Defra Has Stepped Back

England: Government guidance in the waste sector is needed, demands House of Commons Committee. (Photo: pan /

“We are concerned about the limited availability of waste treatment capacity in England“, says the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee at the House of Commons. In the Committee`s opinion, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has “stepped back in areas where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure”. In their latest report on „Waste management in England“, the Committee balances and critizises the English waste management policy.


Landfill tax was introduced in 1996 and qualitative research shows that it has been a key influencing factor on the waste management industry and a driver for the fall in demand for landfill and a rise in demand for alternatives. About 130 landfill sites have closed since 2008 and the development of alternative waste treatment facilities, such as energy-from-waste plants, also diverts waste from landfill.

Local councils in England have reduced the amount of material landfilled by 71 per cent per household between 2002/03 and 2012/13. But about 8.5 million tonnes (or 34 per cent) of local authority managed waste still went to landfill in 2012/13. The UK met its 2010 and 2013 landfill diversion targets and Defra is confident that the UK is on track to meet the 2020 target.

Household recycling rate

The EU Waste Framework Directive states that the United Kingdom must recycle at least 50 per cent of its household waste by 2020. England achieved a recycling rate of 43.2 per cent in 2012/13 and has improved its recycling rate by more than three times since 2000. However, in recent years, the rate of increase has started to slow and Defra statistics show that the rate of increase in the last year is insufficient to meet the 50 per cent EU target by 2020. To put England’s recycling rate in context: Wales achieved a recycling rate of 52 per cent in 2012/13, Scotland 41.2 per cent in 2012 and Northern Ireland 38.7 per cent in 2012/13. This is why Wales implemented an ambitious set of targets through its Towards Zero Waste Strategy in 2010.

Food waste

Currently, about 45 per cent of households have access to a food waste collection with around half of those being food waste only and half being mixed with garden waste, but only ten per cent of food waste is collected. There is evidence against separate collections of food waste due to the high cost of implementation and low participation rates by householders leading to low volumes being collected.

In practice, local authorities can struggle with the costs created by separate food collections: As an example, Tamworth and Lichfield local councils recently stopped separate food waste collection services in order to save a total of £400,000 per year.

Communication campaigns

WRAP carried out the “Recycle Now” communication campaign at a national level to encourage recycling. Despite the success of this high-profile campaign, Defra has cut the funding for WRAP from £53.5 million in 2010/11 to £17.9 million in 2014/15. An even greater proportional the funding reduction has occurred for Keep Britain Tidy: from £4.8 million in 2010/11 to £0.5 million in 2014/15.

Locally targeted communications

First, confusion is common because there is not a standardised approach to recycling across England. There are up to 400 different collection and recycling schemes in England which means that each time an individual moves areas, either permanently or temporarily, he needs to learn and adapt to a new system. The 400 different schemes ought to be able to consolidate down to five or six models of recycling schemes.

Secondly, there seems to be a lack of public confidence in the end destination of the rubbish put in recycling bins. A YouGov survey found that 73 per cent of UK adults sampled said they did not know where materials go (in terms of plants or geography), and 32 per cent said they would be much more likely or more likely to recycle if more information was available.

Thirdly, the raw material sent to be recycled can be rejected from recycling plants if it is contaminated. Data for England show that 226,770 tonnes of contaminated recyclate was rejected out of a total 10,457,329 tonnes of recyclate collected in 2012/13. This is 59,973 tonnes more contaminated recyclate rejected than in 2008/09.

Recycling targets

The EU Commission is proposing new targets on waste recycling, including 70 per cent for municipal waste by 2030. Both Wales and Scotland already have national recycling targets of 70 per cent by 2025, but England does not. Increased recycling targets would be challenging and require some serious Government intervention in order to meet them. Steve Lee, CEO of  CIWM, summarised his views as follows: „I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing special about the United Kingdom or England that means that we could not hit exactly the same sorts of recycling targets as other European member states.“

Waste exports

There has been a marked increase in exports of RDF from England to Europe since 2010, when there was virtually nil. In 2013, England and Wales exported a total volume of 1,157,895 tonnes of RDF, primarily to the Netherlands (69.6 %) and Germany (12 %). This relatively new practice seems to have sprung up in reaction to a lack of available energy-from-waste infrastructure in England.

Anaerobic Digestion and Heat recovery

There are currently 145 operational AD plants in the UK with an installed electrical capacity over 150 MW. Of these 145 plants, 44 per cent treat agricultural waste such as farm manures and slurries, 38 per cent treat food waste from municipal and commercial sources, while the remaining 18 per cent process industrial waste such as brewery effluent. The Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association notes that there is still significant potential for the AD industry to expand as only seven per cent of all waste is currently processed through AD.

Incinerators with energy recovery are typically cited to have electric efficiencies of up to approximately 27 per cent but can be much more efficient if the heat energy is used for local district heating or nearby industrial processes. Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, referred to the inclusion of heat recovery as the “secret difference between being 25 or 26 per cent efficient and 75 to 80 per cent inefficient”. However, in most instances, electricity alone is recovered from incineration as it can be easily distributed and sold via the national grid. According to Dr. Colin Church, Director of Resource, Atmosphere and Sustainability at Defra, there are currently 42 incinerator plants in England and all those that Defra supports have the capacity to use heat; but only a very small number – “a handful” – use it.

Defra has a role to play

„We are concerned that England will not play its role in meeting the European requirement for the United Kingdom to recycle at least 50 per cent of its household waste by 2020 without significant Government intervention“, the Committee sums up the report. There are several issues to be optimized by the government including responsibility for coordinating, implementing comprehensive plans, encourage learning from best practice actions, increase the funding for WRAP and Keep Britain Tidy, landfill ban for all recyclable waste by 2025, engagement with local authorities and many more.

According to the Committee, sustainable waste and resource management should play a key role in achieving one of Defra’s four key priorities to improve the environment. So „Defra has a role to play in ensuring that the right amount of the right type of infrastructure is available and must provide the waste sector with clear guidance on how much waste treatment capacity is needed in England to gain an optimal balance between export and local treatment.“ Following estimations by the Environmental Services Association, a more circular economy could help to generate 50,000 new jobs with £10 billion investment and boost the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product by £3 billion.

The full report can be downloaded from

Source: House of Commons – Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee