Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report



  135.    Both the Commission and the European Parliament the European Parliament favour composting, as do (with particular enthusiasm) Friends of the Earth. Dr Krämer told us that the Commission planned to bring forward a proposal on composting in the Community (Q 286): the Parliament, no doubt to cement this intention, has proposed a new recital to the Directive (see paragraph 29) which would call on the Commission to make proposals for a Directive on composting and biogas production by the end of this year. The Local Government Association reported that although many local authorities were looking at composting of municipal waste, the barriers to increasing current levels of composting were a lack of markets and poor or inconsistent product quality (p 169).

  136.    The elements of biodegradable waste which are compostable are derived from renewable resources. If managed properly to produce carbon dioxide, composting is neutral in global warming terms. Other components will continue to degrade over a longer period and, as with any organic soil additive, will degrade either aerobically to produce CO2 or anaerobically to produce methane.

  137.    Asked if Friends of the Earth had any information on the methane-generating potential of composting, Mr Childs referred to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency which had found that there was little to choose between landfilling and composting, assuming 85 per cent capture of methane at the landfill site (which he would have regarded as being on the high side: cf paragraph 52). He added, however, that there were wider considerations which favoured composting (Q 154).

  138.    We agree in principle with the amendment proposed by the European Parliament. We consider that where conditions for collection and processing are appropriate, municipal composting operations should be encouraged. We look forward to the Commission's proposals for encouraging composting in the Community.

  139.    We were impressed when on visits by the quality of compost produced at a private sector composting plant attached to a landfill site near Peterborough and at a municipal plant in Dundee. Although the market for compost derived from municipal waste may be limited, and needs to be demand-led to be successful, its potential should be compared with the large established market for peat-the commercial exploitation of which causes undisputed environmental damage to certain areas of the British Isles of high nature conservation value. To all intents and purposes peat is a non-renewable resource. We believe that better quality control, in combination with public support for the green agenda, will help to overcome current consumer resistance. We welcome the fact that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has recently issued technical guidance on specifications for municipal compost.[58]

Incineration and energy recovery

  140.    The Energy from Waste Association (EWA) and Professor Porteous argued that incineration with energy recovery-or energy from waste (EfW)-was the optimum way of achieving the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and that if local circumstances permitted, waste incineration was highly suitable as a source both of district heating and of power generation (Combined Heat and Power) (pp 153-9, 176-84). In a critique of the comparative benefits of landfill and EfW, Aspinwalls concluded that by 2010 on cost grounds alone there was likely to be a significant diversion away from landfill towards EfW, but that current levels of investment in EfW plants were unlikely to achieve more than a 30 per cent diversion of biodegradable wastes (compared with the Directive's 75 per cent target) (pp 140-2). Robert Long Consultancy pointed out that a trend towards incineration might impede progress in waste minimisation and recycling, because of the need to provide an incinerator with a constant waste stream (p 173).

  141.    In its Report on incineration of waste,[59] the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended that if wastes were unavoidable and could not be recycled in the form of materials, the next best option was to recovery energy from them. It also concluded that "by incinerating municipal waste rather than landfilling it a significant and worthwhile contribution could be made to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases".

  142.    The European Parliament has proposed a new recital to the Directive which reads: "Whereas incineration subject to stringent requirements for flue gas cleaning and the efficient use of energy constitutes a sound alternative to landfill, and would eliminate methane gas emissions altogether". As we have discussed earlier (paragraphs 46-54), the question whether EfW by incineration is more efficient than landfill gas recovery depends crucially on assumptions about the efficiency of methane capture, on which the evidence is inconsistent.

  143.    Incineration is unpopular with the public-partly because of memories of local incinerators using relatively low technology in the 1980s or earlier, but also because of more sophisticated concerns about dioxin emissions. The latter were very thoroughly examined by the Royal Commission. We do, of course, share the Minister's concern about a "dash to incineration", if by that is meant a return to the practices of two or three decades ago. But technology has moved on, and we feel that Friends of the Earth, in their otherwise persuasive evidence, have not taken sufficient account of rising standards in declaring their strong opposition to incineration.

  144.    Whilst recognising the pressures of public opinion which make it so difficult for incineration plants to obtain planning permission, we recommend that, as a general principle, anything that can safely be burnt should be, and that wherever possible it should be combined with energy production. Only the difficult residues from incineration should go to landfill: for relatively harmless residues, such as bottom ashes from incinerators, uses should be found, eg as road surface material.

  145.    Incineration must be seen as a long­term option, not a quick and cheap one: as we have said (paragraph 97), it would be unfortunate if implementation of the Directive created pressure for investment in small local incinerators to inferior specifications and levels of performance. We would therefore share the Government's concern if there were a real risk of a "dash to incineration". The costs of collection and transport and economies of scale would suggest that incineration is best suited to larger centres of population, leaving landfill as a better option in rural communities. State of the art performance depends on substantial capital investment, and it is essential to incinerators' viability that they have a steady and minimum assured throughput, and a guaranteed operational lifetime.

  146.    It goes without saying that all incineration of waste should be carried out using best available technology, the licensing authorities having been satisfied that the processes involved pose no threats to health or the environment. Like any system of waste management-but perhaps particularly so, because of the need to provide assurance to the public-incinerators require constant and attentive monitoring and maintenance to ensure that a wide variety of waste is subjected to the correct temperatures and incineration times necessary for its safe destruction.


The scientific basis for policy

  147.    As in many previous Reports of the Committee, particularly those dealing with environmental matters, we find ourselves once again dissatisfied with the extent to which policy has been informed by science and, conversely, frustrated by the failure of scientific research-eg in the case of co-disposal, methane capture and global warming potential-to provide an adequate basis for policy-making. We do not propose to repeat here the strictures of those previous Reports;[60] but we found the DETR and the Environment Agency less than convincing in their responses to our questions about the scientific basis of the waste hierarchy. While we accept the constraints within which the UK Presidency is working, we find it unsatisfactory that political expediency in this instance weighs more heavily than the wealth of practical experience of landfill in the UK, even allowing for a less than perfect scientific understanding of the processes within landfill sites.

Sustainable waste management is of concern to us all

  148.    We conclude with a plea for a wider vision. As we have seen, landfill will continue to play an essential part in the portfolio of waste disposal practices which-in the right combination and developed over the right timescale-must feature in sustainable waste management policy. But it must be accepted that in the relatively small islands which make up the United Kingdom, both the population pressures in the centres of economic activity and the need to protect an irreplaceable natural heritage present a powerful challenge to landfill in the long run. Both landfill and land raising are land­hungry: sites which are acceptable to their neighbours are increasingly difficult to find. There may be no immediate threat to the supply of traditional holes in the ground; and where they rest on substantial clay deposits they will continue to be the BPEO for a substantial proportion of total waste disposals. But it should be recognised that their continued availability depends, in part, on unsustainable practices in the construction industry. The construction industry cannot take it for granted that raw materials can be quarried and extracted from the environment on demand without regard to the alternative of using recycled construction wastes as aggregate and hardcore.[61]

  149.    Waste reduction is not just an option: it is an imperative. We need to create, through education and example, a new social spirit in which Government, industry and citizens positively want to see waste reduced at all stages. In encouraging the Government to be more active in promoting waste prevention and recycling and in creating the right market conditions for them, we recognise that decisions sometimes have to be made for reasons other than those of economics: there can be other perceived benefits in the form of public education, enhanced amenity, employment opportunities and so on.

  150.    We commend these thoughts to the Government and look forward to seeing some reflection of them in the national waste management strategy.

58   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Product Guide for Compost Specifiers, November 1997; Marketing Guide for Producers of Waste Derived Compost, November 1997. Back

59   RCEP 17th Report, op citBack

60   See, for example, 16th Report, 1988-89, Nitrate in Water, HL Paper 73; 1st Report, 1994-95, Bathing Water, HL Paper 6-I; 4th Report, 1995-96, Drinking Water, HL Paper 31; 2nd Report, 1997-98, Community Environmental Law: Making it Work, HL Paper 12. Back

61   The evidence from SERPLAN emphasises the unsustainability of landfill in the long run, at least in the South East, as the main waste disposal option and argues that a radical shift towards alternative options is needed to avoid a predicted risk of exhaustion of the region's identified landfill capacity before 2010 (p 193). Back

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