prevent the illegal dumping of waste."[270] Evidence that this is still a problem was disappointingly commonplace during this inquiry. For example, the National Farmers' Union told us that a survey of farmers carried out during the year 2000 found that more than half thought fly-tipping was "a major on-going problem" and one quarter said that there had been a significant increase during the last year.[271]

176. A Fly-tipping Forum has been set up to examine the issues of fly-tipping, the main problems being both catching the offenders and ensuring that the penalty provides an adequate disincentive. On the latter point, Mr Meacher told us that:

     "I would hope that ... where there have been serious or repeat offences, where the magistrates court can only fine up to £20,000, that they would refer the matter to the county [crown] court where there is the option of imprisonment for up to two years and an unlimited fine. I wish to give the message that we are getting very serious about fly-tipping."[272] .

To combat the problem of catching fly-tippers, the Environment Agency has submitted a case for additional resources for an environmental crime unit although they go on to note that "it seems unlikely that these resources will be forthcoming."[273] Fly-tipping continues to be a problem and it is clear that better enforcement and greater punishment are required. To ensure that perpetrators are caught, we recommend that the Government fund the Environment Agency's proposal for an Environmental Crime Unit. So that a true deterrent is offered, we also urge magistrates to make full use of their powers to fine and, where necessary, to pass cases to the Crown Court.

177. The other recurring issue in our waste-related inquiries has been the matter of 'sham recovery' of waste. This takes place when inert waste is disposed of illegally on sites which are exempt from waste management licensing requirements, under the guise of waste being 'recovered' for use, for example for landscaping on golf courses. Our Reports on Sustainable Waste Management (1998), The Operation of the Landfill Tax (1999) and The Environment Agency (2000) have all drawn attention to this problem. Our oft-repeated concerns have yet to elicit any initiative from the Government. As we noted earlier, the review of exemptions from the waste management licensing system is urgent not only to help stop sham recovery, but also to aid those undertaking community composting.[274] In December, Mr Meacher promised us a consultation document on revising exemptions "in the next few weeks"[275] but in a later written answer to a parliamentary question, this had slipped to "this spring".[276] This is not good enough - it is time that the Government stopped pondering and published its plans for revising exemptions.

178. One of the concerns is that these exempt sites are effectively unregulated by the Environment Agency. The Government's response to our Report on The Environment Agency states:

     "The Committee is also incorrect in describing exempt sites as 'unregulated'. Exempt sites are controlled under the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994 and must be registered with the Agency, which has a legal duty to subject them to appropriate periodic inspection."[277]

However, Bob Parish of the Environment Agency was quoted in a recent Big Issue article as saying that the Agency could only get to visit 10% of exempt sites annually: "that means that at the minimum we visit a site every 10 years."[278] In evidence to the Sub-committee, Steve Lee, Head of Waste Regulation at the Environment Agency, noted his dissatisfaction with the current level of inspection and told us that the Agency had put forward proposals to the Department which would ensure that "those types of operation are subject to prior verification by us and are subject to an annual fee payable to us to make sure that we are funded to do the inspection."[279] As we noted earlier, the review of the Waste Management Licensing exemptions is long-overdue. We await the consultation document to tackle the matters of inspection and enforcement.

179. The Environment Agency must crack down on illegal avoidance of the landfill tax. On average, an exempt site will currently be inspected every ten years. Such a low frequency will do little to deter those aiming to cheat the system. We recommend that exempt sites be visited at least once every year and on any occasion when a complaint is made. We expect the Government to make available the resources necessary to enable the Agency to do this.


180. We have noted earlier in this Report that the quality and quantity of data on waste arisings is rather poor and recommended that the Agency carry out more work in this area and also aim to publish its findings rather more promptly. There is a more general and over-arching criticism of the Environment Agency: that it is failing to influence the strategic debate. This is a point we have made before, in our Report on The Environment Agency, in which we concluded that:

This applies nowhere more aptly than to waste management. For example, much is made of waste minimisation on the Environment Agency's website. However, as we have already noted, the Waste Strategy 2000 is extremely thin on waste minimisation and how to go about it. Similarly, given the Environment Agency's green procurement policy (which is rather good and comprehensive), it is disappointing that the Government's plan includes only a weak commitment to procurement, starting with recycled paper.

181. Peter Jones of Biffa Waste Services summarised the problem thus:

    "I think there is a role for the Environment Agency to become involved in this more strategic debate, because, after all, they will be responsible for training and developing the people that could be regulating these plants in the future. At the moment they are very much ex post. They are after the event."[281]

In defence, the Environment Agency argue that their role is "to supply impartial information and advice to decision-makers."[282] But, as our Report on the Agency made clear, there is no reason why the Agency should not claim for itself a broader role and aim to influence policy initiatives to a much greater extent than it manages at present.

182. From the content of the Waste Strategy 2000, it is clear that the Environment Agency is still failing to take a convincing and persuasive approach to influencing environmental strategy. Although we note some recent improvement in the Agency's performance, it is vital that it become a champion for the environment and sustainable development. It must aim to persuade Government of the merits of adopting a more ambitious waste strategy which is based around the pursuit of sustainable waste management.

Local Authorities

183. Local Authorities are at the forefront of waste management: they are responsible for collecting and then recycling/disposing of most household and commercial waste. We have already considered many aspects of local authority targets and performance. Here we examine the co-operation between Waste Collection Authorities and Waste Disposal Authorities, the requirement for and availability of funding and the question of planning for waste management facilities.

184. One feature of local authority waste management is the patchy performance around the country, most markedly displayed in the levels of recycling, which vary from 1% to 35%.[283] This variation suggests that there is a real need for 'beacon' councils which have had conspicuous success with their waste policies. As a contribution to this, we have produced in the text boxes within this section examples of local authorities with high levels of achievement.

Community Sector & Local Authority Partnerships

There are many examples of successful partnerships between community sector recyclers and local authorities in the UK. Projects operated by the community sector include kerbside recycling, home and community composting, furniture reuse, children's scrapstores, educational work and promotion campaigns.

Two of the largest providers of kerbside recycling services are Avon Friends of the Earth and ECT Recycling, which are both constituted as non-profit making community businesses. Both offer multi-material kerbside collections for a wide variety of dry recyclables that includes paper, glass (with 3-colour separation), cans, plastic bottles and textiles.

Avon FoE employs more than 150 staff and provides recycling services to 350,000 households and 2,000 businesses in Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Stroud District.

The ECT Group, which includes ECT Recycling and Lambeth Community Recycling, employs over 240 staff and provides recycling services to over 450,000 households in London and Oxfordshire, which will increase to 500,000 with the start of a new contract in Waltham Forest on 2 April 2001.

In Bath & North East Somerset, the Council and Avon FoE provide weekly green box kerbside collections and mini-recycling centres for flats throughout the District. The green box service replaces previously monthly recycling collections, with the final phase of this expansion due to be completed by the end of March 2001.

In 1999/00 these services collected 8,374 tonnes for recycling with 70-75% of households regularly using their green boxes. A further 1,336 tonnes were collected through banks and 10,397 tonnes recycled from civic amenity Sites (including 4,624 tonnes of garden waste and 2,924 tonnes of building rubble).

Audit Commission Performance Indicators for Bath & North East Somerset in 1999/00 indicate that 0.33 tonnes of household waste was recycled per household with 0.9 tonnes not recycled or recovered, giving a recycling rate of 27%.


In Bristol and under contract to the Council, Avon FoE in partnership with SITA have expanded weekly Black Box recycling collections to 135,000 households and mini-recycling centres to 8,000 flats.

Avon FoE is a founder member of The Recycling Consortium, which also includes a furniture reuse company The Sofa Project and a materials reuse company for schools called The Children's Scrapstore. The Recycling Consortium works locally on waste issues, through Community Waste Action Groups, and undertakes extensive education and publicity work, including a high profile Rubbish Revolution campaign.

These activities have had the effect of doubling Bristol's recycling rate from 7% to 15%.


In Hounslow, ECT Recycling and the Council provide a weekly green box recycling service for 72,000 households, which collected 7,800 tonnes in 2000.

ECT Recycling has modelled recycling performance and socio-economic factors to ensure the efficient allocation of resources in this highly diverse borough. Other initiatives have included communication programmes for 'hard to reach' groups, changing contractual arrangements for caretaking in high-rise flats to facilitate recycling collections and the development of Community Waste Action groups. In 2001, there are plans for a trial green waste collection scheme for 4,000 households and an expansion of near-entrance recycling collection points for flats.

Audit Commission Performance Indicators for Hounslow in 1999/00 indicate that 0.17 tonnes of household waste was recycled per household with 0.79 tonnes not recycled or recovered (WCA wastes only excluding civic amenity Sites), giving a recycling rate of 18%.


Lambeth Community Recycling provides multi-material recycling collections for 73,000 low and medium rise households.

Lambeth also has over 40,000 households living in estates consisting of tower, mansion and deck access blocks. Over half of these are served by a near entrance recycling system located at 180 sites, which are established in consultation with residents.

An intensive marketing strategy implemented by Lambeth Community Recycling, the Council and Waste Watch in 2000 resulted in 15% more recycling and Lambeth's recycling rate increasing to over 12%, which is one of the highest for an inner London Borough.

Top Recycling Performers

The top performing English local authorities for recycling in the Audit Commission's performance indicators for 1999/2000 were Bournemouth and Daventry.

Bournemouth Borough Council has 55 bring sites (from which 2,207 tonnes was recycled in 1999/2000), provides weekly kerbside collections (5,184 tonnes recycled) and operates a large civic amenity Site (from which 22,500 tonnes was recycled in 1999/2000, including 7,800 tonnes of construction and building wastes and 7,200 tonnes of garden waste).

Heavy-duty blue plastic bags are used for Bournemouth's kerbside collections, which are returned to householders after each collection and replaced twice a year. 80-litre bins are provided for multi-occupancy properties, including blocks of flats and guesthouses. The kerbside service collects paper, cans and textiles.

Audit Commission Performance Indicators for Bournemouth in 1999/00 indicate that 0.4 tonnes of household waste was recycled per household with 0.93 tonnes not recycled or recovered, giving a recycling rate of 30%.


Daventry District Council's main recycling services are kerbside collections for dry recyclables (including paper, glass, plastic bottles and cans) and organic wastes (including garden waste, uncooked food and cardboard). Recyclables are collected weekly in boxes, while compostables and residuals are collected fortnightly in 240-litre wheeled bins on alternating cycles. This service is being expanded throughout the District and is forecast to achieve a recycling rate of 46% in 2000/01.

Daventry found that it was essential to have the full support of Council members when introducing alternating collections involving a fortnightly service for the collection of refuse for disposal. Also important have been high profile communications activities that have included a helpline, home visits, newsletters and a questionnaire survey. The initial communication campaign for Daventry's first Green Waste Trial in 1998/99 was developed and undertaken by Waste Watch.

Audit Commission Performance Indicators for Daventry in 1999/00 indicate that 0.38 tonnes of household waste was recycled per household with 0.7 tonnes not recycled or recovered (WCA wastes only excluding civic amenity Sites), giving a recycling rate of 35%.

185. Our comments and recommendation about green procurement as it relates to national Government can be applied to local authorities who can also help develop the stable markets needed for recycled products. This could be facilitated by better central information on the merits of different types of products.[284] We urge local authorities to pursue the greening of procurement policies through the application of environmental principles via the 'Best Value' initiative.

Essex High Diversion Trials

In Essex, the County Council and District Authorities launched high diversion trials in 2000
in Braintree and Colchester. Another Essex District, Rochford, has operated a 3-stream waste collection trial since August 1999. These have all achieved recycling rates of over 40%.


Braintree's high diversion trial was launched in October 2000 and covers 9,200 households
in the town of Witham.

Recyclables and residual waste are collected fortnightly on alternating cycles. Householders have been supplied with two 180-litre wheeled bins: a green bin for organic wastes and a
grey bin for residuals. Dry recyclables (paper, card, plastic bottles, textiles and cans) are collected in clear plastic bags. Glass continues to be collected through bring sites.

In November 2000, the bin waste recycling rate was estimated to be 45% despite a number
of operational difficulties, including late delivery of specialist collection vehicles and storm damage at the Braintree sorting facility.


In the Mersea Island area of Colchester, a 5-stream waste collection trial covers 4,500 households. Reusable plastic sacks are provided for green waste; pink plastic sacks for
plastic bottles; green boxes for glass, cans and foil; and paper, card and textiles are
bundled or bagged separately by householders.

Residents have also been encouraged to separate recyclables at their local civic amenity Site and a special street bin with separate compartments for glass, cans, plastic bottles as well as litter is also being tested in West Mersea.

Returns from the first three months indicate that a recycling rate of 57% is being achieved through these services with the kerbside services collecting the equivalent of 0.44 tonnes per household for recycling and 0.18 tonnes per household for composting.


In Rochford, 1,500 households have been served by alternating fortnightly collections for organic and residual wastes since August 1999.

240-litre wheeled bins have been provided for residuals and 120-litre wheeled bins for
garden waste and kitchen peelings. Dry recyclables (excluding glass) are collected
weekly in 60-litre boxes. These trials have achieved a bin waste recycling rate of 40%.

A survey of residents found that 83% would like the 3-stream service to continue.

265   Ev p188 (HC 36-II) Back

266   Ev p194 (HC 903-II) Back

267   Q123 Back

268   See Ev p165 (HC 36-II) Back

269   Ev p225 (HC 903-II) Back

270   The Environment Agency, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 34-I (1999-2000) Back

271   Ev p224 (HC 903-II) Back

272   Q1252 Back

273   Table on Ev p192 (HC 36-II) Back

274   See Paragraph 87 Back

275   Q1262 Back

276   Parliamentary Question in the name of Mr Andrew Bennett, MP, Number 150452, Answered 28 February 2001 Back

277   The Government's Response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's Report: The Environment Agency, Cm 4832, Paragraph 57 of response Back

278   "Where there's muck there's brass", Big Issue, October 30-November 5 2000, pp22-23 Back

279   Q953 Back

280   The Environment Agency, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, HC 34-I (1999-2000), paragraph 20 Back

281   Q34 Back

282   Ev p188 (HC 36-II) Back

283   From the Audit Commission's Local Authority Performance Indicators for 1999/00 - England ( Back

284   Ev p143 (HC 903-II) Back

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