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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Reducing the reliance on landfill in England

There is a significant risk that local authorities in England will fail to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill by enough for the UK to meet EU targets, according to a report by Parliament?s spending watchdog. The Government intends to penalise local authorities who fail to make their share of the required reductions under Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS) – a scheme introduced by Government to help Local Authorities comply with meeting their obligations under the EU Landfill Directive.

Failure to meet the national targets could also result in the EU issuing fines against the UK Government, which currently sends a higher proportion of municipal waste to landfill (75 per cent) than most other EU countries. These fines could also be later passed on to the local authorities in addition to the scheme penalties mentioned above.

Meeting the targets will require an increase in recycling and in the number of waste treatment plants, but there have been difficulties in both of these areas. To improve the prospects of achieving the targets, the Department should focus on helping the 25 authorities responsible for half of all municipal waste sent to landfill and on ensuring data used for the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme are more accurate and up to date.

Meeting the EU targets requires a reduction of at least 3.5 million tonnes of biodegradable waste sent to landfill by 2010, and a further 3.7 million tonnes by 2013. Today?s report from the National Audit Office estimates that, if no further action is taken beyond that already planned, local authorities will miss the 2010 target by approximately 270,000 tonnes (equivalent to the waste produced by some 225,000 households) and the 2013 target by almost 1.4 million tonnes (equivalent to the waste of some 1.2 million households). Exceeding Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme allowance allocations in 2010 could lead to local authorities receiving Scheme penalties totalling ?40 million a year, rising to ?205 million a year for exceeding allowance allocations in 2013.

Failure to meet the Landfill Directive targets could also result in substantial fines imposed on the UK Government by the EU.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has provided local authorities with ?336 million between 2002-03 and 2005-06 to encourage recycling and composting. However, the growth of recycling, from 11 per cent of household waste in 2000-01 to 23 per cent in 2004-05, has been outweighed by an increase in the amount of waste being produced. The Department forecasts that a recycling figure of approximately 40 per cent will be needed to meet EU targets, but the NAO study suggests this will be difficult to achieve.

Difficulties in securing both funding and planning permission have contributed to delays in building new waste treatment plants. The Department should focus on helping the 25 waste disposal authorities sending the largest amounts of biodegradable municipal waste to landfill to develop new treatment facilities, including plants to convert waste to energy. The Department should also help promote the benefits of alternative waste disposal methods to the public, to address concerns over new plants and increase take-up of improved forms of collection, as well as encouraging increased recycling and composting.

To encourage local authorities to improve their performance, the Department has confirmed that it will impose penalties on authorities breaching their allowances under the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme.

Meeting the EU targets for reducing landfill will be a tough challenge but there is much that can still be done if action is taken now. Reducing the amount of waste going to landfill requires both new treatment plants and a greater use of recycling, and no one should be in any doubt of the scale of the challenge involved. The weight of evidence shows that disposing of biodegradable waste in landfill sites is harmful to the environment, and if we are to substantially reduce our reliance on landfill then there really is no time to waste?

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office

Notes for Editors

  1. In 1999, the EU introduced the Landfill Directive, requiring the UK to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill to 75 per cent of the 1995 figure by 2010, 50 per cent by 2013 and 35 per cent by 2020. This is equivalent to reducing landfilled waste to about 14 million tonnes by 2010 and nine million tonnes by 2013. The majority of the reductions required to meet these targets come from England. Municipal waste covers household waste, street litter and collected trade waste. Defra estimates that individual households produce some 1,200 kg of waste a year on average. Around 68 per cent of municipal waste is biodegradable, such as vegetation, waste paper, food or card.
  2. In 2003-04, the UK disposed of some 26 million tonnes of local authority waste by landfill, 75 per cent of the total. This compares with 38 per cent in France and 20 per cent in Germany and was higher than all other EU countries apart from Greece (92 per cent) and Portugal (also 75 per cent).
  3. Under the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme, introduced in 2005, local authorities operate within an allocation of the amount of biodegradable municipal waste they can send to landfill. The Scheme allows authorities to trade allowances if they have excess or insufficient capacity. Defra has confirmed it will penalise each local authority ?150 for every tonne of biodegradable waste sent to landfill in excess of its allowance.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  5. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 58/06