By Professor Chris Coggins
WAMTECH (Waste Management and Technology)
The pressures of safe waste disposal are mounting, as illustrated by IF's latest drama-documentary. Waste management expert Chris Coggins argues that a range of options must all play a part in addressing the problem.
Environmental issues, and waste in particular, are moving up the political agenda in England.
Professor Coggins: Achieving "zero waste" is an impossible task
The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill will soon become an Act and the Prime Minister launched the new Sustainable Consumption and Production Strategy on 7 March, 2005.
By the early 2020s, it has been estimated that more than 2,000 new waste management facilities, recycling, composting, energy recovery and landfill will be required.
Most local authorities have introduced kerbside collections for recyclables and garden waste, and this will be compulsory by 2010.
IF... THE TOXIC TIMEBOMB GOES OFF
Thursday, 31 March, 2005
And, unlike most of Europe, the UK has well managed and well regulated landfills, taking 75% of our waste.
But the EU Landfill Directive poses major challenges in targets for diverting biodegradable wastes from landfill.
The first target date is 2010 and will ban the co-disposal of hazardous wastes with household waste.
The landfill tax increases by £3 per tonne with effect from April 2005 with a medium term target of £35 per tonne.
This should send out a strong signal favouring other waste management options.
Incineration, with heat recovery and production of electricity, is back on the agenda, with new plants being built and planning permission being sought.
The government has sought to allay fears over health and environmental impacts and three key reports were published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2004.
Despite these assurances there is still a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude in some parts of the country.
Other, new technologies, often grouped under the heading of "MBT" (Mechanical and Biological Treatment), are used widely elsewhere in Europe, but have yet to make real headway in the UK.
But compared to incineration, these new technologies are not proven and are not as "bankable" in investment terms.
To address these concerns, a series of "Demonstrator Projects" will be built over the next two years and complemented by new funds for Research and Development.
The current focus is on stressing the responsibility that producers have to prevent and reduce waste through manufacturing efficiency and better design, and that consumers have in terms of their behaviour, by using fewer resources.
A major challenge, being addressed in Europe and in the UK, is the concept of "waste" itself.
Attempts to see waste as resources which have potential value for recycling, composting and energy recovery is seen as key to achieving the goal of sustainable development.
During the second half of 2005 the UK assumes the presidency of the EU.
Work is already being planned to address the issues of better and more effective environmental regulation and implementation of a series of "Thematic Strategies", most notably on the sustainable use of natural resources and the prevention and recycling of waste.
At a global level, the UK continues to lose manufacturing capacity, imports more consumer products and there is some concern over the export of recyclables to Pacific Rim countries.
For example, the export of paper for recycling increased from under 7,000 tonnes in 1999 to just under two million tonnes in 2003.
New challenges and difficult decisions lie ahead.
These include getting local people to accept new waste facilities, from a paper bank to an incinerator, and change their behaviour, as well as encouraging small businesses in particular to become more environmentally aware.
We also need to investigate whether some form of variable charging - to incentivise recycling and composting - is appropriate for households.
"Zero waste" may be promoted by some.
But most professionals and politicians agree that this concept is a long-term vision, and many scientists would say the task is impossible.
Professor Chris Coggins is a contributor to BBC Two's If... The Toxic Timebomb Goes Off, to be broadcast on Thursday, 31 March, 2005, at 1900 BST.