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A common theme

European Union member countries are approaching decision time over how to follow up the European Commissions Thematic Strategy designed to lead to a comprehensive and consistent policy on waste prevention and recycling in the EU. By now all those concerned have had their say and the Irish EU presidency is working for a formal go-ahead at the environment council at the end of this month.

Quite a lot hangs on a positive decision in the next few weeks as the European parliamentary elections take place and a lame-duck commission will be largely time-serving until the year-end. In short, without approval before the summer break, the betting will be that any serious action could be postponed until 2005.

In its proposals in May 2003, the commission recognised that the average EU citizen produces some 550kg of waste each year, far in excess of the 330kg target of the EUs fifth Environment Action Programme. Brussels launched a broad consultation of the member countries, other EU institutions and major stakeholders on future policy options for waste minimisation and recycling, leading to new measures and targets to be agreed in 2004.

The new strategy would include fixed quantitative targets for waste prevention, including the possible use of national waste prevention plans, the use of low-waste production techniques by industry and the broadening of best practice in individual member states to application at an EU level. Market forces would also be used, including possible recycling targets for materials to bring the costs of recycling in line with other forms of waste treatment and to promote new technology in the recycling industry.

Nearly 150 separate comments on the strategy were received by the commission and a further series of stakeholder/expert meetings were arranged earlier this year. The nature and number of these meetings reflect the fact that waste policy is one of the oldest areas of environmental policy, with 12 directives in place and a well established policy framework, the commission says. It followed from this that the Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste would differ from other environmental initiatives in that it was a review of existing policy rather than the creation of a new policy and an exhaustive series of meetings to gather knowledge and information are not required.

In its own submission, the UK Government says it is important that the waste strategy is placed alongside other strategies in the context of the EUs sustainable development agenda. Its development would inevitably take time and be an iterative process. The UK therefore believed that the commissions intention to produce a comprehensive strategy in 2004 was over-ambitious. It called for a communication setting out broad outlines for a proposed strategy by summer 2004 and a more detailed strategy by the end of the year. Specific areas needing further study included materials-based recycling targets, demand side measures and co-ordination of the work on waste with that on other strategies. The UK says it believes the commission should be able to propose a comprehensive strategy in mid-2005.

Waste Watch, the lead organisation in the UKs non-governmental-organisation response, says that recycling would be made more comprehensive through the finalisation of priority waste stream legislation rather than through the development of a new legislative regime that favoured economic mechanisms. The European Parliament went much further than the commission by calling for a progressive rise in targets leading to a landfill ban by 2025 except where this was unavoidable or hazardous. But the European Environment Bureau says such a narrow focus on targets wrongly presumes that the environmental impact of waste can be solved by incineration and clean recycling.

The commission summarised the input from those commenting on the strategy in a position paper to an informal council of ministers at Waterford in Ireland in mid-May, commenting that a resources strategy shoul

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