At the start of the 1990s, the UK's recycling rates were languishing at around 5 per cent. While West Germany passed laws committing its citizens to recycling 50 per cent of its packaging waste by 1995, the UK continued to pile the plastic on to landfill sites for another decade.
The catalyst for change came in 1999, when the Labour government signed up to the EU Landfill Directive - a legal agreement to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill in European Union member states. Scotland published a waste policy the same year; Wales's strategy was ready in 2002, Northern Ireland's in 2006, and after much toing and froing, in 2007 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) finally published its plan for reducing the amount of waste England creates.
Waste Strategy for England, as it was called, targeted five stakeholder groups that needed to change their behaviour to minimise the waste the country produced, as well as claw back energy by treating the residual rubbish: government, industry, retailers, consumers and the waste industry. Each stakeholder was allocated responsibilities and market-based incentives and goals were established which, if met, would ensure that, by 2020, 50 per cent of England's waste would be reused, recycled and composted.
In 2006 the European Union established a Waste Framework Directive relating to the management of waste across the EU, and committed member states and their local authorities to reducing the amount of waste they produced. The UK government took this to mean tighter regulation of waste activity and delegated a much greater task to the Environment Agency - whose core role is to enforce environmental standards. It was now expected to take a role in setting these regulations, particularly in industry, while also monitoring targets and standards.
Paying for the green revolution was going to be an issue. A hike in the landfill tax - now at £48 per tonne of waste going to landfill, compared to £7 per tonne in 1996 - was introduced, and the universal charge to every authority, business and household that takes a tonne of waste to landfill has been the most effective fiscal measure brought in to divert waste.
The government gave local authorities the duty of delivering landfill reduction targets by increasing the municipal waste recycled or reused from 27 per cent in 2005 to 53 per cent in 2010. This involved diverting waste from landfill, helped by PFI credits to stimulate investment in waste infrastructure schemes. The councils also had to give businesses and households advice on how to minimise waste. As an incentive, the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme fined local authorities £150 per tonne of waste that was above their target figures which went to landfill.
Over the past three years, the amount of biodegradable waste that goes to landfill has reduced to beneath 2010 targets, using 78 per cent of its allocated amount. But, as long as landfill reduction remains the only way that our government passes on responsibilities and incentives to local authorities and councils, waste continues to be produced.
Could this be the year that the government finally holds industry accountable for its environmental impact? Historically, levels of waste have risen as the economy has grown, and the fear has been that, if the biggest polluters were made to reduce waste, this would force the economy to contract.
Moreover, while monitoring household waste (collected by local authorities) is fairly straightforward, central government is still struggling to find an effective way to monitor commercial and industrial waste, which is collected by hundreds of private companies.
But it is waste minimisation that is really becoming a buzzword for industry at the moment, particularly given the current economic climate. The obligations of "producer responsibility", both statutory and voluntary, oblige industry to make products using more recycled materials and fewer newly extracted raw materials, and to design products that are less wasteful in their production and use. Producers should manage the cost of these changes, not simply by handing the costs of eco design over to the consumer, but by addressing their supply chain and establishing links with different stakeholders in the strategy.
It is at the bottom of the priority list for most business - the commercial benefit in producing less waste is not immediately obvious - but slowly, as businesses begin to see the cost benefits of introducing upstream waste minimisation policies, the idea is catching on.
Most of the UK's commercial waste comes from the retail sector, and in 2003 5.1 million tonnes out of the 6.1 million tonnes of waste produced by retail went to landfill. Retailers create waste in two areas - on their own property and by passing packaging on to consumers. The former is tackled economically, and retailers opt for the cheapest disposal method available. As in industry, private waste companies are employed to take the waste, then sift through it before taking it to landfill.
Retailers could avoid passing on waste to consumers if they reduced the amount of packaging. This responsibility includes cutting the number of carrier bags that consumers use, and the waste strategy gives retailers the chance to sign up to the voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which encourages them to source and market products that are less wasteful and more sustainable as well as help their consumers be less wasteful themselves.
By 2008, 94 per cent of the UK's food retail sector had signed up to the Courtauld Commitment and 61 per cent of the country's packaging waste was being recycled. On the face of it, the substantial increase from 28 per cent in 1997 meant that the scheme was working. But beneath the perceived success lies the reality of these achievements. While this was a success for recycling targets and landfill avoidance, the commitment avoids waste reduction and continues to tie the retail industry to the hungry incineration industry, leaving consumers to wonder what to do with their packaging.
In 2009 Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, reviewed packaging policy and laid out a new set of priorities for the period 2010-2015. Nonetheless, he missed the opportunity to enforce packaging reductions, and again recycling pipped reduction to become the government's first priority. As far as the waste industry is concerned, the responsibility for dealing with waste remains with consumers.
Consumers certainly have a powerful role to play in waste reduction. As the customers of consumerism and the darlings of democracy, consumers have in theory the chance to influence the behaviour of these other stakeholders. However, one symptom of being a lowly member of the stakeholder hierarchy is that environmental negligence is hidden behind a screen of covert costs and consumers are led to believe that government, industry and retailers are doing the job for them.
Defra claims that the consumer's job will be made easy if other stakeholders meet their duties to the waste strategy. The strategy states that consumers - business and individual households alike - simply need to reduce the environmental impact of their behaviour by taking a variety of simple measures. These include such habits as purchasing products and services that generate less waste and separating their waste for recycling.
As consumers are made to believe that minimisation is an upstream issue and beyond their reach, their focus is on recycling and composting. So far, it appears that consumers have done a good job of meeting the demands that borough councils make of them. By November 2009, the proportion of municipal waste disposed in landfill decreased from 54.4 per cent in 2007/2008 to 50.3 per cent in 2008/2009. These successes were a result of an increase in the amount of recycling that households and businesses were doing, which went up from 34.5 per cent in 2007/2008 to 37.6 per cent in 2008/2009.
Yet, while Defra's targets are being met, environmental NGOs argue more needs to be done, citing the rate set in Flanders in Belgium of 74 per cent municipal waste being recycled as the sort of levels for which the UK should be aiming.
However, it could be consumers who ask for more. They must assert their power and take advantage of their status as "partners" in the process of policy development. They must demand greener products and drive eco-design and they must be willing to negotiate the transparent cost of doing all this, rather than accepting the one they currently pay as part of council taxes and product prices.
Defra's strategy expects the largely privatised waste industry to work with local authorities and deliver policy demands. Local authorities have to encourage their communities to separate their rubbish and attract investment to the waste industry using PFI credits, and the waste industry has a role to deliver a reduction in the use of landfill. A lot of their success relies on the landfill tax escalator - inflating the charge by £8 each year - taking the cost of landfilling from £40 per tonne to economically inefficient levels. Until then, industry, business and households will revert to this option while the recycling will continue to be undercut.
Nevertheless, in order to meet the EU Landfill Directive, local authorities need to develop waste infrastructure. By entering into a contract with private waste companies, local authorities are given PFI credits to pay for the use of the waste industry's service. Essentially, this is a subsidy for the industry and was aimed at encouraging the development of technologies that would cope with the diversion of waste from landfill in an environmentally friendly way.
In actual fact, and unsurprisingly, local authorities spend PFI credits, as they understand it, "responsibly". Credits are used to fund long-term schemes that investors know will pay off. Experimental technologies such as composting and anaerobic digestion or recycling, which have relatively low value, rarely receive any money. As a result, funding is aimed at conventional incineration - the pro-cess of mass-burn in which municipal waste is treated and turned into heat and electrical energy.
Environmental campaigners argue that, while our governments continue to ignore the highest rungs of the waste hierarchy, the private interests of the waste industry will carry on ignoring the environment and more sustainable methods of energy recovery.