A report* published today by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) reveals that up to 2,300 new waste treatment facilities must be operational by 2020 to avoid a major crisis involving millions of tonnes of untreated waste. The introduction of these facilities, which could total up to£30bn, create thousands of jobs, and take five years to come on-line, are being stalled by a combination of public animosity, government prevarication and industry nervousness.
The number of facilities, featured in ICE's 'State of the Nation 2004' report, comes from recent industry projections concerning the quantity, costs, and types of plants desperately needed to supplement the current landfill system. Though historically preferred and previously the cheapest option, the strategy of cramming tonnes of rubbish into hundreds of large landfill sites is no longer environmentally sensible. The welcome EU landfill regulations are geared to reducing the amount of waste landfilled by imposing increasingly high taxes on excessive volumes. This method of waste disposal will, therefore, very soon cease to be economically viable.
Mr Mattravers explains: 'Britain, as is so often the case across all sectors, is miles behind continental Europe in waste management industry advancements. The need to move away from just stuffing our waste into the ground means that in six years time we will need to be where countries like Denmark and the Netherlands were a decade ago. The use of facilities such as recycling and incineration can turn our nation's problematic waste into a valuable resource. The technology is here and ready but progress is being blocked by lack of government leadership, industry uncertainty and an ill-informed public.'
As up to ten alternative facilities, such as composting, recycling and incineration, could be required to replace each landfill site, there is soon to be a devastating shortfall in disposal capability, which could total tens of millions of tonnes each year. The waste management industry is extremely concerned that although the government is well aware of the looming disaster, it is not doing enough to encourage investment in new plants that will create sustainable solutions and new employment opportunities.
Mr Mattravers continues: 'By just looking at the 30 million tonnes of municipal waste we leave outside our houses, most of which the UK currently sends to landfill, we can glimpse the magnitude of the problem. At our current level of waste production, meeting the first EU landfill target by 2010 could leave us with over 3 millions tonnes of waste a year that we cannot send to landfill sites. Meeting the second deadline, just three years later in 2013, could result in around 7.5 million tonnes left over per year and this figure could then grow to over 10 million tonnes by the final deadline of 2020. All these millions of tonnes of rubbish will need to be diverted to other treatment facilities that currently don't exist.'
ICE claim that one major problem is the almost total lack of useful government statistics available to fully assess the level of the problem. A clear overview at a national level is vital to formulating an overall plan for the national rollout of the essential facilities. The current planning process, highly praised by the government, is failing as local authorities continually fail to identify sites and duck planning decisions.
Peter Jones, director of development and external relations at Biffa, says: 'To meet the UK's needs the waste management industry is fast progressing from a low-tech fairly inexpensive industry to high-tech big business and the government must appreciate this and take the problems it faces seriously. Just recently the government claimed its planning system was performing well with a high percentage of planning applications being granted, yet in practice the industry knows that long delays are common and the risks are high.
'The government's percentages don't take into account the types of approvals being granted, most of which are only for non-contentious site extensions or small scale recycling facilities. New research indicates that in some areas of the UK, 72 per cent of local authorities don't even have any potential waste treatment sites identified at all.'
Mr Mattravers continues: 'If we are to steer clear of an industry melt down, the government must rationalise its plethora of waste initiatives, 72 at the last count, and focus on what matters - creating a climate where the private sector will invest in new facilities. This will require improvements to the planning system, clear and timely introduction of promised regulations and a PFI model that does not place unmanageable risks on the private sector. This problem can no longer be swept under our country.'
In grading all aspects of the UK's infrastructure, the State of the Nation report exposes little or no improvement in all areas and gives a dismal overall grading of D+. The report calls for a number of actions to remedy the situation, in particular it re-iterates its call for the appointment of an independent chief engineering adviser to ensure a co-ordinated, long-term, sustainable approach to infrastructure planning, rather than decision-making being dominated by political short-termism. ICE believes that the position should be similar in remit to the government's chief medical officer or chief scientific adviser.
The State of the Nation Report is compiled each year by a panel of ICE experts to stimulate debate and highlight the actions they believe are needed to improve the nation's infrastructure. It covers the areas of transport, energy, water and flooding, waste, urban regeneration and design and overall sustainability. The full report is available via the ICE website, www.ice.org.uk, or hard copy is available on request from the contact details below.
The Institution of Civil Engineers is one of the pre-eminent engineering institutions in the world. Established as a learned society in 1818, it has over 70,000 members and provides a voice for civil engineering, continuing professional development and promoting best practice throughout the industry. Further details from www.ice.org.uk
* The ICE's State of the Nation report is available here.
* Statement from environment minister STEADY PROGRESS BUT A JOB FOR ALL TO DO ON WASTE