Environment Ministers agreed a common position on the Directive last June (ENDS Report 233, pp 34-36 ). The UK secured some of its aims - such as the deletion of provisions dealing with civil liability and landfill aftercare funds - but suffered a big setback in its attempts to retain co-disposal as an option for industrial waste.
After taking legal advice, the Department of the Environment (DoE) confirmed last summer that the present text will only allow the continuation of co-disposal at existing sites, but will prohibit new co-disposal sites (ENDS Report 234, pp 40-41 ). Even so, these provisions do not go as far as the European Parliament's demands on first reading, when it called for all co-disposal to be banned five years after the Directive's entry into force.
The DoE has now written to waste businesses, regulators and UK MEPs saying that it supports the common position, despite its "reservations" about the co-disposal provisions, as well as the proposed ban on disposal of liquid wastes except in co-disposal sites. This would mean that landfills will take longer to stabilise and remain a potential threat to the environment for a longer period, the DoE says.
The common position is now being scrutinised by the Parliament's Environment Committee. It is likely to receive a second reading within the next three months.
What happens then will depend on how Parliament votes. The most likely option is that it will propose amendments to the common position. These would then be considered by the European Commission, which would put forward a revised text to the Council. Environment Ministers could then either accept the revised text by qualified majority vote, or amend it by unanimity.
In a briefing paper, the DoE points out that it is "quite possible that the Parliament could seek to amend the common position and reinstate the ban on co-disposal. It may come under pressure from some countries to amend the Directive to require the pre-treatment of all wastes prior to landfill." With both of these being anathema to the UK, the paper concludes that "it is therefore important that Government, regulators and industry use any opportunity that arises to lobby MEPs about the UK's position and in particular the importance of co-disposal to the UK."
According to an accompanying background paper, a ban on co-disposal would increase the cost to UK industry of disposing of 2.8 million tonnes of "difficult" wastes from £140 million to £300 million per year. The figures are based on a compliance cost assessment completed last year which has been criticised for not taking into account the scope for cost reduction through waste minimisation as disposal charges rose (ENDS Report 228, p 38 ).
The paper also contains a new estimate that a requirement to pre-treat municipal wastes would raise disposal costs in the UK by £200-250 million per year if they were switched to incineration. Again, however, this appears not to take into account the impact of the Government's proposed landfill tax.
The paper goes on to characterise the UK's landfill practices in a glowing light. The UK's "long-established" landfill practices ensure that "over time...the waste is left as a stable mass which poses no threat to the environment." And co-disposal "renders the hazardous waste harmless over time and ensures that today's waste is not passed on as a problem to the next generation." There is not the faintest hint of the debate currently raging in the UK about the unsustainability of the landfill practices which were recommended officially in the mid-1980s, nor the controversy which the DoE's proposal to shift to "bioreactor" landfills has provoked (see pp 32-34 ).
How the pre-treatment debate may go is hard to predict at present. Only France and Belgium voted against the common position because it did not require pre-treatment. But Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg also announced their support for the concept last June, while policy in Denmark and the Netherlands is also running in favour of pre-treatment. The attitudes of the new entrants, Sweden, Finland and Austria, are not known, but could be crucial if the Parliament introduces amendments in favour of pre-treatment.