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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 01/08/2004)

Margaret Beckett keeps Britain's waste disposal systems on collision course
The glory that was grease
Judge to rule if sewage is fuel
Dead cars
Rubbish ruling

Margaret Beckett keeps Britain's waste disposal systems on collision course

In a recent speech to the Green Alliance, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, hailed the EU's environmental legislation as one of the triumphs of European integration, and one of the strongest arguments for voting "yes" in the referendum on the EU constitution. "The British press," she said, "very rarely find space to highlight the successes of European co-operation."

It was appropriate that Mrs Beckett should have offered this wide-eyed vision just when she and her environment minister Elliott Morley are presiding over an unprecedented crisis - created by precisely that environmental legislation she sees as one of the supreme "benefits to the UK" of EU membership. Nowhere is the resulting shambles more apparent than in all the emerging contradictions of how we are supposed to dispose of waste. An avalanche of high-minded directives have created regulatory pressures that are now in complete conflict with each other, rendering our waste management system increasingly unworkable.

On one hand, Brussels classifies ever more items as "hazardous waste" - used oil, paints, old vehicles, electrical equipment, asbestos, contaminated soil - so we now have to dispose of 5.2 million tons of these each year, a figure that has doubled in four years. On the other hand, as of two weeks ago, the number of landfill sites licensed to take hazardous waste has been reduced from 218 to fewer than 10 - so that, according to the Government's own figures, we only have the capacity to bury less than half the hazardous waste we are generating.

One entirely predictable result is an epidemic of abandoned cars, roadside heaps of paint cans and other examples of fly-tipping. The response from Mrs Beckett and Mr Morley, abetted by Tim Yeo for the Tories, is simply to threaten tougher enforcement of laws against fly-tipping. What makes our predicament even more absurd is that wherever anyone comes up with ingenious ways of putting "waste" to a useful purpose - as these stories illustrate - our ministers and officials seem to find every excuse to sabotage such efforts, making the problem still worse.

The glory that was grease

The OSS Group, run from Knowsley, near Liverpool, is easily the largest firm in Britain dedicated to collecting the 400,000 tons of "waste oil" generated each year by garages, workshops, farms and ships. A fleet of 60 tankers picks up the oil from all over the country and takes it to be processed to remove water and contaminants, then sold on to provide start-up fuel for power stations, and for quarries, which use it in making roadstone.

This multi-million-pound business faces collapse when the EC's waste incineration directive comes into force next year. The Environment Agency has ruled that the processed oil cannot be classified as a "product" but only as "waste". Therefore it cannot be put to any useful purpose, even though it is virtually indistinguishable from "virgin oil", but must be incinerated or used as fuel in cement kilns that already burn a variety of hazardous wastes and charge for the service. The directive, drafted on the advice of German and other incinerator manufacturers, prescribes burning requirements that are appropriate only for the destruction of "waste" - not for energy recovery.

As Paul Ramsden of the OSS Group says: "After the 'fridge mountain' and the 'scrap tyre pile', must we now expect Defra and the EA to provide us with a 'waste oil lake'? For decades the UK has had an exemplary record in managing its used lubricating oils. By recycling them as fuel, it has been possible to provide an environmentally benign service, at little or no cost to the producers. Now this is under threat from officials who seem preoccupied with an over-literal interpretation of the rules, regardless of the environmental consequences."

As the cost of disposing of lubricating oils soars, Mr Ramsden foresees that many of those who now have their oil collected to be put to beneficial use may see no alternative but to get rid of it by other means - thus inflicting damage on the very "environment" that the EC, Mrs Beckett and Mr Morley claim they wish to protect.

Judge to rule if sewage is fuel

At Daldowie outside Glasgow, Scottish Water has a 65 million plant turning 50,000 tons of sewage sludge each year - nearly half of Scotland's entire sewage residue - into pellets. For four years this has been feeding Scottish Power's giant 2,400-megawatt power station at Longannet in Fife with a "carbon-neutral" equivalent of 42,000 tons of coal, enough to provide electricity for 30,000 homes. Now, by a decision which is the subject of a legal action awaiting judgment in the Scottish courts, this whole process is threatened with disaster.

Last winter the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) ruled that the sewage pellets were not "fuel", but "waste". When the EC Waste Incineration Directive (WID), 2000/76 comes into law next year, Scottish Power will no longer be allowed to use the pellets to make electricity.

This has set Scottish Water a huge problem. Under other EC laws it cannot dump sewage sludge at sea or in landfills. It is becoming all but impossible to use sewage sludge as fertiliser on farm land. On Sepa's interpretation of EC law, the only practical means of disposal is to burn it at great expense in incinerators - but only so long as these serve no useful purpose, such as generating electricity. And the incinerators do not yet exist.

Scottish Power has sought judicial review of Sepa's ruling, citing cases in the European Court of Justice that seem to justify its claim that where a material can be used as fuel, it is not waste. But if judgment in September goes against it, Scottish Water will have spent its 65 million in vain and be left with an insoluble problem.

Dead cars

The Northern Echo last week reported an epidemic of abandoned cars and vans across the North-East. In Chester-le-Street, numbers have risen in the past year by 400 per cent, in Stockton by almost the same. Local papers carry similar stories across the country.

The reason we are faced with the collapse of Britain's once-efficient system for breaking up vehicles that have reached the end of their life lies in the combination of two EC directives, the End of Life Vehicle Directive (ELV), 2000/53, and the Landfill Directive, 1999/31.

The heart of the problem is that, although steel prices are near an all-time high, thanks to demand from China, a high proportion of the materials making up the average car consists not of steel, which can be recycled, but of plastic and other items, which car-breakers must now prove are not "hazardous waste" before they can be landfilled. This is so costly and complex that scrapyards are going out of business in droves.

Each year two million vehicles reach the end of their life. Last year 350,000 of these were abandoned by their last owners, because of the soaring costs and difficulties of disposal. This year that figure is predicted to more than double. Doubtless Mrs Beckett and Mr Morley will soon be telling us that this is another reason for voting "yes" to the EU constititution.

Rubbish ruling

For 16 years, John Wright, who lives near Althorp in Northamptonshire, has been making a regular two-hour tour of surrounding villages, collecting piles of litter from roadsides and taking them to a council tip. Last month, when he arrived at the site, officials told him that they could no longer accept the litter, because the rubbish was not his own, and he did not have a commercial waste licence (as required by the Waste Management Regulations 1994, implementing EC waste directive 1991/156).

"If people see fly-tipping, it's not for them to clear up. They should contact Northampton borough council to take it away," Mr Wright was told. A spokesman for the council agreed: "Anyone who wants to help should contact us so that we can set up a proper cleaning scheme."

Meanwhile Mr Wright, who hates to see the countryside around Princess Diana's old home "looking like a tip", is continuing to pick up rubbish, regardless of any offence he may be committing against EC rules. "If I just left it," he says, "I am sure it would be an absolute nightmare."