Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice


Publication of 57th Report of Session 2006-07

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The UK has traditionally got rid of its rubbish by pouring large quantities of it into holes in the ground. Faced with the 1999 EU Directive limiting the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill, Defra issued no fewer than four vaguely worded consultation papers and strategies on waste management - but did little else. If the UK misses these targets, taxpayers will have to stump up the money to pay a huge fine to the  European Commission.

“The Department must now take the tough decisions and practical steps needed to promote large-scale recycling. This will involve making it clear who is going to pay for the initiatives outlined in its latest strategy, in May 2007. It will involve updating its systems for determining just how much progress is being made against targets. And it will involve giving members of the public - over half of whom are committed to recycling - clear guidance on what they can and cannot put into their recycling bins.

“Waste treatment centres around the country will be a critical factor in reducing the UK’s reliance on landfill. The Department must start seriously engaging with the obstacles in the way of bringing them on stream. The alternative is a never-ending search for more holes in which to bury our rubbish mountain.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 57th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined the progress made in reducing the tonnage of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill sites in England

Biodegradable materials in landfill sites, such as food, vegetation and paper, generate methane and other emissions to the soil and water which can be harmful to health. The European Union introduced a Directive in 1999 which set maximum allowances for the tonnage of biodegradable municipal waste that each Member State could send to landfill from 2006 onwards. As waste collection and disposal is a key responsibility of the 388 local authorities in England, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) has to work closely with them to enable the United Kingdom to comply with this Directive. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit estimated that non compliance could result in a fine of up to £180 million a year.

Despite a four year extension to the European Union’s timetable because of our historic reliance on landfill to dispose of waste, the Department has been slow to take action. Departmental officials would have known about the proposed Directive a long time before 1999, but no effective action was taken before 2003. As a result, there was a significant risk by summer 2006 that the United Kingdom government would not be able to comply with the Directive. Subsequent local authority data for 2005-06 indicated a reduction of 2.3 million tonnes since 2003-04 which led the Accounting Officer to be ‘increasingly confident’ of meeting the targets. A further reduction of 4.9 million tonnes a year will be required, however, to comply with 2013 maximum allowance set by the European Union.

Much of the progress made since 2003 in reducing biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill has been from increased recycling, largely due to the enthusiasm and commitment of the public to play their part. The Department’s modelling indicates that further increases in recycling may be necessary to meet the European Union Directive. 57% of the public are already committed recyclers, but householders can find it confusing to determine what items should be put in each bin. Manufacturers and retailers continue to use large amounts of packaging and it is not clear whether the public can return items, such as old electrical equipment, to the retailer for disposal.

An emphasis on recycling alone is unlikely to be sufficient to comply with the Landfill Directive and new infrastructure capable of processing up to 15 million tonnes of waste each year is currently the only other major alternative method of disposal. The development of this infrastructure tends to be unpopular, however, and by summer 2006 there was a significant risk that there would not be enough plants operational in time. There has been little collaboration between authorities and only six of the 25 largest waste disposal authorities were confident of meeting the 2010 target.