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(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive)
We need more recycling
The government should follow the lead of other countries in promoting recycling over landfill and incineration.
Julie Hill
programmes adviser to Green Alliance and co-author of Creative Policy Packages for Waste: Lessons for the UK
How many readers have stood at the top of a landfill site and watched the dustcarts tipping their day's load of rubbish? Anyone who hasn't, should, to monitor their reactions and assess their place in the debate. My own reactions were, 'it's incredible what people throw away, all that useable stuff being buried. Surely we can't go on like this'. Yours might be, 'this is what is most economic - and that's okay'.

Policymakers in many countries, including the UK, and also in Brussels, seem to have had reactions similar to mine. Landfill is at the bottom of the 'waste hierarchy', with burning rubbish slightly above (viewed as better if you can recover energy from the burning), and recycling, recovery and re-use above that. Prevention, of course, is better than anything. So why is the UK still landfilling 81 percent of its domestic waste?

The answer is because it is 'economic' - certainly in the sense of what is cheapest in the short term. Britain's geography lends itself to burying rubbish in holes in the ground, often already helpfully lined with clay from mineral workings, so reducing the potential for leakage. Landfill is thus the easy option, and despite the UK's espousal of the waste hierarchy, until recently, nothing practical has been done to alter that situation.

Green Alliance recently analysed the waste policies of seven countries and states - California, Denmark, Flanders, Massachusetts, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland (1). All have implemented bold packages of measures to get them where they want to be: recycling rates for domestic waste of between 32 percent and 62 percent; recycling rates for all waste of between 42 percent and 77 percent; greatly reduced landfill; and, in some cases, reduced reliance on incineration.

The UK, by contrast, introduced a landfill tax in the mid-1990s, but not at a rate high enough significantly to divert waste towards recycling. In the November 2002 pre-Budget report the Chancellor signalled that the landfill tax will go up - but slowly. The rise to 35 per tonne will take eight to 10 years; the Green Alliance recommended achieving this level in three to five years. The UK has set recycling targets for local authorities but funding to help achieve them has been woefully inadequate. Again, the Chancellor has signalled help, although it is not yet clear just how much money there will be.

A very important advance, however, has been the willingness to explore giving local authorities the powers to charge householders for waste not recycled (not for all wastes as is often implied in press reports), which is a favoured and effective mechanism in several countries.

But why should the UK follow the lead of these progressive European countries and US states? If landfill is economic, why should it be viewed as so unsustainable? Modern landfills are highly engineered, highly regulated and, in the main, well managed. Landfills have caused surprisingly few long-term pollution problems (at least, that we know of to date). There is pressure on land in some parts of the South East, but on a nationwide basis we are not running out of holes in the ground. Some would say: 'What's the problem?'

The most immediate problem is that the European Union has set targets for reducing waste in landfill that on current performance the UK will not meet. The consequence could be heavy fines. The gap between aspiration and performance will be increased as the UK's waste continues to grow. In most developed countries, growth in waste production is broadly in line with growth in GDP, demonstrating neatly that as we grow wealthier we waste more. In the UK there are signs that waste is now growing faster than GDP, so we are more wasteful than we are wealthy. Can this be right?

There are two reasons why even an economist might say it's not right. One is the need to get more value out of the same amount of materials by improving the efficiency of production and thus preventing waste at source. The better UK companies can be at this, the more advantage they will have over competitors, whether national or international. The fancy policy name for this is resource productivity, again espoused by UK policymakers but with little in the way of practical measures to drive it forward.

The other reason is the contribution of waste to climate change, which will translate into costs for business as measures to limit emissions of greenhouse gases start to bite. Landfill contributes a large amount of methane to the greenhouse gas tally (this is one of the main drivers of the EU Landfill Directive) and so there will be increasing regulatory pressure and associated costs. However, the need to reduce energy in production across the board means that recycling is a better option than the usual extract-produce-bury pattern we've been used to. Critics of recycling are fond of arguing that just because people feel it is the right thing to do, it doesn't mean that there is a sound economic rationale for keeping materials in circulation longer. Well, climate change is about to provide one.

At Green Alliance we hope that the economic rationale for moving waste up the hierarchy will be provided by more than energy policy. It will be provided by a government commitment to doing things differently, which is given life by a faster rise in the landfill tax than that proposed in November 2002, and re-use of a substantial amount of the revenue from the tax to fund not just local authority recycling schemes, but also more research into market development, and innovative means of waste prevention. Local authorities need to be given more ambitious targets, but they must be underpinned by adequate resources.

Finally, there are those who argue that building more incinerators is the answer to moving away from landfill. Energy can be recovered, waste dealt with cleanly, and everyone will be happy. Most local communities where incinerators are proposed beg to differ. Aside from the political problem of siting incinerators, there is the structural problem that building a big expensive incinerator means that the operator wants to know that is has a guaranteed waste stream well into the future, possibly cutting across efforts to send waste for recycling. Some of the countries in the Green Alliance study recognised this scenario and were taking steps, including taxing incineration, to reduce the likelihood of incineration competing with recycling.

Our government will consider the rationale for an incineration tax next year. Our view is that it should be possible to do without an expansion of incineration in this country, and that we can achieve recycling rates of 50-60 percent. We just have to want to do it.

Julie Hill is programmes adviser for Green Alliance and co-author of Creative Policy Packages for Waste: Lessons for the UK

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Julie Hill
programmes adviser, Green Alliance
Julian Morris
director, International Policy Network
Commissioned responses
Mark Strutt
Rob Lyons
Women's Environmental Network
Jonathan Davies
William Powrie
Elisabeth Ribbans
Martin Angel
Reader responses
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