Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A hidden cost of EU membership

In a gushing piece in the Independent yesterday, we learn that "Green guilt" is set to transform Britain's throwaway society. Britain, according to this august newspaper, is "rubbish" when it comes to recycling, "but now a £10m campaign aims to change the country's attitudes towards waste".

This is the Independent’s report on "a revolution in the making" brought about, we are told because "the throwaway society" has run out of holes in the ground to bury its waste. We need "a great new national habit", to which effect the government has launched the biggest campaign yet to promote recycling in Britain, spending ten million pounds on a series of national television advertisements and local council publicity.

All good Greenie stuff it seems – like motherhood and apple pie, who can possibly be against recycling, and it's so last century burying stuff in the ground. In any case, all those nice well-ordered and regimented foreigners from northern Europe, such as the Dutch and Germans, have been doing it for years, so we too should get in the act.

But, unlike the BBC, which carried the same report, the Independent does recognise that this bit of Greenery is driven by EU law – to whit the Landfill Directive.

Much of the extensive clean-up of Britain's environment in the past 15 years has been driven by Brussels legislation and the EU landfill directive is yet another example: it will put a legally binding halt to Britain's long love of dumping. It requires that, by 2010, rubbish disposed of in dumps be reduced to 75 per cent of the 1995 level, and by 2020, to 35 per cent.
And to achieve these huge reductions, there are only two “realistic” options: a vast rise in incineration or a massive increase in recycling. And, as has already been noted in this Blog, huge refuse incinerators are hardly popular, so the government has opted for recycling.

But what does not seem to have penetrated the collective brain of the Independent, or Greenies generally, is that producer-driven recycling schemes do not work.

There is a limited market for recovered materials and, if that market is swamped by excessive amounts of material, it simply drives the price down, making recycling prohibitively expensive. If there is gross over-supply, the market collapses entirely. You end up having to store mountains of expensive salvage – as happened in Germany – or dumping the material in landfill, which is already happening.

The intelligent way to promote recycling, on the other hand, is to use fiscal measure – tax breaks and the rest – creating a market first, so that collecting and processing the material is profitable. Then, the system driver itself without the need for expensive municipal schemes and exqually expensive promotion.

The ultimate irony, however, is that – despite the propaganda – we are not actually short of "holes in the ground". In fact, it is one of those myths that you need a hole in the ground to landfill. A controlled tip can just as easily be situated on flat ground, with the waste “contoured” to create landscape features. "Controlled tipping" is a perfectly adequate means of disposal. And, until the EU banned that as well, there was always the option of controlled dumping at sea, where waste could be used for land reclamation and for strengthening sea defences.

We have a situation, therefore, where the EU has actually prohibited a perfectly acceptable form of waste disposal and at the same time has introduced an unworkable producer-driven recycling regime, for which the UK must pay through the nose in a forlorn attempt to make it work.

The £10 million which the government is thus paying for its promotion campaign is thus a down payment in what will become an increasingly costly burden, as the government struggles to meet arbitrary targets dictated by an unworkable system. That £10 million, therefore, and the billions more that we are going to have spend, represents not an investment in improving the environment. Simply, it is a hidden cost of EU membership.

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