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25 January 2010updated 24 Sep 2015 10:46am

Carrots, not sticks

The head of the Environment Agency favours tough action against polluters – but won’t support puniti

By Samira Shackle

The Environment Agency (EA) does not set its sights low, stating that its role is “to protect or enhance the environment, taken as a whole”. And waste – admittedly, not glamorous – is a fundamental part of that whole. Waste Strategy for England, published in 2007, placed rubbish – where it comes from, and what we do with it – firmly on the agenda.

I asked Chris Smith, chairman of the EA, how effective he thinks the battle against waste has been so far.

“Broadly, we’re making progress, but there’s still quite a way to go,” he says. “The trend is absolutely in the right direction. If you look at consumers, household waste has dropped by 26 per cent since 2000, and we’ve reached reduction targets two years early.”

But while the increase in household recycling shows an important shift among individuals, other stakeholders named in the 2007 strategy still pose a problem. What about industry – is it getting away with being wasteful? Smith, a former MP for Islington, now a member of the Lords, is diplomatic. “It varies by sector, but some are way ahead of the game on this, supermarket retailers are looking very seriously at what happens to their waste. But they still need to do some thinking about the amount of packaging that they use for their products in the first place.”

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He describes a programme at Sainsbury’s that will be in place by the end of the year, whereby all the food that is left over and past its sell-by date is disposed of through anaerobic digestion, which bio­degrades the food and produces energy in the process. Other retailers have similar plans afoot.

So, most progress has been in the area of waste disposal – innovative ways of recycling or reusing. But what we really need is a seismic shift in industry to reduce the volume of rubbish produced in the first place. How can this be encouraged?

Smith draws attention to the Waste Protocols Project, in conjunction with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), which aims to explore whether materials stigmatised as “waste” can be turned into something useful – turning waste cooking oil into biodiesel, for example – which will eventually make it easier for industries to recycle.

Under the “polluter pays principle”, though, the cost of waste disposal and reduction should become the responsibility of the company that creates it. If effectively implemented, it would mean that this cost would be incorporated from the very beginning of the production process, thus giving companies the incentive to make products that involve fewer wasteful by-products. How far has this principle been put into effect in the UK?

“It’s a fundamentally correct principle. So far, it has had its greatest effect in the landfill tax, which raises money but also has an impact on behaviour,” he explains. “It is currently £40 a tonne, and will rise by another £8 a tonne up to 2013. I’m very pleased that both the Conservatives and the present government have committed to continuing that progressive increase. It’s had a major impact in reducing the amount of landfill waste.”

But is this enough, or do we need to speed up the move towards other solutions? “Well, let’s not run away with the idea that we’ve filled the entire country up. We still have capacity,” he says. “It’s much more important to start with reducing waste in the first place. And energy recovery, by means such as anaerobic digestion, is fast coming up as a real alternative to landfill or incineration. It could eventually provide heat and power for whole local areas.”

If punitive taxes on businesses dumping landfill have been effective, what about a per-household waste tax? The idea was considered, but rejected, by the government in 2007. Smith agrees with that decision. “I prefer carrots to sticks – incentivising right behaviour rather than taxing wrong.”

He draws attention to voucher schemes in some local authorities, which have the potential to be extended. With industry, however, it seems that more often than not, taxing wrong behaviour is a necessity. As it becomes more expensive to dump landfill in the UK, there is the problem of illegal waste exports, which can have a pernicious impact on the developing world. “We’ve been really tightening up what we do on that,” says Smith. “In the first six months of last year we carried out 166 unannounced inspections and placed stop notices on 53 shipments. We’re making it much tougher for people who think all they need to do is hide their waste and send it to Nigeria.”

Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go. Moves such as this send the right message to unscrupulous businesses. But until industry – the biggest producer of rubbish – really takes responsibility, the efforts of consumers and local authorities could end up a bit of a waste.

Samira Shackle is at Newstatesman.com