Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report



  151.    The following is a summary of our principal conclusions and recommendations (references in brackets are to paragraphs in the Report):

Definition of "municipal waste"

i  The definition of "municipal waste" is important to the interpretation of the key proposal of the Directive-the progressive reduction in biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill. It is sufficiently clear from a reading of the Directive as a whole that the definition is not confined to waste collected by local authorities. However, if doubts remain, it is important that they should be removed, if necessary by some re-wording of Article 2(b), and preferably there should be an alignment of the Directive's definition with the definition of "controlled waste" in UK terminology. (32)

Definition of "biodegradable waste"

ii  The definition of biodegradable waste is inadequate: the ability to undergo aerobic or anaerobic decomposition does not in itself make a material biodegradable. In the context of the Directive it is the rate of biodegradation that is more important, rather than simply the ability to biodegrade. This requires clarification before the Directive is formally adopted: we recommend that biodegradable waste should be defined in terms of its ability to degrade completely within the 50­year aftercare period proposed in Article 10 of the Directive, thereby leaving a site in an environmentally benign state. This has an important bearing on our recommendation on the need to optimise methane generation and recovery. (34)

Pollution of groundwater by landfill

iii  The Commission's concern about groundwater pollution may well be justified in relation to landfill in parts of continental Europe, but we are satisfied that the high standards of monitoring and regulation developed over the years by the Environment Agency, by its predecessor the National Rivers Authority and by the equivalent bodies in the rest of the United Kingdom, coupled with the important safeguards provided by the planning system, have been effective in minimising the risks to groundwater from landfill. (41)

iv  No landfill site, however well engineered and lined, can be expected to retain its integrity indefinitely. Ultimately all landfills will leak. In the case of active sites, strict containment, monitoring and leachate control, together with a capacity on the part of the operator to deal with emergencies, should be sufficient to prevent groundwater pollution, and we note that the provisions of Annex III to the Directive would effectively extend to other Member States a régime comparable that of the UK 1994 Waste Management Licensing Regulations. It is the long­term position that concerns us, and particularly the Directive's proposals for the long-term storage of hazardous material in hazardous waste only sites. We note the industry's concern that the required Certificates of Completion might not be forthcoming for such sites, which could mean that operators would retain liability indefinitely. (42)

Contaminated land registers

v  We are concerned at the lack of useful statistics relating to land which has been contaminated by past landfill activities, although this is an inevitable legacy of unregulated times. We note that the provisions of the Environment Act 1995 for contaminated land registers remain unimplemented. We would hope that the possibility of implementing those provisions will be given careful consideration in the Government's current review of waste management policy. (45)

Global warming

vi  There are sound policy reasons, notwithstanding the scientific uncertainty, for tackling methane first, rather than carbon dioxide, when seeking to reduce the contribution which landfill operations make to global warming. (48)

vii  The lack of consistent data on the efficiency of methane capture in landfill and the relative global warming potential of methane and carbon dioxide substantially weakens what has been one of the main arguments of the principal UK witnesses-that the Directive would not achieve reductions in methane emissions in the most effective manner. There is an apparent discrepancy between the Commission's evidence and the assumptions in the Commission's methane reduction strategy. The only possible conclusion is that, on the basis of the evidence received so far, the global warming issue remains unresolved: the comparative environmental benefits of engineered methane recovery from landfill as opposed to upstream avoidance of methanogenesis remains a matter of conjecture. It is therefore important that research on this should continue. We note, however, that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, in its 1993 Report on Incineration of Waste, based its conclusion in favour of incineration of municipal waste on the conservative assumption that only 40 per cent of landfill methane would be captured. (54)

viii  For the purposes of tackling global warming, there is no overriding science-based principle to determine choices objectively between different waste disposal options. Nevertheless, the fundamental aim of sustainability is that it is better to prevent, reduce and recycle waste than to burden the environment with waste in the crude form in which it is generated or discarded by the consumer. We see no contradiction between our recommendations on the desirability of both maximising methane recovery from landfill sites and of using incineration with energy recovery: in both cases it is a question of finding the Best Practicable Environmental Option which best suits the particular circumstances and makes best use of the opportunities offered. (55)

Implications for the UK waste management industry

ix  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. (59)

Subsidiarity and proportionality

x  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. These factors will continue to influence the Environment Council's deliberations and the Common Position which is due to emerge shortly. (65)

xi  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. (66)

xii  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. (67)

Hazardous wastes

xiii  We find the proposal to consign all hazardous wastes to hazardous waste only sites unsatisfactory: many wastes which are hazardous according to the Hazardous Waste Directive's definition are themselves biodegradable (eg dilute phenolic solutions, oil interceptor contents, or inorganic cyanides) in an appropriate environment. Whilst the more reactive materials will decompose in a hazardous waste only site, those which require an active microbial population for their biodegradation are less likely to do so. This is one of the arguments for co­disposal. (70)

xiv  We note that some hazardous wastes with no leaching qualities (eg asbestos) pose no environmental threat if entombed and securely protected from subsequent disturbance. We see no reason why such wastes, subject to the careful controls already in place under UK legislation, should not continue to be landfilled with mixed municipal waste, thereby leaving more capacity in hazardous monofill sites for disposal of materials which really need to be disposed in them. (72)

Clinical wastes

xv  We heard no satisfactory evidence as to how the proportion of clinical waste currently landfilled should in future be dealt with, but in our view the right solution for all clinical waste is hygienic incineration. (73)

Hazardous waste only sites

xvi  We share the industry's concern over the proposals to create a rigid class of hazardous waste monofills, which would provide nothing more than long­term storage for hazardous waste materials, with all that that implies for monitoring and future liabilities. In our view it is essential, if the system is to work at all satisfactorily, that wastes consigned to hazardous sites should be pre-treated, eg by vitrification, to minimise their hazardous properties and, once landfilled, should be the subject of rigid systems of monitoring: otherwise we would regard the practice as fundamentally unsustainable. It is true that pre-treatment of all landfilled waste is a requirement under Article 6, but the requirement is broadly drafted and in this instance a more prescriptive approach may be called for. It is not clear to us whether additional treatment capacity is currently available or could be made available in time to meet the Directive's requirements. (74)

Liquid wastes

xvii  Whilst the European Parliament's proposed definition of "liquid waste" has the merit of providing a measurable criterion, we are concerned that the proposed percentage by weight of solids is very high. Many filter cakes, for example, have a percentage solids content of 30-40 per cent by weight and no flow characteristics whatsoever. As drafted, the amendment would (and is evidently intended to) outlaw the landfill disposal of all sewage sludge, on which the UK depends at present for about 10 per cent of the total amount disposed of in England and Wales. We recommend that if landfill is now longer available, sewage sludge with no recoverable value should in future be incinerated in a carefully controlled manner. (76)

xviii  The proposed complete ban on liquid wastes going to landfill would create an absurd situation for the waste management industry and would undermine the approach which we recommend for dealing with active and closed landfill sites during the implementation period for the measures in Article 5. We recommend that the Directive should expressly permit the recirculation of leachate within landfill sites for the purposes of accelerating biodegradation and optimising methane recovery. (78)

Old tyres

xix  We are not convinced that there is a case for continuing with the practice of using old tyres as drainage blankets for landfills. We recommend that tyres should, as far as possible, be shredded and found uses such as being mixed with tarmac for playground surfacing; otherwise incineration may have to be the answer. (79)

Pre-treatment of waste

xx  With the amendments proposed by the European Parliament and indicated to us by the Commission, we are satisfied that the definition of "treatment" in Article 2 is adequate. We note that the definition would already cover incineration, which is a form of pre­treatment; we also note that the purpose of the Commission's intentionally broad definition is to encourage the choice of options higher up the waste management hierarchy. (82)


xxi  Whilst the position on co-disposal previously reached, and likely to be reached again, by the Council of Ministers could be explained in terms of political expediency rather than rational argument, it is legitimate to apply the precautionary principle here. All landfill sites, including those designed to be "containment" sites, have the potential to fail and cause damage to the environment. They raise problems with long­term monitoring and the question of ultimate responsibility. (88)

xxii  Nevertheless we believe that to replace co­disposal of industrial and biodegradable wastes with a rigid system of segregation and monodisposal of hazardous industrial wastes is to fail to recognise that judicious and carefully regulated mixing of certain low-hazard industrial wastes (eg organics) with biodegradable municipal waste (which can itself contain a range of hazardous materials) is unlikely to produce an end result materially different from that of a purely municipal landfill. (89)

The flushing bioreactor

xxiii  We recognise that the management and aftercare of sites currently operated on flushing bioreactor principles will have to be approached with care. On the basis of the available evidence, we are doubtful whether the processes within a flushing bioreactor are capable of precise specification or their effects measurable with any certainty. The principle, however, of recirculation of leachate and otherwise maintaining optimum conditions for progressive decomposition, coupled with collection and use of landfill gas, within existing mixed waste sites should, in our view, be supported. We note that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 1996 recommended that the Department of the Environment and the waste disposal industry should consider how the flushing bioreactor approach could be made financially attractive both then and after co­disposal of industrial wastes ceased. This recommendation, in our view, remains valid for the management of existing co­disposal sites, even if no new ones are constructed during the implementation period for Article 5 of the Directive, and should continue to be the subject of research. (90)

Future care of current co-disposal sites

xxiv  We recommend that one of the principal management aims of all sites which currently take (or have until recently taken) significant quantities of industrial and biodegradable waste should be to optimise methane recovery for as long as the process remains viable. Such a measure would be consistent withe Commission's communication on methane reduction and would help to reduce the timescale within which such sites pose a threat to the environment. (91)

Reduction of biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill

xxv  Although the supporting scientific evidence lacks certainty, the principle of reducing biodegradable materials going to landfill is one which we support. The reduction targets intentionally serve to discourage biodegradable waste production in the first place and are therefore in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. We therefore consider it is entirely appropriate for the Directive to set Community targets, which when transposed will become statutory and not merely aspirational. (96)

xxvi  It is important that Member States have sufficient flexibility to determine-locally, regionally and nationally-the timing and means by which they achieve the agreed targets in Article 5, and that there is recognition of the fact that some States are far more reliant on landfill than others. It is also important that the timetable under Article 5 does not have a distorting effect on investment decisions or lead to the hasty choice of less environmentally friendly waste disposal options. We do not propose to make specific suggestions as to how the targets and timescales in Article 5 might be modified, but we do in principle support some easing of the timetable so long as the long­term goals of the Directive are not compromised. As with any targets, the choice is ultimately more political than scientific. We have no reason, however, for wishing to see substantial modification of the Commission's proposal (endorsed by the European Parliament) that the eventual level of biodegradable waste going to landfill should be of the order of 25 per cent of the 1993 level, although we feel the figure needs to be justified in terms of ensuring optimum methane recovery from landfills which continue to receive biodegradable waste. (97)

xxvii  It cannot be assumed that the present 10 per cent of sewage sludge which goes to landfill in the UK can necessarily be held at such a low level. We consider it is important to remove any doubt that sewage sludge is included in the categories of waste to which Article 5 would apply: this would not affect the proposal under Article 3 to exclude from the scope of the Directive the spreading of sludge on land

  as fertiliser or soil improver. It would be important to ensure that any redefinition of "liquid waste" in Article 2 did not have the effect of excluding sludge from landfill under Article 5. (98)

National strategies to meet the reduction targets

xxviii  We recommend that Article 5 should require Member States to demonstrate a complementary relationship between their strategies and plans to encourage waste minimisation, recycling, materials recovery, energy production from landfill gas and composting, including the implementation of relevant Community measures such as the Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. Industry, too, will need to draw up its own response to the requirements of Article 5. We look forward to seeing these measures reflected in the National Waste Management Strategy which the Government is preparing to meet the requirements of the Waste Framework Directive and the 1995 Environment Act. (100)

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