Page last updated at 07:31 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 08:31 UK

Council warning on waste targets

Councils are required to reduce waste sent to landfill

Councils in England have been warned they face multi-million pound fines if they miss EU targets for reducing the waste they send to landfill sites.

In a report, the public spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, says delays in building incinerators could lead to councils missing the targets.

EU rules on cutting landfill waste come into force in 2010.

The Commission said councils could meet the first target - of reducing landfill waste to 75% of 1995 levels by 2010.

But it was less certain about the second target, of 50% by 2013.

The commission said investment in waste disposal technologies that converted waste into energy or fuel would have the most significant impact on landfill reduction.

We must keep up the pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle
Michael O'Higgins
Audit Commission

But it warned that delays in building incinerators and other forms of disposal "pose the greatest threat" to meeting the targets.

The "major, often controversial" projects cost a minimum of 20m and can take 10 years to complete, it said.

Despite increasing the amount of rubbish recycled four-fold in ten years, half the waste produced still ends up in landfill, producing the potent greenhouse gas, methane.

If councils fail to meet the targets - even if England as a whole does achieve them - taxpayers in those areas will face paying fines of up to 2 million, the commission warned.

Many councils favour incineration as the best way of dealing with residual waste, but despite a cleaner and safer generation of incinerators, many campaign groups are fighting schemes, preferring methods like the mechanical and biological treatment of waste.

Plants needed

England also faces increasing costs of sending rubbish to landfill through a rising landfill tax as well as decreasing space.

The report said about 30 new waste disposal plants would be needed, which would divert more than 6 million extra tonnes of rubbish from landfill.

Around 20 to 30 plants are already in the pipeline, and the report said councils must push ahead with the projects as a two-year delay to schemes already under way could end up costing 140m in fines by missing the 2013 targets.

If all the planned projects are built, the 2013 goal can be met, the commission said.

75% of 1995 level by 2010
50% of 1995 level by 2013
35% of 1995 level by 2020

Commission chairman Michael O'Higgins said: "We must keep up the pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle but if we are to avoid being heavily fined for failing to meet the 2013 target then we must also push ahead with the treatment plants that are in the pipeline."

Plants which are only in the planning stage now would have no impact on the 2013 target.

He called for a "mature" debate about waste, and said people should accept that incineration plants were needed.

In addition, councils needed to work together to come up with the smartest solutions, such as trading their landfill allowances or negotiating to share incineration schemes, he suggested.

The Local Government Association said "councils are pulling out the stops" to deliver the waste projects".

But its environment board chairman Paul Bettison said: "The reality is the government has hit the council taxpayer with a 1.5 billion bill over the next three years by going back on its undertaking to refund money raised through landfill tax to local authorities.

Avoiding landfill fines should mean maximising recycling and composting, not committing to expensive and polluting incinerators
Becky Slater
Friends of the Earth

"This is cash that could be used to build the facilities that are needed to divert waste away from landfill."

He also said there were "many barriers" to building the waste disposal plants that the country needs.

"The government should at least join local councils in making the case for these new facilities."

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "The Audit Commission is absolutely right that we need to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.

"Maximising the renewable energy that can be recovered from unavoidable waste, through incineration and other means such as anaerobic digestion, is both sensible and vital to cut landfill and build a low carbon Britain."

Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Becky Slater criticised the building of incinerators and said the focus should be on recycling and composting.

She said: "Burning rubbish contributes to climate change and sends valuable resources up in smoke - it's no wonder they face powerful opposition from communities around the country.

"Avoiding landfill fines should mean maximising recycling and composting, not committing to expensive and polluting incinerators."

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