Saturday, July 17, 2004


It really was the most extraordinary chutzpah on the part of environment secretary Mrs Margaret Beckett last week to warn that voting "no" in the EU referendum would put the UK’s and the EU’s environmental achievements at risk.

This, after all, was the week when chickens came home to roost, not in flocks but in multi-tiered battery houses, as the consequences of the EU’s landfill directive – a central part of its environmental strategy – began to come clear

Yet, in a keynote speech at the Royal Geographical Society in London to the Green Alliance's Environment Forum in Kensington, Mrs Beckett said that the constitution enshrined the environment and sustainable development at the heart of the Union, which was something "I would have thought all who have concerns for the environment would welcome."

"European action", she claimed, had been "instrumental in securing improvements to the quality of life both in the UK and elsewhere". Then she complained that the "British press" very rarely found the space "to highlight the successes of European co-operation". "We", she said, needed "to do more to highlight these benefits".

In fact, this is the week when the press have been highlighting the "benefits" of the EU’s environmental policy, not least Charles Clover in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph story about the impending disaster on the disposal of hazardous waste. And Clover is back on the case today with a development of that story entitled, "Car wrecks will litter streets in waste fiasco".

"A waste crisis", he writes, "that could dwarf the fridge mountain of two years ago" is now looming. As a result of the landfill directive, the scrap metal industry has now said it will no longer accept the 45,000 cars and tens of thousands of domestic appliances it deals with each week.

Valerie Elliott, of The Times, picks up the story, explaining that a problem has emerged because the residues which remain after the recoverable parts of cars have been recycled have traditionally gone into landfill.

Although this waste is classified as non-hazardous under the EU’s End of Life Vehicle directive, under the new hazardous waste regulations, the producer to prove that the waste is not hazardous and the Environment Agency is demands that each plant tests the waste and proves it is not hazardous.

However, the current test available is considered so sensitive that every load is likely to be rejected and, to add insult to injury, even if the industry treats the material as hazardous waste, plant operators refuse to accept it because co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous materials is not allowed under the new rules. They fear that if the material is declared non-hazardous after all they will be liable to fines and clean-up costs of the site.

On the other hand, if the material is categorised as toxic, there is now chronic under-capacity at toxic waste landfill, which the government estimates can handle 750,000 tons. But Neil Marshall, the director general of the British Metals Recycling Association says the capacity is only 350,000 tons a year and, in fact, it may be even less. Courtesy of Valerie Elliott, it emerged last night that one of the main plants established to accept general hazardous waste at King’s Cliffe, near Peterborough, had been closed down by the Environment Agency for regulatory reasons. 

Says Neil Marshall, "You could not make it up. The whole industry is shutting down… abandoned cars will have to remain on the streets. This is going to make the fridge mountain look like Legoland."

All of this makes environment minister Elliot Morley’s comments of yesterday especially facile. He was quoted as saying that he wanted "…this country to end its 'dump and forget' culture," yet we now have a situation where a major recycling industry can no longer operate because of a law supposedly designed to encourage recycling will not allow it to dispose of its residues. 

Yet this impending disaster passes Mrs Beckett by. "Europe's environmental record is one of its most significant achievements", she burbled last Tuesday. "We now need… to strengthen this integration of environmental issues into other policy areas".

God help us all.

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