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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
What a load of rubbish!
Britain is gradually running out of landfill sites and the rubbish just keeps on growing. This week's Money Programme asks - how much are we going to have to pay to sort out Britain's trash mountain?

Britain is facing a rubbish crisis. We are creating more rubbish than ever before and we're running out of places to put it.

At the moment most household rubbish is put into black bin liners and forgotten about. In London, most of it is then packed into big yellow containers before taking a leisurely ride down the Thames to a massive landfill site, appropriately called Mucking. Three quarters of a million tonnes of waste is buried here every year.

holes in the ground

But across the UK landfill sites are being covered over and closed at the rate of four a week. The site at Mucking will close in four years time.

It is not just a question of running out of space. It is no longer considered environmentally acceptable to stick rubbish in a hole in the ground. For one thing, it creates a lot of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

European legislators agree. Methane created by rotting rubbish is their main concern about landfill and they have told the British government to more than halve the waste that we bury by 2020.

One alternative is incineration. If every council built an incinerator they could burn half their rubbish and meet EU landfill targets immediately. The heat incincerators give off is used to generate energy so they have environmental benefits, but reports have emerged of highly toxic dioxins detected in the smoke they give out, which no one wants in their back yard.

Brighton and Hove council is building an incinerator in Newhaven, but Friends of the Earth and local residents are trying to stop them.

Essex trash

In charge of refuse for Essex County Council, Graham Tombs is going for the recycling option. Recycling in Chelmsford is amongst the best in the country, but it hasn't come cheap.

There are four bins where there was one, double the number of collections, twice the staff and new trucks. To start the scheme cost the council 750m.

The council has set up a processing centre to take in and sort the increasing volumes of materials coming in.

"We have no problem selling this material because believe it or not, it is coming in a good clean state," said Barry Saunders, who is in charge of recycling at Chelmsford. But he also has to get a good price, so that the council can cover the cost of setting up and running its recycling round.

Recycling plastic is currently not viable and the paper market also fluctuates wildly.

recycling roulette

As more and more councils recycle they will have to get used to playing these markets. It is easy to get caught out. This year Hampshire had to dump 1,300 tonnes of recycled material in landfill when they couldn't sell it.

But government targets will soon mean that councils will have to get their recycling schemes off the ground. To increase their recycling rates they are going to have to spend a lot more money on waste disposal.

Half of all councils contract out their waste disposal to private companies and they will need to negotiate new deals with them to get them to recycle. These companies will demand a premium for changing their current way of working.

a growing problem

By 2020, the amount of rubbish we are creating is predicted to have doubled. The government has adopted a new strategy to get our recycling rates up.

At the moment every time a tonne of rubbish is put into a landfill a tax is paid to the treasury. The government has decided to increase that landfill tax year by year so that eventually recycling will start to look cheap by comparison. But that will take eight years.

Recycling schemes like Chelmsford's could be set up throughout the country now, if we were willing to spend an extra 25 on council tax each year.

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 28 May 2003.




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