Waste not, want not

Since 2002 in Britain there is a department called the Strategy Unit (SU). The Strategy Unit’s job is to undertake long-term strategic reviews of major areas of policy; undertake studies of crosscutting policy issues; work with departments to promote strategic thinking and improve policy making across Whitehall; and provide strategic leadership to social research across government Waste not, Want not – A strategy for tackling the waste problem in England, was released in 2002 by the SU. Greens have been highly critical of its short term nature and failure to deal with waste management in England holistically. Too little emphasis on waste reduction and recycling, along with a necessary decrease in the use of landfill, appears to implicitly advocate an expansion in the use of incineration in future. So why did the SU think this?

Historically Britain over-relied on landfill as the main means of waste disposal. This led to under investment in alternative waste management. Landfill is the least environmentally sustainable form of waste management, resulting in high emissions of methane, a major greenhouse gas. The introduction of the EU Directive on the landfill of waste has forced Britain to address this issue; substantial fines will be imposed if Britain fails to reduce waste sent to landfill. Set out in the EEC Directive on waste also known as the Waste Framework Directive is ‘the waste hierarchy’; this gives guidance on the best way to achieve an environmentally successful system of waste management. Waste reduction is placed at the top of the hierarchy. Next best is re-usage, followed by recovery and least desirable is disposal.

In May 1993, a report was published by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, exploring the option of incineration as a viable alternative to landfill. Commission Chairman Sir John Houghton summed up the report’s message with, ‘Incineration of waste at plants designed and operated to the new standards, and subject to firm regulation, should have an important and growing role in the national strategy the government should now prepare as soon as possible to cover all aspects of waste management.’ Waste Strategy 2000, went on to advocate a big increase in incineration.

Delivering Sustainable Waste Management, Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs report provided a highly critical response to Waste Strategy 2000. It states that ‘The Government does not appear to be taking waste minimisation seriously’, noting that insubstantial long-term provisions for minimisation and recycling will necessitate the shift of municipal waste from landfill, resulting in excessive incineration. This may commit the Government to lengthy contractual obligations, thus creating certain barriers to the pursuit of future policy developments in recycling.

The Committee says that to produce energy, an incinerator requires a constant influx of waste and therefore may only be viewed as sustainable ‘…in the most twisted definition of the word…’

It says incineration should not be subsidised, but that an incineration tax should be introduced and set at the same level as the landfill tax already in place. Any waste that is incinerated should first be separated from waste that could potentially be for recovery or recycling.

While accepting the health effects of incineration are unknown, the Committee perceives the Government should investigate those potential risks and, if they are nonexistent, persuade the public to accept this.
In the meantime, the Government should increase its long-term targets for recycling and provide local authorities with clear financial guidance in meeting the targets, while developing a firmer tone on concepts such as producer responsibility.

Waste not, Want not was to be a review of England’s current waste strategy, Waste Strategy 2000. Did the Strategy Unit deal with the concerns of the Select Committee? In considering the Best Practicable Environmental Option, the SU analysed five waste management options for the years between 2002 and 2020.
Of these, it rejected the ‘high incineration’ option of 50% incineration combined with 35% recycling, thereby moving away from the model which most closely resembled that followed by Waste Strategy 2000. Hooray!
However, it also rejects the ‘maximum recycling’ option which would see recycling increased to 60% with incineration levels remaining at the present level of 10%. Boo!

The SU found that while this may be the most effective option environmentally, it ‘…would require a huge change in culture and behaviour which was judged to be less feasible in policy terms than pursuing a range of options, and still left a significant residual’. This is true, but appears to reflect a rather negative approach; while presenting a challenge, a ‘huge change in culture’ is possible, it has been achieved by other countries, and is certainly desirable for longterm development. The ‘significant residual’ could presumably be reduced by reduction and the development of other technologies.

The maximum recycling option is favoured by Friends of the Earth (FoE) who support a ‘rapid move towards zero waste’ and the development of a strategy to this end, with a ban on building new incinerators. FoE accept that an ambitious and well planned environmental strategy would still present the issue of residual waste, but say this would ‘…reduce over time, therefore ruling out large and inflexible technologies such as incineration’.
The ‘reduction/recycle’ option, accepted by the SU as the BPEO available, will see a reduction in waste growth along with a rise in recycling to 45%, while 30% of waste will go to a combination of incineration and other technologies. The other technologies referred to include anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis /gasification and mechanical / biological treatment, all are still in the developmental stages. It is therefore unclear how much emphasis will be placed on increased incineration. Without any proper indication of this from the SU, I think the report advocates a three-fold increase in incineration.

The SU review recommends an increase in tax on the landfill of active wastes from £13 per tonne, to £35 per tonne in the ‘medium term’. This is not accompanied by any recommendation for the introduction of an incineration tax. The SU states that ‘The purpose of raising the landfill tax is not to promote incineration at the expense of all other options, but rather to send a clear signal about landfill’. This observation artificially isolates landfill from a range of other factors which inter-link to form a much wider issue. The danger that incineration may in the future be viewed as a cheaper alternative to landfill is increased by the SU’s failure to address the issue of incineration subsidies, such as the income available from the sale of packaging waste recovery notes.

In conclusion, while Waste not Want not appears to take a more environmentally ambitious stance than Strategy 2000, it doesn’t address the public distrust of incineration. It leaves incineration in place, as a viable alternative should the Government fail to effectively implement more sustainable methods of waste management. England faces an excessive increase in incineration. How much will only be known in the future. Waste Strategy 2000 is due for review in 2005; it will be interesting to see how the review will address this highly controversial issue.

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