The House of Commons Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee has published a report that is highly critical of the Government's Waste Strategy and DEFRA’s support for waste authorities. The Committee condemns DEFRA for focusing disproportionately on domestic waste, which contributes less than 10 per cent of all waste, while omitting firm targets for the commercial and industrial sectors which produce around a quarter of all waste. It comments that vague ambitions and rhetoric must be replaced urgently with firm action plans.

Recycling targets

The report praises householders for increasing their recycling levels to nearly 37 per cent and urges the Government to set tougher recycling targets of 50 per cent by 2015 and 60 per cent by 2020. However, non-municipal waste accounts for 90 per cent of total waste, but the Government has set few firm targets for this sector, except for one to halve the total amount of construction, demolition and excavation waste sent to landfill by 2012.

It notes that DEFRA’s approach to the commercial and industrial sectors, which account for 25 per cent of all waste, contrasts markedly with the clearly targeted approach for waste reduction in the household sector. It considers that the Government has failed to address waste from these sectors sufficiently, expressing only an "expectation" that their waste levels would be reduced by 20 per cent over six years from 2004. 

DEFRA’s recent statement on its commercial and industrial waste policy ostensibly sets out its aims and objectives for this waste stream but fails to set firm targets for these sectors, and the Committee is not convinced that current policies for tackling commercial and industrial waste are sufficiently robust to drive maximum improvement in these sectors. It urges the Department to hold a round table with representatives from commerce and industry to develop waste reduction, re-use and recycling benchmarks to provide companies with a better idea of what they can be expected to achieve. It should also develop an action plan setting out the steps the sector can take to achieve these levels.

The Government should also commission a report to explain the reasons for significant differences in the rates of recycling and prepare an action plan to assist poor performing local authorities to improve their domestic recycling levels. Local authorities should be required to provide all householders with information on an annual basis explaining what actually happens to domestic waste sent for recycling and the environmental impact of their recycling activities.

Food waste

The report recommends that a target is set for mandatory collection of food waste, learning lessons from those authorities which already collect such refuse for beneficial use such as in anaerobic digestion plant, and ensure continued provision of advice, education and practical support, for example through reduced cost composting equipment.

The Environment Secretary has since revealed that the Government is planning a ban on food waste going to landfill. It will consult on the detailed plan next month but DEFRA has stated that it would like to see all local authorities collecting food waste as soon as possible and by 2020 at the latest. The ban, which could be introduced in two years, will apply to businesses and the public sector as well as homes.

Household waste incentive schemes

DEFRA’s attempts to introduce pilot household waste incentive schemes under the Climate Change Act 2008 receive much scorn.  As no local authority expressed interest in piloting a financial incentive scheme for household waste and recycling, the plans have been stymied and DEFRA has not announced how it intends to take the incentive scheme forward. The Committee notes that councils’ willingness to participate in the scheme has probably been reduced by negative press coverage which reinforced the public’s misunderstanding of the proposals, while public mistrust has been exacerbated by a lack of information from local authorities on their services and performance, including confusion over current costs of waste collection and disposal, and over which materials can be recycled in their locality.

It calls on DEFRA to improve its support to local authorities in explaining more clearly the benefits which can arise from households reducing their domestic waste volumes, noting that if public commitment to recycling is to be developed, local authorities must firstly make it clear to people what the current costs of waste collection are and express such figures in terms of cost per bin, bag or wheelie bin. The Department should now produce a report explaining how a more rational regime for charging for domestic waste collection and disposal can be proceeded with.

Private Finance Initiative

The Committee considers that the role of PFI in funding infrastructure development must be reviewed since it can restrict local authorities’ ability to respond to changes in technologies and waste collection systems. DEFRA should review its future role in funding the provision of waste infrastructure to ensure that, where it is appropriate, projects include contractual arrangements which provide for flexibility to meet changing circumstances. In addition, the Government should address delays in the planning system for new facilities and extend the escalator for landfill tax levels to 2020 to give certainty to those investing in long-term projects.

Other recommendations

Among its wide-raging recommendations, the Committee also calls on the Government to: 

  • require food retailers and manufacturers to report annually on how much food waste they produce; 
  • ensure that local authorities are using their available powers fully to discharge their responsibilities to prevent fly-tipping and littering;
  • increase the funding provided for the enforcement of waste regulation;
  • remove impediments to full intelligence sharing between the Environment Agency and other enforcement agencies to enable improved targeting of illegal waste export; and 
  • evaluate the practicalities of applying a small “clean up” levy to products such as cigarettes, drinks and confectionary, whose packaging contributes the largest volumes of litter, to support work by local authorities to clean up their neighbourhoods.

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