Councils are allowed to catch up on recycling

Household waste recycling targets for 2007/08 are to be frozen at 2005/06 levels for most authorities, under proposals issued by the Environment Department (DEFRA) in October.1 The only exception would be to raise the lowest targets from 18% to 20%.

Recycling targets for 2003/04 and 2005/06 for English local authorities were included in Waste Strategy 2000.

The targets for 2003/04 generally required:

  • Authorities with 1998/99 recycling and composting rates under 5% to achieve at least 10%.
  • Those with rates between 5% and 15% to at least double their rates.
  • Remaining authorities to recycle at least 33%.

The targets for 2005/06 originally required:

  • Councils with 1998/99 rates under 6% to reach at least 18%.
  • Those with rates between 12% and 18% to reach at least 35%.
  • Remaining authorities to recycle or compost at least 40% of household waste.

The targets were designed to ensure that England achieved a national recycling rate of 25% in 2005/06. This looks likely to be met, with councils achieving nearly 23% in 2004/05 (ENDS Report 368, p 16).

The proposed targets for 2007/08 are designed to help achieve the Government's target to recycle 30% of household waste by 2010, and move towards a further target to recycle 33% by 2015. The Treasury has also set a Public Service Agreement target to "achieve 25% recycling or composting of household waste by 2005/06 with further improvement by 2007/08."

There are concerns that the gap between the best and worst performing authorities remains significant, making it unfair to set higher targets for those with respectable performance when others continue to lag behind. For these reasons, and to ease budgetary pressure on authorities, DEFRA last year capped authorities' 2005/06 targets at 30%.

The consultation paper outlines four options:

  • Set no targets for 2007/08 at all. Modelling suggests that this could still deliver a national recycling rate of 27.1%, but DEFRA warns that it might encourage collection authorities - that do not have to meet landfill diversion targets - to stop trying to increase their recycling rates. This could put the national recycling targets in jeopardy, and pose a "very significant risk" that the national landfill diversion target for 2009/2010 would be missed.
  • Set targets for 2007/08 equal to those for 2005/06. Any authority that fails to reach its 2005/06 target - and it is likely that some will - would then have to catch up by 2007/08.

    This option would "ensure continued progress towards national recycling targets" and help ensure that landfill diversion targets are met, DEFRA says. Modelling suggests that it would deliver a national recycling rate of 28.5%. The option would also ensure that collection authorities continue working in partnership with disposal authorities, and ensure that a certain level of service provision for recycling is provided throughout England.

    In theory, the option would also avoid placing an unfunded burden on authorities because last year's spending review increased the funding to local authorities to help them, among other things, meet 2005/06 targets "with continuing improvements thereafter on a small scale".

  • Freeze targets at 2005/06 levels except for all those authorities with a current target of 18%, which would be raised to 20%. This is DEFRA's preferred option. It would have similar advantages to the previous option, but focus on improving poor performance to deliver a marginally higher recycling rate of 28.65%.

    If either option two or three is adopted, DEFRA says that groups of authorities will still be allowed to pool their targets. This system allows authorities to change their individual targets as long as the overall tonnage of waste recycled exceeds that which councils would have recycled separately.

  • Set higher targets for 2007/08 and remove the 30% cap on the highest targets. DEFRA says this option could increase the national recycling rate to 29.1%. But it would cost an extra £48 million - and anger the 104 authorities which were told told less than 12 months ago that they no longer had to reach targets above 30%.

    Given that the previous options "put us well on the way" to meeting the national recycling and landfill targets for 2010, DEFRA says that higher targets would "bring forward increased performance and financial cost before it is necessary".

    The Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) cautiously welcomed the decision because it allows more time to plan for the medium term, including the delivery of authorities' landfill diversion targets. It also welcomed DEFRA's statement that suitable levels of funding need to be in place before "step changing" targets are set.

    The role of any future recycling targets is being considered as part of the review of the national waste strategy for England. For the moment, LARAC sees "little danger in authorities taking their foot off the gas" - though it expresses "some concern that if targets beyond 2007 are not established in the waste strategy review impetus could be lost."

    DEFRA also announced that its Waste Implementation Programme (WIP), which advises authorities on developing recycling strategies, will run for a further two years. Similarly, the Government's Waste and Resources Action Programme will continue running its Recycling and Organics Technical Advisory Team (ROTATE).