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Comment: recycling in our time

Elliot Morley must have felt a bit like Neville Chamberlain this week. There he was, waving his bit of paper around telling everyone that everything was under control, yet all the while he knew the tanks were gathering.

As Prime Minister, Chamberlain famously told Britain that the Munich Agreement would prevent a war with Germany. That was in 1938. As Morley was celebrating this week's Municipal Waste Management Survey, he was surely aware that his own words could end up sounding almost as spectacularly hollow.

The increase in recycling from 14.5% in 2002/3 to 17.7% in 2003/4 was certainly a good, rather than a bad, thing for the Government's survey to reveal. It hit its self-set 17% target. Hoorah.

But the UK is a long way from being out of recycling danger.

The Government's recycling targets exist solely to ensure that the nation is ready for the challenges of meeting European targets. And progress towards this is still something of an unknown.

In 2010, the UK has to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill sites to 75% of that produced in 1995. Limited information is available on this matter from 1995, but last year the Government announced that in 2002/3 the amount of waste sent to landfill had dropped to 1999 levels.

A further million tonnes was saved from landfill by the increased recycling in 2003/4, and this is a fantastic achievement. But there is still a long way to go. The UK is well behind most members of the EU on recycling - with Germany, Austria and Holland managing more than 50%. And in order to stay on course for Landfill Directive targets, the Government has set itself a target of 25% for 2005/6.

This means that within the coming year, local authorities across the UK need to be selling to reprocessors more than a quarter of the rubbish their residents discard. Quite a step up from 17.7%.

And then targets stop. With four years until the first Landfill Directive target, and 14 until the last one, the Government gives up on its system for meeting them. Instead, it turns to the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme (LATS), which Morley told MRW this week was a big driver in the increase in municipal recycling.

But 47% of local authorities questioned for the State of the Nation Report 2005 told MRW they did not think LATS would in any way help increase recycling rates.

This Government was certainly given an incredibly tough task with recycling, and the signs so far are undoubtedly encouraging. But as Morley hailed the success of the regime so far, he must have been aware that only time will be its judge.

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