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Our effluent society


The UK produces close to 8t of waste per person every year. Volumes are growing at 3% per annum, and landfill space is close to exhausted.

NCE looks at the UK's waste crisis as the government prepares a new waste policy document.

We are a messy and wasteful nation. In 1998 the UK churned out 470Mt of waste, and the volume of materials we chuck away has been rising at an average 3% a year.

According to the Environment Agency, which regulates the waste industry, around 200Mt of the UK's 1998 rubbish heap was 'controlled' waste - requiring a license for disposal.

Of this, 72Mt was thrown away by the construction and demolition industries, 75Mt by businesses, and 28Mt by households.

The remaining 270Mt, disposed of at unlicensed sites, was produced by agriculture, mining, quarrying, and dredging.

When landfill capacity was last assessed in April 1999 England and Wales had around 690Mm 3of space remaining at licensed sites, with 100Mm 3ofthis reserved for inert or construction and demolition waste.

The remaining 590Mm 3assigned for biodegradable material offered just over six years worth of capacity.

Waste grows in proportion to economic prosperity, so it is not surprising that the South East is the UK's most wasteful region. It is also the region least able to dispose of its rubbish. The UK's waste epicentre, London, has disposal facilities for just 20% of what it throws away.

The UK does have other disposal routes: waste treatment plants in England can handle 16.8Mt a year and incinerators 4.5Mt. A portion of liquid waste is dumped in lagoons, and spread over or injected into the land. But they have nothing like enough muscle to avert an impending waste crisis as the UK is subsumed by its own mountain of trash.

Getting the situation under control requires decisive government action, the waste industry says. Targets exist - the European Union (EU) Landfill Directive requires that two thirds of municipal biodegradable waste is diverted from landfill by 2020. The directive will also prevent hazardous wastes being landfilled alongside other wastes, and bans disposal of tyres in landfills.

An EU Packaging Directive is being introduced, requiring 55% to 65% reductions in the amount of packaging thrown away. The Electronic & Electrical Waste Directive just agreed and coming into force in 2006 requires between 50% and 70% of electronic waste be recycled.

And the European Commission is promising a draft Biodegradable Waste Directive by end of 2004, obliging local authorities to compost all organic waste.

But bids to build incinerators, composting and recycling depots have been killed off by local protest at sites the length and breadth of Britain. Replacing the 360 largest of the UK's 19,200 landfill sites with waste treatment processes would require construction of between 1,800 and 3,600 waste to energy incinerators, composting or recycling plants. Nobody wants one in their own back yard.

There is also little financial incentive as yet to divert waste away from the UK's relatively cheap landfill sites.

Which is why the waste industry is eagerly awaiting a report from the government's Cabinet Office Strategy Unit (formerly the Policy & Innovation Unit) on UK waste policy.

It is expected to recommend:

la 40% recycling target for 2015, rising to 50% by 2020, perhaps with a long term aim of zero waste to landfill la landfill tax increase of £10/t in 2004, with annual escalations of £2/t from 2005 onwards, which will make recycling, composting and heat to energy incineration competitive with landfill ldoorstep recycling for every household lan extra £100M a year for recycling for the next three years, meeting the cost of providing collection boxes and buying a fleet of collection vehicles lconsultation on allowing councils to charge households by volume of waste lencouragement of new waste disposal routes.

INFOPLUS Biffa's report on UK waste, 'Future Perfect' can be found at www. www. environmentagency. gov. uk/subjects/waste www. ice. org. uk

Waste facts

65% of waste is landfilled, 30% recovered, 3% used to produce energy and 2% composted.

36Mt of all UK waste is recycled, 54% of which is from aggregates and in landscaping, 12% from ferrous scrap. 8% is commercial and industrial waste, 9% paper and board, 9% construction and demolition and 8% domestic waste.

60% of waste arisings in the UK are organic.

Municipal waste is projected to grow by 43% from 1995 to 2020.

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