Slow growth in household waste challenges long-term forecasts

The latest official statistics have poured further cold water on the idea that volumes of household waste are growing at rates of 3% or more per annum. It is likely that many English regions will now have to rethink their long-term forecasts concerning waste disposal and treatment capacity requirements, as average growth over the past three years has been only 1.4% per annum.

Claims that municipal waste was growing at 3% per annum began to circulate in 1999. The figure, repeated by Government Ministers and officials, even made it into the Strategy Unit's waste strategy report in 2002 (ENDS Report 335, pp 21-26 ).

The subject is sensitive, since growth at this rate would lead to a doubling of municipal waste generation over 20 years. Particularly large numbers of incinerators or other treatment facilities would then be needed in order to comply with the caps on landfill disposal imposed under the EU landfill Directive.

In fact, there has never been evidence to support projections of long-term waste growth on anything like this scale. Five years ago, ENDS warned that there was not a sound basis for such projections (ENDS Report 293, pp 23-26 ).

The latest data, for 2002/03, were published by the Environment Department (DEFRA) at the end of April, pending a full statistical bulletin to be released in the summer. They are the seventh full data set since the Government resolved to conduct annual surveys of local authorities in the mid-1990s.

The data show that household waste grew by only 1.1% in 2002/03, to reach 25.8 million tonnes. In four of the nine English regions, growth was less than 0.5%, with London reporting a 0.5% decline. The only regions to report growth of more than 2% were the North West and North East.

A similar picture emerges on "municipal" waste - a term which embraces all waste collected by local authorities, including some 3.4 million tonnes from commercial and industrial sources. Municipal waste collection grew by 1.8% in 2002/03 - the lowest figure recorded since regular surveys began.

Taking the past three years, the data show that household waste grew by an average of only 1.4% per annum, and municipal waste by 2.2%, between 2000/01 and 2002/03.

If household waste continued to grow at this rate, there would be 33.3 million tonnes produced in 2020, compared with 44 million tonnes if growth was 3% per annum. The 6.7 million tonne difference between these projections is equivalent to the capacity of some 35 incinerators.

The alarmist projections of 3% growth per annum were based on a direct reading of the statistics which emerged in the first few years of the survey programme. A wide range of factors lie behind the reason why these early surveys were exaggerating waste growth. First and foremost is the challenge of collecting consistent and reliable figures from more than 300 local authorities.

The introduction of the landfill tax in 1996 gave an artificial boost to apparent volumes of household waste, by giving small businesses a bigger incentive to use local authority waste facilities illegally. Councils have taken measures to reduce abuse of civic amenity sites, with wastes collected from these sites falling to 4.2 million tonnes in 2002/03, the lowest figure since the surveys began and some 7% below the peak in 1999/2000.

The landfill tax has also encouraged councils to gather more reliable information on waste arisings, not least because it now costs significantly more to dispose of each tonne.

Factors leading to growth in waste generation include the trend towards smaller household sizes, the growth in home ownership and improvements in waste collection services. Wheeled bins make it easier to dispose of bulky items - including DIY and garden waste - which previously might not have entered the municipal waste stream.

  • Progress on recycling: Household waste recycling reached 14.5% in 2002/03, the statistics reveal, up from 12.5% the previous year. In absolute terms, the amount of household waste collected for recycling rose by 17% to 3.7 million tonnes.

    The figures put the Government's 17% recycling target for 2003/04 within reach - but leave the 25% target for 2005/06 looking highly ambitious.

    All but one of the regions achieved a household waste recycling rate in excess of 10%, the laggard being the North East which recycled only 6.5%. Leading the pack were the East, South East and South West, which each achieved around 19%.

    For the first time in recent years, the amount of municipal waste consigned to landfill decreased slightly - by 319,000 tonnes. Incineration rose by 150,000 tonnes, to reach 2.6 million tonnes.

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