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Why it’s too valuable to waste

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“It’s absolutely crazy to be dumping things that are valuable into a hole in the ground,” environment secretary Hilary Benn told the Environment Agency’s annual conference.

He was speaking about the government’s plans to introduce a landfill ban on materials such as paper, food, glass, aluminium or wood. The aim of the ban would be to reduce landfill waste and make sure materials are pre-treated and sorted into either recyclables or combustible waste that can be incinerated.

According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Waste Strategy, landfill should be the option of last resort and Defra is due to publish research on how a landfill ban could work.

But could a landfill ban really work? And what has been the experience of other countries with such bans?

In practice

Explaining what a landfill ban would mean in practice, Mr Benn said: “I am not proposing that someone stands at the gates of the landfill site and delves through every bag. Basically, it’s about the nation saying to itself ‘we are not going to do this because it doesn’t make sense’.

“We have got to take a practical approach. We know that for the list of materials I have highlighted [paper, glass, aluminium, steel, wood, plastic and food] we can divert them from landfill. We have to work out at a practical level how it is going to operate.

“We have got a powerful incentive in the form of the landfill tax, and that has been a smart bit of regulation. We could have said: ‘right, every council must have a blue bin, a green bin, everyone must collect food on a Monday and plastic on a Tuesday’. I do not think that would have made sense because every local authority is different.”

Sweden’s incineration rate increased when it introduced a landfill ban, from 28% in 2001 to 37% in 2007

Liz Gyekye, senior reporter, Materials Recycling Weekly

But representatives from the waste and recycling sector have raised practical questions about where banned materials would be diverted to, and how such bans would be enforced.

Gev Edjuliee, external affairs director for waste management firm Sita, says: “If you are going to ban food waste from landfill, for example, then you will have to collect it separately to reprocess it. The next challenge is to actually get the facilities to treat this stuff, such as composters and anaerobic digesters. But planning is still slow.

“And how will you police the ban? Are you going to be looking for apple peels and banana skins in residual bins? You may have to accept an element of leakage into the residual bin system.

“Introducing a food waste ban in London will be interesting because it already has challenges with traditional recycling and source separation.”

Incinerators

There is also concern among experts that implementing a landfill ban for some materials will drive them to incinerators. These concerns were backed up by a Green Alliance report, which assessed how landfill bans had been implemented in other countries, including Austria, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Belgian region of Flanders and the US state of Massachusetts.

The report found that most had achieved high recycling rates through landfill bans. All had implemented such bans by separately collecting waste materials that were considered highly recoverable. Most had introduced bans alongside supporting measures such as landfill taxes, incineration bans, pay-as-you-throw schemes and levies.

Since 2007 it has been more expensive to landfill than to incinerate combustible wastes in Flanders.

Liz Gyekye, senior reporter, Materials Recycling Weekly

However, the report also found that, in a number of cases, incineration increased after a ban. It said the UK government should “discourage the incineration of recyclable or compostable materials to ensure they are treated as high up the waste hierarchy as possible”.

For instance, in Austria, 6% of waste was incinerated before the introduction of a landfill ban in 1999. By 2006, 24% of waste was incinerated. Sweden’s incineration rate also increased when it introduced a landfill ban, from 28% in 2001 to 37% in 2007.

Conversely, regions that introduced an incineration ban alongside a landfill ban, such as Massachusetts and Flanders, did not experience increases in incineration.

Success

Jan Verheyen, a spokesman for OVAM, the public waste agency for Flanders, says the landfill ban has proved successful, with 72% of household waste being reused, recycled or composted and 25% going to incineration. Each material stream has a separate container and only 1% of waste is now landfilled. Mr Verheyen believes such a ban could work in the UK but success will not come overnight.

“There is no use implementing a landfill ban on its own. It needs to be used in conjunction with an incineration ban. In addition, it is very important that such instruments be supported by a system of levies,” he says.

Since 2007 it has been more expensive to landfill than to incinerate combustible wastes in Flanders. Only landfilling residual waste attracts a lower level of tax.

Mr Verheyen says that Flanders is now concentrating on reducing the amount of industrial waste it sends to landfill “while making sure we do not create too much incineration capacity”.

“This could jeopardise our recycling and composting policies,” he says.

“Our priority is now how to decrease the use of raw materials in the economy.”

Liz Gyekye, senior reporter, Materials Recycling Weekly

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