Science & Environment

Harrabin's Notes: Waste not?

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at the environmental context of the government's waste review.


Image caption Some green groups say the review recognises waste as a resource, but does not go far enough

For all the green groups and business groups that have condemned the government's Waste Review for lack of ambition, here's some news: it could have been less ambitious.

I understand that proposals to consult on banning wood, textiles and food waste from landfill were inserted only after Downing Street complained that the document did not do enough to substantiate the "greenest government ever" promise.

So let's examine exactly how green the document was.

First, the weekly bin collection row. Environment groups are relieved that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) beat off Eric Pickles' attempt to re-impose weekly collections.

Not because they are against weekly collections per se, but because they think what is important is to collect food waste (christened "smelly waste" by Caroline Spelman) on a regular basis.

This will allow the separation of food waste from the general waste stream, which is the fundamental requirement of modern machines for automatically sorting co-mingled waste.

These machines - like giant washing machines - can sort plastic, glass, paper, aluminium and steel. But the recyclables become a stinking mess if they are streaked through with putrefying chicken tikka.

Promised land

The Daily Mail is saying that the Waste Review ordered all homes in the country to use "slop buckets". This is not stipulated by the review, although it may well be an inevitable conclusion of the current trend in which councils turn their weekly attention from general to smelly.

Greens are generally puzzled by the dislike of separating food waste, anyway. If the food waste bin is well-sealed and kept outside, they say, there's little difference from putting food waste into a general waste been collected on a weekly basis.

But the Waste Review proposed to take our eyes above dustbin level to a "promised land" of zero waste.

The tone is exhortatory: "Given the picture of material resource use in England is clearly wrong that we still send so much to landfill in England that is a potential resource. In 2009 we landfilled 44 million tonnes of waste."

There were promises, too to promote the long-established Waste Hierarchy, that is to promote waste minimisation, re-use, recycling and energy from waste - in that order.

But although there was widespread applause for the vision from the waste industry, the CBI and environmental groups, there's also widespread disappointment at the lack of policy details as to how it might become reality.

Indeed, some critics fear the government has been paralysed by its dislike of regulation and its fear of the bin agenda in right-wing papers.

The most positive comment came for a pledge to "work to overcome the barriers to increasing the energy from anaerobic digestion" (in which bugs produce methane from food waste). A £10m fund will be shared between local councils over the life of the Parliament to encourage anaerobic digestion.

This initiative has been welcomed by greens, but they say it is not enough. The government's own calculations suggest that anaerobic digestion could supply power to three million people in the UK.

Good to talk

Other policy approaches are less well defined. There is a promise, for instance, for government to talk to industries to ask them to reduce waste voluntarily - particularly the toy industry, hospitality and direct mail. But approaches to these industries have been made before with apparently little effect. And no waste reduction targets have been set.

There is a pledge to "support initiatives which reward and recognise people who do the right thing to reduce, reuse and recycle their waste", and a suggestion that this might involve banks on the street so people can recycle "on the go". But again there are no specifics.

The one policy area considered most radical is the one belatedly inserted by Number 10 - a proposal to keep certain items out of landfill altogether. The Labour government considered this in its consultation before losing power - but the coalition scrapped that consultation and abandoned the prospect of landfill bans. Now, a year after beginning this review, landfill bans are back. The government will consult on them and report by next March in a review of the review.

More than a year has been lost. From the environmental point of view there is a no-brainer case for banning from landfill food, aluminium and wood.

And what about England's recycling targets overall? After a slow start councils are now recycling 41% of household waste - well on the way to the 50% EU target for 2020. Greens wanted the level of ambition raised as a result, but it has not been changed. So England will remain bottom of the UK recycling league.

On target?

And while we're talking about targets, the review agreed that it would produce a document on minimising waste at source (top of the hierarchy) but omitted to say that it was being done at the last possible moment under EU rules.

Friends of the Earth said: "This displays an embarrassing lack of new ideas and ambition, and will not help deliver the 'zero waste economy' the government claims it is aiming for."

The Green Alliance said Defra "so far lack the means, of achieving a zero waste economy".

The recycling firm SITA UK said: "The sentiment of the review is not out of line with modern thinking on waste as a resource, but the lack of concrete actions represents another missed opportunity."

Defra insists that the goverment is on target for the zero waste economy.

Just as the review was being unveiled an email dropped into my inbox from Marks & Spencer. Normally we avoid mentioning specific firms, but this caught my eye - M&S has been considering selling 500ml squirts of chilled filtered water in its stores for 20p a shot.

The idea would be that you could buy a bottle to contain it, or use your own. If M&S do decide this is a feasible idea, it could have a huge impact on the number of plastic bottles discarded and the energy used to transport bottled water.

It suggests that the government's former adviser Jonathon Porritt may have a point when he says that much of the most innovative thinking on the environment is coming from industry - not from government or pressure groups.