Councils report first ever decline in municipal waste

Official statistics have recorded a 1% reduction in the total amount of municipal waste in England for the first time ever. The news is further evidence that long-term waste growth is not anything like the 3% per annum that has been claimed.

Claims that municipal waste is growing at 3% per annum have been circulating for more than five years and were endorsed in the Strategy Unit’s waste strategy report in 2002. Growth on this scale would lead to a doubling in volumes over 20 years.

In reality, there has never been convincing evidence to support the claim - because until recently waste statistics were far from robust. Things are now changing, as a variety of factors - landfill tax, Best Value targets and the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS) - have obliged local authorities to invest more care in gathering data.

The latest statistics - for 2003/04 - were unveiled in March in an interim statement pending a full report in the summer. They show that English local authorities handled 29.109 million tonnes of waste, a reduction of 285,000 tonnes - 1% - on the previous year.

More striking still is the picture once waste from businesses and other non-household sources is stripped out. Total household waste fell by 1.5% to 25.445 million tonnes. And household waste per capita fell by 2%, from 520kg to 510kg.

The statistics confirm that household waste recycling reached 17.7%, up from 14.5% in 2002/03, and that the Government therefore met its 2003/04 target (ENDS Report 360, pp 15-16 ).

For the second year running, the amount of municipal waste sent to landfill fell - from 22.068 million tonnes in 2002/03 to 20.944 million tonnes in 2003/04.

Despite the positive signals, it remains too early to say that waste volumes are declining in reality. Some local authorities have suggested that the decline may partly be due the fact that 2003 was a very dry year. Waste that is left out in the open becomes heavier in wet weather.

"The issue is that we don’t know," says Alice Roberts at the Local Government Association. The growth in home composting and action to tackle trade waste abuse are possible factors, she says.

Another factor adding to a complicated picture is that DEFRA had to rework the data before issuing landfill allowances under the LATS scheme. The baseline for the scheme was 2001/02, which means that the higher a council’s waste tonnage that year, the higher its allowances for the entire LATS scheme.

Some councils submitted revised data last autumn, leading to an increase in reported municipal waste. The 2002/03 figure has been revised upwards by 85,000 tonnes and that for 2001/02 by 111,000 tonnes. The tonnages are significant, but not sufficient to explain the reduction in municipal waste reported by DEFRA.

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