DEFRA accepts waste strategy must give more ‘direction’

The revised waste strategy for England, due in 2006, should make it clearer what contribution the different elements of the waste hierarchy can make towards landfill diversion, the Environment Department (DEFRA) has acknowledged. A key element of the strategy will come from a separate review of councils’ recycling targets.

Waste strategy 2000 includes a commitment to "smaller" reviews in 2005 and 2015, with a "root and branch" review in 2010. A consultation on proposed changes is expected after the summer, and a revised strategy in the first half of 2006.

Speaking at a recent conference organised by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, DEFRA’s head of waste strategy, Lindsay Cornish, said that it is clear that the Government "needs to set out a clearer strategic direction for waste".

The review will be relatively modest, partly because it was only in 2002 that the Strategy Unit published its waste review - which largely concentrated on municipal waste - and, said Ms Cornish, "we don’t want to reinvent that wheel".

Radical changes are also unlikely because some key policy instruments, such as the landfill tax escalator, the landfill allowances trading scheme (LATS) and DEFRA’s waste implementation programme for local authorities, have not been in place long enough to assess their effectiveness. Data for non-municipal waste streams, meanwhile, are poor.

A key issue for the review is whether the current policy framework is strong enough to ensure that local authorities do not exceed their landfill allowances for biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) up to the "target years" of 2010 and 2013.

The Environmental Services Association believes the Government needs to do more. "We are not on track to comply [with the 2010 target]," chief executive Dirk Hazell told the conference. "If waste grows by 2% per annum for the rest of this decade the UK will need to divert about 12 million tonnes of BMW from landfill by 31 March 2010."

Nevertheless, "the main policy instruments - the landfill tax escalator and LATS - are unlikely to change," Ms Cornish told an earlier seminar. "We ought to be able to meet the 2010 BMW diversion target with existing policies. We are aware of local authority anxiety, but it’s very difficult to know [if it will be met] when we don’t know how many facilities will be built before then."

Another issue is whether new recycling targets should be set for local authorities under the Best Value regime for the period beyond 2005/06, and whether the basis of the targets should be changed, for example to landfill diversion targets, or recycling targets for specific materials rather than targets simply based on weight. A review of the Best Value targets is under way.

Other developments in train will help shape the strategy. These include a National Audit Office study of whether DEFRA’s policies to help authorities achieve their household waste targets provides value for money, and a review of environmental permitting, including waste permitting, by DEFRA and the Environment Agency

The strategy will also be influenced by this year’s statutory review of the renewables obligation, and whether the rules are changed to allow refuse-derived fuel from mechanical/biological treatment (MBT) plants, or the biodegradable fraction of municipal waste burned in incinerators, to qualify for renewable obligation certificates (ENDS Report 361, pp 25-28 ).

What is needed from the review, admitted Ms Cornish, is "more direction from Government", including greater clarity on the contribution that can be made by the different elements of the waste hierarchy and the facilities needed.

Stakeholders have also told DEFRA that municipal waste, which accounts for 7% of all waste, should not dominate its thinking so much. But the lack of robust data for commercial and industrial waste makes it difficult to set meaningful recycling or recovery targets.

Some local authorities are already taking steps to reduce commercial waste, said Alice Roberts of the Local Government Association. Hampshire, for example, has signed local public service agreements to reduce commercial and industrial waste to 85% of 1998 levels, and may allow farm plastics to be left at its civic amenity sites. Bexley is rolling out a service to collect plastics and cans, as well as paper, from local businesses.

Waste minimisation is acknowledged to be another "problem area" but there are few signs of how the Government plans to address it. There is "lots of strong support" among stakeholders for direct or variable charging for household waste collection, said Ms Cornish. However, the Government remains opposed to direct charging (see pp 38-39 ) and has done little to encourage local authorities to set up incentive-based charging schemes.

The Government, said Mr Hazell, "must make a success" of the review of waste planning policy (ENDS Report 359, pp 45-46 ). To illustrate the point, he referred to West Sussex’s recent rejection - against the advice of council officers - of a planning application for a Viridor materials recycling facility even though it was "central" to the authority’s own PFI recycling contract.

Friends of the Earth used the fact that the Government met its target to recycle or compost 17% of household waste in 2003/04 to call for the targets to recycle 30% by 2010 and 33% by 2015 to be raised to 50% and 75% respectively.

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