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Landfill diversion: The next chapter

17th April 2013 Posted by

 April 2013 opens a new chapter in the UK’s efforts to divert waste from landfill, with the end of the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS). The Scheme was introduced in 2005 and, in design, paralleled the market-based compliance scheme that applies to packaging waste – the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system. Schemes of this sort suited the UK’s “just enough and no more” approach to waste regulation at the time, with those obligated under the schemes incentivised to just meet the stipulated target, but not to exceed it.

 Of course, the key question is – what target? Up to the formation of the devolved administrations, UK waste policy typically matched its domestic waste-related targets to meet its obligations as set out in EU Directives – and that applied to the landfill diversion targets which LATS was designed to help meet. Any attempt to exceed Directive targets was met with protests of “gold plating”, irrespective of whether or not we could (or should) do better, as if the UK was incapable of thinking up environmental policy for itself.

It is an approach that still applies to England, but from which the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales have thankfully broken free. England’s reluctance to exceed its directive targets appears to be based on a lopsided economic analysis that regards the cost of compliance as a burden on industry. Wales and Scotland, however, have taken the view that if there are environmental gains to be had from setting higher targets, and provided these exceed the cost of compliance, then these gains should be taken now, as opposed to postponing them to a later date. For example, England is content to stick to the 50 per cent directive recycling target for paper, plastics, metals and glass in municipal waste, while Scotland and Wales have adopted a target of 70 per cent. Scotland has extended the formal directive requirement for source separation to non-domestic premises, whereas England has no plans to move in that direction, on the basis of protecting industry from increased costs.

Linking environmental improvements to economic performance is superficially attractive – but it runs the risk of downplaying the opportunity cost embedded in the environmental gains that this approach tends to sideline.

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