Britain's waste industry is on tenterhooks as new policy filters through the sector. The government's waste policy review, launched at the end of July, has reopened several long-running debates just as the UK faces a race against time to meet the requirements of the revised EU waste framework directive.
The directive sets tough targets to recycle 50 per cent of household waste and 70 per cent of construction and demolition waste by 2020.
For waste planners, its immediate message is that member states must apply the waste hierarchy as a "priority order" throughout waste management legislation and policy. The UK faces huge penalties if targets to reduce landfilling are missed.
A deadline is looming. The UK has until 12 December to bring in domestic legislation giving effect to the framework. In July, DEFRA launched a consultation on draft regulations to achieve this. Under its proposals, national planning policy will be updated to require local authorities to "have regard to" the hierarchy in preparing waste development frameworks.
Consultation on the policy review, intended to help Britain move towards a zero waste economy, ended last week and findings are due next spring.
Few dispute that landfill should be the last resort for waste disposal, or that preventing waste from arising in the first place is the ideal solution. But the bands in the middle - reuse, recycling and energy recovery, in descending order of preference - are less straightforward.
For example, the coalition agreement commits the government to a "huge" increase in anaerobic digestion. But this emphasis could clash with the waste hierarchy by giving higher priority to anaerobic digestion, which counts as recovery, than to composting, which is classified as recycling.
"I don't know how waste planning authorities would resolve that discrepancy. The legal issue is whether the government can take a policy decision that goes against the directive," says Angus Evers, head of environment at SJ Berwin.
Hazardous waste, which forms around two per cent of waste arisings, poses particular challenges. DEFRA's hazardous waste management strategy for England, published in March, highlights the need for additional capacity to handle waste oil, incinerator residues, contaminated soil, electrical and electronic equipment and batteries.
"It's a problem for anyone producing hazardous waste to get rid of it without carting it across the country, which is contrary to the proximity principle," says Addleshaw Goddard environment director Victoria Joy. "We have a limited number of landfills able to take such material and precious few 'merchant' sites. Licensed facilities mostly treat waste arising from a particular site and don't accept it from elsewhere."
The strategy aims to encourage concerted investment in new facilities over the next five to ten years. "The planning system is pivotal to the adequate and timely provision of facilities for hazardous waste recovery and disposal close to where it arises," it acknowledges.
"Planning, development and implementation take time. Investment funding needs to be secured, sites identified, plans drawn up and the necessary permissions obtained."
The strategy also assumes that the promised national policy statement (NPS) on hazardous waste will speed up provision. Under the Planning Act 2008, landfills or deep storage with a capacity of more than 100,000 tonnes per annum and other facilities with a throughput of 30,000 tonnes are designated as nationally strategic infrastructure projects eligible for consideration by the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Under the previous government's timetable, the draft NPS was due this summer with final designation next year. With further consultation planned on the draft energy NPSs timescale, that is now uncertain. Although ministers have yet to admit it, Evers believes the energy rewrites will have a knock-on effect on other NPSs.
In any case, given the government's obsession with localism, the statement is unlikely to prescribe particular locations. "This makes it rather difficult to have a coherent national strategy," Evers warns. "If it is left up to local authorities and local communities to decide, that is not particularly helpful.
The NPS would have to set out in very clear terms the government's interpretation of the waste hierarchy for consideration in deciding whether a facility should go ahead."
The position certainly worries waste firms. "The repeated delay on the NPS has resulted in significant uncertainty for a number of operators wishing to invest in the sector. The waste industry needs to be able to engage with the major infrastructure regime as soon as possible to deliver investment in new hazardous waste infrastructure," says an Environmental Services Association spokesman.
The need for additional waste facilities is acute. Investor interest is growing, but the lack of certainty on the planning side is a worry for developers. Only a handful of waste development plans have been adopted. In the age of localism, it would be ironic if PPS10 remains the determining factor in deciding applications and appeals.
- More than 6.6 million tonnes of hazardous waste were sent for disposal and recovery in England and Wales in 2008.
- The amount sent to landfill increased by 26 per cent to more than a million tonnes, mainly due to contaminated soil disposal from the Olympics site.
- England and Wales have 24 landfills devoted to hazardous waste with a void capacity estimated at 19 million cubic metres.
- London and the South East were the largest exporters of hazardous waste in 2008, with the East Midlands and North East the largest importers.