English landfill bans cut, but Wales goes ahead

Significant volumes of waste could be exported from Scotland and Wales to England if the nations introduce landfill bans for certain materials. The government has decided it will not introduce bans in England.

The environment department (DEFRA) has shelved the previous government’s plans to ban biodegradable wastes from landfill because of the practical problems and expected cost. However, the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) says it still aims to introduce them to ensure the country meets its 70% recycling target.

If the countries go separate ways, this could lead to increased movements of waste across borders. Scotland has already committed to banning recyclable materials from landfill under its “zero-waste plan” (ENDS Report 425, pp 45-46).

DEFRA’s decision appears to make a mockery of its current review of waste policy, with its preliminary findings not due until the spring. The review is meant to examine “every aspect of waste policy and waste management delivery in England” and work out what is needed to deliver a zero-waste economy.

Currently only liquid wastes and niche materials such as tyres are banned from landfill. More general landfill bans were first mooted by the previous government in its 2007 waste strategy (ENDS Report 389, pp 34-38). However, it took until March this year for it to consult on the possible scope of bans. There is a “good case” for banning metals and biodegradable wastes, such as food and garden waste, it said at the time (ENDS Report 422, p 31).

Banning these materials would save 12.6 million tonnes of CO2 a year – equivalent to 2% of UK emissions. This comes from avoided methane emissions, and emissions savings from increased recycling.

DEFRA and WAG issued a summary of responses to the landfill bans consultation in September.1

This shows that 70 of the 138 respondents (50.2%) favoured bans, while only 41 (30%) were against. However, most respondents said there could be difficulties implementing them, such as ensuring enough alterative waste treatment plants are built. Many respondents also “expressed a concern that as a result of a ban the market would be ‘flooded’ with recyclates, and… prices obtained for these would decrease making their collection unviable.”

None of these concerns are new (ENDS Report 425, pp 44-45) and they have been successfully dealt with by other countries (ENDS Report 416, pp 16-17).

However, about 10% of respondents – including the CBI – said bans were not needed as rising landfill tax is proving sufficient to stop councils and firms sending waste to landfill. Landfill tax now stands at £48 per tonne, and is due to hit £80/t in 2014. The government says it will not drop below this level until at least 2020.

DEFRA and WAG reach staggeringly different conclusions from this data. DEFRA’s response says the “government… notes the concerns raised about how… bans might work in practice and whether they are affordable. [It] also notes the widespread support from respondents for continued use of landfill tax as the key driver.” As a result, “the government is not minded to introduce landfill bans in England at the present time.”

The original consultation’s impact assessment said introducing bans would cost £4.6bn because of the need to roll out new waste collection and treatment systems. Several councils have recently cut waste services due to budgetary pressures and would not be keen to suddenly introduce new services to comply with a ban (ENDS Report 427, p 18).

However, WAG says it is “pleased that, despite the reservations expressed, a majority of respondents felt that there was a case for the introduction of landfill restrictions. We are of the opinion that [they] have a role to play as part of a balanced set of policy measures that will deliver [our] recycling targets.” Wales’ waste strategy, published in June, says that at least 70% of the country’s waste should be recycled by 2025 (ENDS Report 425, pp 46-47).

WAG will get powers to implement bans under the Waste (Wales) Measure if it is passed by the National Assembly (ENDS Report 422, p 38). It is currently at committee stage.

DEFRA’s decision seems strange given it is currently undertaking a review of waste policies. The review is not due to be complete until next April, so this decision comes early.

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