A very British waste problem

Ripples from the imminent ban on co-disposal are beginning to be felt. In the land remediation sector, practitioners are talking about a trebling of hazardous waste disposal fees after 16 July - and that is before factoring in the substantial increase in haulage distances. Ominously, some site developers are finding it impossible to obtain quotes for the disposal of contaminated soils beyond the deadline - and at least one flagship regeneration scheme now looks to be in jeopardy (see pp 3-4 ).

The nail-biting twists and turns facing the Avenue coking works scheme are a graphic illustration of the UK's systemic failure to prepare for what was always going to be a seismic shift in waste management practice.

In time, when the reality of the EU landfill Directive sinks in, a sizeable indigenous industry for the treatment of polluted soils is sure to emerge - just as it has overseas. But it is clear that right now the industry in Britain simply cannot cope with the loss of landfill. It's as if, when the starting gun was fired back in 1999, no-one was listening. Indeed, many in the land remediation sector have only come to realise the significance of the Directive in the past year or so.

A similar picture is emerging in the chemicals sector, where many companies appear to be clinging to the hope that their waste management contractors will continue to sort out their problems. Despite Responsible Care and the statutory "duty of care", the reality is that, each time the skip and the vacuum tanker drive away, responsibility for their contents goes with them: waste is someone else's problem. The ban on co-disposal was seen as a problem for waste contractors, not their customers.

Kicking an addiction is generally only possible once people recognise there is a problem. In the 1990s, the UK fought a long, lonely struggle in Europe to preserve the UK's right to landfill - and it lost. But while official thinking inched towards support of the co-disposal ban when the landfill Directive was agreed in 1999, it has never really felt as if the Government's heart was in it.

An enthusiastic Government might have started work on a set of waste acceptance criteria for hazardous waste mono-fill sites seven or more years ago - when it became clear that the co-disposal ban was inevitable. Industry would then have had time to prepare for the rules; waste businesses could have invested in treatment capacity and their customers would have had time to plan process changes or install on-site waste treatment plants. Meanwhile, equipped with a home-grown system, the Government would have been better placed to influence negotiations leading up to a set of EU-wide criteria.

However, it is not simply a failure to face up to the depth of Britain's landfill addiction that has prevented the Government from adopting a leadership role on the hazardous waste issue. Equally important is the pervasive fear of "gold-plating". At each step of the way, when considering how best to implement the Directive, the Environment Department has been reluctant to design its own solutions.

Two years ago, the Government told EU colleagues that all hazardous waste sites should work to the same rules on waste acceptance so as to create a level playing field to facilitate investment decisions and simplify regulatory procedures. The eventual EU decision on this topic left Member States the option of following the approach favoured by the UK or alternatively working out different acceptance rules for each site to reflect the local geology and the proximity of groundwater. After a 15-month battle, the business lobby has now succeeded in using the "gold-plating" argument to persuade Whitehall to change its mind (see pp 30-33 ). It is not yet clear how widely the risk assessment option will be taken up, but there is every chance of its creating a distorted market with burdensome technical procedures which are difficult to regulate. Not the best way of stimulating investment in waste treatment technology.

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