Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Wednesday, 25 January 2006

UK 'refuseniks' tackle Big Waste

By Clare Matheson
BBC News business reporter

Waste incinerator in Amsterdam
The UK could soon be burning 25% of its waste
Tighter regulation and lack of space is leaving officials with the mounting headache of how to deal with the UK's waste problem.

According to figures, the country produces more than 400m tonnes of refuse a year - enough to fill the Albert Hall twice every hour.

The UK currently operates on the waste hierarchy principle, which rates differing methods of getting rid of rubbish according to their effect on the environment - reduce, re-use, recycle and dispose.

Those at the top of the table have less economic and environmental impact. For example, reducing packaging means less waste to be recycled.

But in order to tackle the UK's growing waste mountain, the government is intending to increase the amount of refuse incinerated in the UK.

By 2020, as much as 25% of waste could be heading for the incinerator.

But critics claim incineration is merely dodging the problem - it encourages people to ignore other more viable options such as re-using and recycling rubbish.

'Way of the future'

"The holy grail is to let the market sort out how it wants to operate - for example, having markets in waste trading," says Dominic Moran, senior environmental economist at the Scottish Agricultural College.

Joel Makower, founder of US group GreenBiz, adds that trading markets in solid waste allow individuals and companies to "internalise" costs of waste that have so far been ignored.

The cost [of waste trading] encourages the minimisation of the things that will become wasted
Angus Macpherson, Environment Exchange

"I think it's the way of the future. Trading markets will allow us to do what other economic vehicles don't," Mr Makower says.

"It gives benefits to the most efficient companies and individuals - it's happened with emissions and makes sense with solid waste."

In fact, ridding communities of rubbish could become big business.

Under Producer Responsibility Obligations, companies must now account for the waste they produce and its subsequent disposal.

Market forces

"All producers now have to collect their waste under the EU packaging directive, which has opened a market in trading in recycling," Ronan Palmer of the Environment Agency told the BBC.

"These have to have a certificate to prove enough waste is being recycled. If they can't recycle enough, they can buy Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs) from someone who has recycled more than their share."

Already a "trading floor" for the market in PRNs - the Environment Exchange - has been set up, helping to set a benchmark price for trading in the certificates.

"The concept is that the cost of this encourages the minimisation of the things that will become wasted - encouraging re-use and encouraging disposal in an environmentally sustainable manner," says Angus Macpherson, chief executive of the exchange.

Mass burn incinerators of the type proposed in the UK are hugely damaging for recycling
Michael Warhurst, Friends of the Earth

Mr Macpherson is also now looking to branch out into the waste electronics and landfill markets as the country faces tighter regulations on waste.

In April, the government brought in a system of fines that penalises councils who fail to reach targets to cut dumping. Councils will be fined 150 for every tonne over target.

Under the scheme, councils set to miss their targets can "buy" spare capacity from councils who will come in under their limits - in a similar manner to the way producers can buy PRNs.

Burning issue

But critics suggest the scheme will encourage further use of incinerators.

Burning waste seems an easy solution. Incinerators get rid of the problem and can even be used as an alternative source of energy.

That means the UK, where oil and gas resources are dwindling fast, would be less reliant on foreign fuel.

But they cost money to maintain at EU standards, while there is also the added cost of transporting waste to the sites.

Protest march in Dorset against incinerator plan
Incinerator proposals tend to trigger strong feelings among communities

Anecdotal evidence also suggests incinerators actually cost money for people living close to such sites, as house prices tend to fall.

Health concerns are another factor. Campaigners claim toxic gases are released which can lead to cancer, putting pressure on UK healthcare, although the government dismisses these fears as minor.

Meanwhile, green groups complain that the burning option still fails to tackle the waste problem properly, as it is seen as an easy option and so detracts from recycling.

"Mass burn incinerators of the type proposed in the UK are hugely damaging for recycling," Friends of the Earth's waste campaigner Michael Warhurst says.

"They are very expensive and require long-term contracts that force councils to continue giving waste to the incinerator company, rather than recycling it."

Green push

Recycling saves immense amounts of energy - and so cuts down on fuel use and money. According to FoE, recycling one aluminium drinks can could save enough energy to run a TV for up to five hours.

The government has ploughed more cash into recycling initiatives, and as a result, England is nearing its target of recycling 25% of household waste.

"That's a good start, but the UK could do a lot better. There's lots of room for improvement," GreenBiz's Mr Makower says.

In the US, some states, such as San Francisco, manage to recycle more than 50% of their waste through schemes such as "pay as you throw".

By charging residents for the size of refuse bin they use, they encourage householders to re-use or recycle as much as possible.

Landfill rubbish site
TIghter EU rules mean landfill is becoming scarce in the UK

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, recycling has become almost second nature and the country recycles more than 60% of its waste.

Of course, certain factors have driven such high re-use of waste. It is Europe's most populated country, which means land is at a premium, while high taxes and tight regulation also make landfill a difficult proposition.

In the UK about 50 years ago, landfill was a viable option as very little household waste went in the bin. Most was thrown onto the fire to heat the home.

On top of that, there were plenty of holes in the ground to fill, such as old quarries or industrial sites. Now land costs are becoming prohibitive and the waste business is having to look elsewhere.

And while the government is chipping away at the UK's rubbish mountain, it looks as though the waste debate will remain a heated issue for some time.

Recycling around the world
25 Jun 05 |  Europe
Waste mountain 'must be tackled'
24 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature
UK go-ahead to more waste burning
06 May 04 |  Science/Nature

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific