BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.11.02

Film: FILM ON WASTE. Terry Dignan looks at what the Government could do to reduce the mountains of rubbish we produce?

TERRY DIGNAN: Our green and pleasant land is where we dump our rubbish. Environmentally unsound, yes, but it's cheap. Here on the Isle of Wight as elsewhere space for landfill is running out. Just as well because it produces methane - a powerful greenhouse gas. Now Europe warns the UK - change your ways or be fined. We put thirty million tonnes of rubbish annually into our dustbins and we bury most of it in landfill sites like this one. The rate at which we are producing rubbish is growing all the time and we must find more environmentally-sensitive ways of dealing with the problem. But that would require tough action by a brave government. MICHAEL MEACHER MP This is an extremely important issue for this country. We cannot go on increasing the level of waste by three or four per cent a year because it will double within a period of twenty years or so. That is simply not sustainable, we've got to change direction. DIGNAN; Compared to other EU countries the United Kingdom sends a vast amount of household rubbish to landfill - seventy-eight per cent. In France the figure is forty-nine per cent and in Holland just twelve per cent is dumped in the ground. Our Government is pledged to drastically cut the amount of waste going to landfill. Barbara Foster is an elected councillor on the Isle of Wight where nearly a third of waste goes to recycling or composting. She separates food and garden waste as well as paper and glass. The EU Landfill Directive requires a cut in the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill by nearly half in the next ten years and by two thirds within twenty. Biodegradables include everything from cotton and cardboard to woollen socks and baked beans. They'll have to be treated differently - at considerable extra cost. PETER JONES Waste will either be processed biologically, for soil manufacture and compost, where it could be converted, not by necessarily direct combustion, but it could be converted to energy, or obviously in the case of recycling, where it has to be recovered and reused in its original form, particularly in the case of glass packaging and plastics and so forth. DIGNAN; But our record in recycling municipal waste is poor compared to other EU countries. In Holland forty-seven per cent is recycled but in England and Wales only eleven per cent. Scotland recycles just four per cent. The Government's target is thirty-three per cent by 2015. The Government's think tank, The Strategy Unit, has been asked by ministers to come up with ideas for achieving this figure. Every year in this country we use more than six billion glass containers and most of them are not recycled. Indeed some local authorities manage to recycle just one per cent of all the rubbish they collect. The problem is that burying and burning waste is cheaper than recycling and we are still waiting for the Government's answer to this dilemma. MEACHER: We can look at deposit and return systems for glass or other kinds of containers. We are looking at that at the present time. And of course, one can always give fiscal incentives for recyclers, that's a matter for the Chancellor, but of course those are options if we need to improve that recycling rate. DIGNAN We could get nearly all our glass from recycled bottles, so the Chancellor, Gordon Brown is being told, make recycling more competitive by massively increasing the tax on dumping rubbish in the ground. Currently councils pay thirteen pounds a tonne in landfill tax. KAY TWITCHEN: I think until we do have a higher landfill tax, we are always going to be too land fill dependent, as a cheap option. So the effect of a landfill tax and increase would be to equalise the costs of landfill with the costs of other processes, like recycling, which is very expensive to do. And you then have a more level playing field. JONES: Our view was that it came in at seven pounds, when it should have started at fifteen, and today, we're advocating that nothing much will happen in this area until land fill taxes in the UK match those in Europe, and I'm talking there about thirty five, forty, forty-five pounds per tonne, compared to thirteen pounds per tonne at the moment. DIGNAN; Local authorities hand over hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the Treasury for using landfill sites to dump the rubbish they collect. Increasing this tax will hit them hard. They'd like the money back to pay for a huge increase in recycling. TWITCHEN It's very expensive at the moment and a lot of local authorities are not doing it, simply because it is expensive. Now if they've then got to pay extra landfill tax, as well as being expected to provide all the gear that will make recycling work, I don't think we've got a hope of meeting the terms of the directive. DIGNAN; One answer is to burn more of our rubbish as many other European countries do. While England and Wales burn just eight per cent or municipal waste, in Holland thirty-four per cent goes to incinerators, in Denmark fifty-five per cent, but many here want to tax incineration. JACOBS: If you build a massive incinerator, it needs massive amounts of waste, and then there is an incentive for the local authority which runs the incinerator to encourage more waste. ACTUALITY. "Britain's not for burning. Britain's not for burning." DIGNAN: Outside DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, protestors demonstrate against incinerators. They believe ministers want many more of them - because burning is cheaper than recycling. Despite much stricter controls over emissions of harmful dioxins, few want an incinerator in their area. SUE DOUGHTY MP: Incineration is a vote loser across all parties. Now no MP will be able to stand up with confidence and say I support incineration, and expect to retain the seat. I think it's as strong as that. MEACHER: There will be some increase in incinerators. Some people say the government has a figure in its back pocket as to what it intends. That is complete rubbish, if I could use that word. It's totally untrue. DIGNAN; Most of us say we want to save our environment but it doesn't stop us from filling our bin bags with more and more of this rubbish. Perhaps the time has come to make us pay for all this. The government is considering a dustbin tax and even a tax on the plastic bags we use for our shopping, the only thing is - these taxes may not be terribly popular. As we grow richer, so we waste more. Perhaps coercion is the only solution. The Government's Strategy Unit has been to Ireland where taxing plastic bags has had dramatic effects. It's also looking favourably at allowing councils to charge householders for rubbish collections. Environment ministers like this idea too. MEACHER; They are already paying for it through their council tax. The problem with that is we're all paying the same amount. So, if you generate a very little level of waste, say twenty pounds, or some - twenty pounds worth in weight or something like that, someone else generates two hundred pounds worth in weight, both pay the same amount, even though it costs ten times more to dispose of one compared to the other. The rationale for the proposal which we're certainly looking at, is that people should pay in some way related to the waste that they generate. DIGNAN; At the Island Waste Depot on the Isle of Wight another load of rubbish arrives to be separated for recycling. It's argued a dustbin tax might be more acceptable to voters if, in return for putting aside much more of our rubbish for recycling, we were exempted from paying the charge. TWITCHEN; If people only have to pay for the stuff they throw away, if they have the option to put their bottles and bags and glass and stuff out for recycling, and they just have to pay a reasonable charge for the residual waste, I think most people would go along with that. DIGNAN; On the Isle of Wight they try to extract anything that can be recycled even after the bin bags have been collected. The suggestion we should be taxed for the rubbish we produce might be put out for consultation when Mr Brown makes his pre budget statement. But some of those who support taxes on waste say charging householders may fail. JACOBS: It would seem to me that to have a system in which householders are charged per bag would require very strong elements of civic responsibility, so that the vast majority of people simply felt they were willing to pay the charge and they wouldn't fly tip. I'm not sure whether we've got that. DIGNAN; Separated waste is transported to its next stop in the recycling process. We may have to spend three billion pounds on plants like this to rely less on landfill. Wouldn't it be better for manufacturers to stop producing waste in the first place? Shouldn't they have to pay extra taxes? JACOBS: We need to be moving further up the production stream, so that we're saying to firms, why are you producing this waste in the first place. Why have you got so much packaging on these products, and if firms can do that, then you'll find that consumers don't have the waste and you've reduced the problem at source. DIGNAN; Even if the Strategy Unit recommends using taxation to cut down on all this waste, there's a political risk as the fuel tax protests showed two years ago, yet some ministers believe tackling the ever-growing problem of waste requires bold action. MEACHER: We need to incentivise people, it's much better to give people incentives than to penalise them, but we do have to say that in the last resort, you cannot continue to do this. DIGNAN; On the Isle of Wight the garden clippings are prepared for composting. This is the future of waste management - or so it could be. First the Government must decide whether to take some tough decisions because digging holes in the ground to dispose of our rubbish is no longer an option.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.