Ministers lower sights on recycling target

The Government's target to recycle 25% of the UK's household waste by 2000 may be revised to include energy recovery, Environment Minister Robert Atkins told the House of Commons Environment Committee on 9 March. He also gave broad support to the packaging industry's waste recovery plan - but resisted the idea that the planning process should be eased for incinerators.

The final session of the Committee's inquiry into recycling heard evidence from Mr Atkins and Trade and Industry Minister Patrick McLoughlin. Their performance was far from masterful, and included several conflicting remarks and admissions that the Committee's questions had made them aware of some issues for the first time. Nevertheless, the session gave some useful pointers to future policy on recycling.

The domestic waste recycling target was explored in detail. According to Mr Atkins, the target is "aspirational" and "something to pitch at". His aim appeared to be to play down the importance of reaching the target as a criterion for judging the success of the Government's recycling policy. Such talk may do little to push recalcitrant industries and local authorities into action on recycling.

However, the Minister's statement is hardly surprising in the light of other evidence given to the Committee. Current policies on packaging and newspaper, and industry efforts on textiles and composting, will probably result in a recycling rate of only around 17% by 2000 - well short of the "aspirational" target.

Mr Atkins went on to remark that "if the target should include waste incineration, then so be it". At present, energy recovery is not included in the 25% target - but the Minister explained that "if we were to review the situation it may be so." Mr McLoughlin added that waste-to-energy is "probably on a par with material recycling" in the waste management hierarchy - although his statement conflicted with the hierarchy outlined in the Government's written evidence.

Both Ministers praised the packaging waste plan issued by the Producer Responsibility Industry Group (PRG) in February (ENDS Report 229, pp 18-21 ). Mr Atkins said he had been "extremely impressed with what they have set out to achieve", although he pointed out that the scheme's success will depend on support from the rest of the industry and an effective funding mechanism. But he suggested that "most of [PRG's] recommendations will find favour with us".

The PRG has called for legislation to underpin its packaging plan, and Mr Atkins expressed "great sympathy with the point they make". But he did not support PRG's proposal to boost incineration by streamlining the planning process. "I am a touch cautious about this," he said, expressing wariness about the precedent which might be set for other industries. However, he concluded that "building of new facilities is something that would have to happen".

The Committee has heard complaints that the non-fossil fuel obligation (NFFO) offers no support for the heat produced by combined heat and power (CHP) plants, including those which burn waste. Mr McLoughlin promised that the DTI would review the need to amend the Electricity Act 1989 so as to allow payment of NFFO or similar subsidies for the heat generated by CHP plants.

Mr Atkins indicated that he will be reviewing several other aspects of waste management. Waste minimisation measures, with the possibility of targets, are currently being assessed by the DoE, he said, and one of the Government's key objectives is to reduce the proportion of domestic waste sent to landfill from the current level of 85% - suggesting that the DoE may be looking at a landfill diversion target along the lines suggested by PRG.

The DoE's own support for recycled materials in its purchasing policy also came under scrutiny. Mr Atkins justified the "tentative" nature of the Department's new supplier assessment system (ENDS Report 228, p 29 ), saying that the scheme "is just a start" and that "if it is not good enough, it will have to do better."

Problems with the recycling credits scheme were also addressed. A review commissioned by the DoE is expected to be published shortly, but Mr Atkins said he would not want to put any more burdens on local authorities by placing a duty on them to pay credits to third parties "unless it is essential". But when pressed by MPs he concluded that the idea of a duty "has much merit".

Finally, the Minister said he was perturbed by the poor quality of local authority recycling plans (ENDS Report 229, p 12 ) - and promised that he will be chasing them up.

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