May 27th, 2014

Withdrawal symptoms: why Defra still has a role in waste

8 minute read

by Dominic Hogg


How is England performing on waste management, and what are the prospects for the future? Last year, Defra announced its intention to step back in areas of waste management where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure. Now the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has launched an inquiry examining approaches to the recycling and treatment of municipal waste in England, and the impact of the reduction of Defra’s activities.

They raised seven sensible questions, to which I responded with a written submission. The reflections that exercise prompted are the basis of this article.


Target practice

The UK is committed to meeting a recycling target of 50% by 2020. There are four ways to calculate the target, and the UK has chosen a difficult one: the percentage of all household waste that is recycled.

The decision didn’t have to be notified to the Commission until last year, and the Government could have chosen an easier approach. That it didn’t was, I believe, the right decision. In the absence of clear policy measures – with the single exception of the Landfill Tax – to achieve the target, sticking with the harder choice seems rather strange.

Not only has the government failed to establish relevant policy measures; in some areas it has actively sought to undermine the efforts to meet the target:

  • Time, effort and money have been wasted on the question of the frequency of refuse collections. It is bizarre that local authorities have been pushed to make service delivery less efficient just as the government has enacted deep cuts in councils’ spending.
  • Various sections of the Climate Change Act 2008 intended to pave the way for the introduction of household waste charging schemes, have been repealed. The best evidence suggests that differential and variable rate charging (or ‘pay-as-you-throw’ schemes) would cut waste, increase recycling rates, and save councils money.
  • Targets for glass recycling under the packaging regulations have been reduced.
  • The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 are a weak transposition of the Waste Framework Directive (WFD).


In the absence of any statutory targets or duties to provide recycling services of any specified level of quality, some cash-strapped councils are seriously entertaining pulling out of kerbside collection of recyclables. In order to be sure of exceeding the 50% recycling target by 2020, progress will have to be reinvigorated by as yet unidentified initiatives.

There is every reason for England to aim higher in order to drive the economy in a more ‘circular’ manner. Higher targets, even if these are to be achieved after 2020, would set clear a direction of travel, in preparation for the probable future. In a recent consultation undertaken by the European Commission the weighted average recycling target suggested for both household and municipal waste was 70%.


Collective responsibility

Councils are not the only important actors in waste management. Businesses have a substantial role in increasing recycling and recovery, not least by making their products easier to repair, reuse, remanufacture, and so on. They should also have a more prominent role in funding the recycling systems run by local authorities that help them deliver their producer responsibility obligations.

It is also clear that businesses could recycle more, but search and transaction costs hinder finding the best way of dealing with wastes. There are substantial economic and environmental benefits if one contractor collects from all businesses in a particular area. Recent Eunomia projects to help Business Improvement Districts in Bath and Bedminster to procure services collectively for businesses have shown how this leads to improved services and lower costs.


Treatment table

According to our most recent report, there is 7.7 million tonnes of residual waste treatment capacity in construction. A further 21.4 million tonnes has planning consent: not all will be built, but some probably will.

Less than 20 million tonnes of waste is currently landfilled at the standard rate. If, under a zero waste growth scenario:

  1. Household recycling rates in England increased to 70%, this would remove an additional 6.7 million tonnes from landfill.
  2. Recycling in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland increased as per targets, there would be 2.6 million tonnes less going to landfill;
  3. Recycling of commercial and industrial waste increases to 65% and 70%, respectively, there would be around 6-7 million tonnes less landfilled.


If we complete the residual waste facilities already in construction and achieve the three aims above, we will have more treatment capacity than waste.

Generally, the effects of “overcapacity” on recycling tend to make themselves known first in a local context, yet the more widespread the overcapacity phenomenon becomes the more it tends to inhibit national recycling rates. In England, 39% of residual waste is now being incinerated. Consider the case of Denmark, where although virtually no household waste is landfilled the household recycling rate is only 27%. The investments already made in incineration have ossified waste management by removing the financial incentive to recycle.

There are a number of local authorities in England whose options for additional recycling are already constrained by existing incineration contracts. This has happened where:

  • Authorities and their advisers overstated the rate at which waste would grow or underestimated the potential for recycling; and
  • Incinerator contracts included a guarantee from the waste disposal authority to supply a minimum tonnage of waste to the facility.


Incin-Recyc Graph_SML

% Recycled (x-axis) v % Incinerated (y-axis), English Local Authorities, 2012/13


The diagonal line indicates the line between ‘100% incinerated’ and ‘100% recycled’. Authorities already incinerating more than 50% of their waste would have to scale back incineration in order to increase recycling. Around 25% of English local authorities are in close proximity to the diagonal line and are unlikely to pursue additional recycling with great vigour.


Digestive tract

There is a different problem regarding anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities: here, the issue is whether food waste, which constitutes close to 20% of household waste, will be separately collected. The issue could be resolved by giving a nudge to the collection market through requiring businesses to sort food from other wastes, and by requiring local authorities (around half of which still have no food waste service) to instigate weekly household collections.

A potential, though still remote problem is that increased AD capacity could undermine efforts to prevent food waste. We should support measures to prevent waste, and the work of organisations seeking to ensure that food which might otherwise become waste is fed to humans or livestock. However, for food waste which cannot be consumed by humans or animals, anaerobic digestion appears to be the best available option.

Incentives for renewable energy have been instrumental in driving investment in AD. In our analysis, however, the greater greenhouse gas benefits may come from the use of biogas as vehicle fuel. The few incentives for using biogas in this way are far less powerful than those for generating electricity and heat from biogas. We also need to increase the focus on maximising the benefit from the nutrient value of digestate and its role in supplying organic matter to soils.


Bans on the run

A landfill ban has been suggested as a way to drive change in waste management. Such a ban would be feasible, but whether it is desirable is another matter.

Are landfills so hazardous and unpleasant that a ban is the best way forward? It wouldn’t necessarily lead to more recycling, only to less landfilling, with waste potentially switching to other forms of residual waste management. It is not clear that the benefits that would arise would justify the costs of such a switch.

There have been calls for bans on landfilling specific materials, but if the targeted materials are widely to be found within mixed waste then, unless the intention is to ban landfilling of all mixed waste, it would be all but impossible to enforce. The same goes for any material-specific ban on incineration, although there is certainly a case for a tax on incineration.

The 39% of England’s residual waste that is incinerated is already ‘not landfilled’, and a landfill ban would provide no incentive to boost recycling in authorities already substantially reliant on forms of residual waste treatment other than landfill. The continuing trend towards energy from waste incineration suggests a rather limited likelihood of benefits flowing from landfill bans.

If the intention is to increase recycling or reuse, the government would do better to consider the measures available such as:

  • charging households for waste (to incentivise prevention and recycling);
  • fostering reuse networks, and embedding reuse targets in producer responsibility schemes;
  • implementing producer responsibility schemes with high recycling targets;
  • deposit refund schemes for beverage packaging, and potentially for (small) WEEE items; and
  • requirements to sort materials such as food wastes.


It might also be worth considering setting standards for reprocessors of some materials to ensure that such processes do not destroy components of high potential value which could be recycled.

Such measures will not happen without government action. Defra’s withdrawal from waste is badly timed, and puts achieving our recycling targets and a more circular economy in jeopardy. I hope that the EFRA committee reaches the same view.


Dominic Hogg


Dom 220




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Roy Hathaway
Roy Hathaway

Really enjoyed your blog Dominic, but a couple of questions. First, if an easier way to the 50% recycling target for the UK is to count municipal waste, not just household waste, does Defra have the stats to be able to measure this? Second, what is the weak transposition of WFD you refer to? The 2012 regs copy the WFD almost word for word. Final comment – if efw overcapacity will only occur when England, Wales and Scotland get to 70% recycling for household and C&I waste, then overcapacity is some way off! In the meantime the UK is exporting… Read more »

Peter Jones

Roy, it’s great to have your challenging and constructive comments. I’d like to pick up on the point about the transposition of the WFD. It’s true that so far as it goes, it is almost word for word – but there are a few key words missing, which I feel tends to make the UK law less clear and helpful, and means we end up having to rely on the Directive to interpret what it means. For example: – in the transposition of Art 4 into Reg 12, while the qualification about departure from the hierarchy is included, the injunction… Read more »

Roy Hathaway
Roy Hathaway

Thanks Peter for these comments. I certainly agree that the Regulations do not “gold plate” the Directive – UK government policy is against gold plating. But I don’t think sand-blasting is the right term either. Schedule 1 is an integral part of the Regs and shouldn’t be discounted. After all, the 50% target is in Schedule 1. Schedule 1 has some of the bits of the Directive you say are missing, notably measures to promote high quality recycling (Part 2 paragraph 8), as well as the duty on “the appropriate authority” ie Welsh or English Ministers to encourage options that… Read more »

Peter Jones

Dear Roy, Again, many thanks for your comments. Depending on where you draw the “implementation” line, I suspect we might be in close agreement. Perhaps you’re thinking of the Waste Management Plan for England. This certainly addresses all of the points raised in Schedule 1 (which I agree mustn’t be overlooked, but which has no direct application to waste collectors). However, personally speaking I was disappointed that so much of it described current policies (often of limited relevance – a good share of the section on High Quality Recycling is about supporting weekly collections (including of residual waste) and the… Read more »