Bending the rules on hazardous waste

It was never going to be easy for the UK to comply with the EU ban on the co-disposal of hazardous waste in ordinary landfills. Delivering the ban posed three challenges:

  • First, the UK's dependence on cheap landfill meant that a major shift in industrial waste management practice was needed. It has taken several years for the Government and industry to face up to the scale of institutional and cultural change required.
  • Second, Britain has a strongly free market, private sector waste management industry - a situation which leaves the state with significantly less direct control of strategic waste planning than in many other European countries.
  • Third, implementation of the landfill Directive has coincided with an intensification of the "better regulation" and "deregulation" agenda within Government - which has left officials wary of proposing new statutory controls that are not expressly required by EU law.Taken together, these three challenges have proved overwhelming. Quite simply, as confirmed at ENDS' conference on 12 July (see pp 20-24 ), the UK has failed to deliver the industrial waste management systems and infrastructure that were required.

    The Government will of course continue to dismiss talk of a crisis. Indeed, the 16 July deadline - for implementation of the landfill waste acceptance criteria and the new hazardous waste regulations - has passed without reports of waste piling up in street corners and forecourts.

    But our survey (see p 21 ) shows that most environmental consultants and a third of industrial waste producers believe that companies are wrongly consigning "hazardous" waste as "non-hazardous". In the absence of reliable data, official insistence that waste reduction and improved separation of waste streams are the principal factors shaping the market has a hollow ring.

    Against this backdrop, the events of the past few weeks - which have seen flexible enforcement emerging as the centrepiece of UK policy on hazardous waste - appear particularly disturbing.

    Three last-minute changes to the implementation package, announced at the end of June, were:

  • The UK will now take full advantage of the derogation allowing acceptance criteria that are three times weaker where justified by a site risk assessment. The decision - a full U-turn on the Government's policy last summer - can only add to the market confusion and enforcement challenges.
  • In a clear breach of the Directive, the Environment Agency will allow certain "problematic" wastes to be landfilled even when they fail to comply with leaching limits a factor of three higher than those agreed at EU level (see pp 38-39 ).
  • Provisions making it clear that producers are legally responsible for complying with landfill acceptance rules have been deleted from the landfill regulations now on the statute book (see pp 39-40 ). It is now clear that at the eleventh hour the Government realised it had a crisis on its hands. It saw no option but to find every conceivable way of bending the rules. It reached for British pragmatism in its most cunning form - all bound up in reams of official-speak that seeks not to draw attention to itself.

    And Ministers may well get away with it. The snag is that the last-minute shifting of goal posts - and the new willingness to commit flagrant breaches of EU law - send entirely the wrong message to waste management companies and their industrial customers. Committing capital to waste management projects now looks riskier than ever - and the inevitable consequence will be slower progress in upgrading Britain's waste management infrastructure.

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