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Feature: Systems review

Does the UK have low aspirations when it comes to dealing with waste? As this country languishes at the bottom of the European recycling league, with only Greece below us, it is time to take a good hard look at how this is going to be remedied.

When it comes to recycling, Britain started late and is now playing catch up. And we do seem a long way

From even thinking about initiatives that are being proposed by countries such as Germany, which include banning landfill from 2020, subsequently removing disposal from the waste hierarchy altogether.

If we are to achieve the kind of rates found on mainland Europe, more resources are needed. But for the average local authority, the infrastructure that is drastically needed is often far beyond what they can afford.

According to Dr Ian Williams, senior lecturer at Southampton University, there has been a lot of guidance given to local authorities.

While this has been well-meaning, it has not been clear and unambiguous and the result has been that local authorities have not produced effective strategies. They have, says Williams, "picked the low-hanging fruit".

"The next generation of strategies need more sophisticated technical analysis, more focus on cost and wider economic issues," he adds. "We need a strategy process that is dynamic."

For Williams, municipal waste management strategies need a standard approach with two stages: the first evaluating the current waste strategy and the second providing a detailed implementation plan for the next 10 to 20 years.

According to Williams, an evaluation of current waste strategy needs to take into account socioeconomic and demographic factors, consider waste management needs and LATs allowances. A comparison with similar authorities is useful, as are partnerships and grant aid. "This will result in a realistic strategy with no 'best face' approach," continues Williams. "Defra should provide the template for local authority strategy and they can then opt to use all, some or none of it. This will free up time and resources."

He says the implementation plan is where local authorities should focus their attention, with a clear drive towards operational issues based on strategic aims: "The UK should learn from the significant advances made in Europe. There needs to be more thinking, less bureaucracy and more resources."

However, the Government is currently undertaking a waste strategy review which will lead to Waste Strategy 2006, due to be published next summer.

The review is being undertaken, not only because the Government committed to it in Waste Strategy 2000 but, says Anton Van Santen of Defra, "because we needed to take stock and assess progress, find where the gaps and tensions are and look at what is new and different on the waste landscape".

According to Van Santen, the Government needs to set out a clearer direction with the 2015 and 2020 vision and bring coherence to a complicated waste picture. "We need realism about our ambitions but are hampered by poor data," he says. "There is insufficient data to assess recent policies."

The review process includes workshops to identify key issues. Van Santen says that emerging themes have included: a vision with a broader and longer-term perspective; clarity, certainty and greater emphasis on non-municipal waste; waste prevention; and materials rather than waste streams.

In addition, feedback has pointed to the need for more government funding; the possibilities of variable an

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