n the second term of a Labour government pledged to
put environment at the heart of policy, the absence of a
coherent waste strategy is an embarrassment from which important
should be learned.
What has gone wrong? In May 1997 the shiny new Labour government
offered hope it would shake off the Tory-era label of "the
dirty man of Europe". Some good things have of course been
done. But much is left to do.
On refrigerator recycling, the failure is of huge proportions.
There are apparently around two million fridges a year thrown
away. And cars and electronic waste are to follow very soon.
Local authorities must be in despair, left at the mercy of
government and business inertia, and thrown a paltry few million
pounds to keep them quiet temporarily.
The problem? In January 2002 an EU Regulation on safe disposal
of CFCs came into force. (EU Regulations are even tougher
than Directives and apply directly). Nothing has been done
to prepare. Ministers, perhaps too kind to blame their civil
servants, feebly mumble about misreading the Regulation, thinking
it was "only" about industrial refrigerators (nothing done
about them either, however). Then we had an attempt to blame
Brussels, saying "they let us down". What a lot of cobblers.
The latest is the inevitable Downing Street Task Force. Hapless
Lord MacDonald has been drafted in over the head of Michael
Meacher "to deal with the fridge mountain".
We are told that containers of old fridges are criss-crossing
the country, no longer able to be tossed into landfill to
pollute for generations. Around the streets of the East End
of London where I live, they are competing for space with
abandoned cars, being torched by the Saturday night street
gangs and dangerously polluting.
This Regulation is one of a series on ozone depleting substances,
ratchetting up standards in the wake of the Montreal Protocol.
Montreal was agreed internationally in 1987 and the Parties
to the Protocol (including the UK) regularly draw up amendments
in the light of constantly updated scientific evidence about
the size of the holes in the ozone layer.
It was blindingly apparent a decade ago that the use of CFCs
and HCFCs (ozone depleting substances) would have to be phased
As an MEP working on the Environment Committee, I made a
tour of waste disposal facilities in Schleswig Holstein in
Germany where recycling of a range of materials was at an
advanced state. Policy was legislation led rather than market
led and at that stage rather in advance of EU policy. An outstanding
refrigerator recycling plant was in operation then (this was
way back in 1993!). It was a private sector plant, part of
the big waste firm RWE. This plant collected 130,000 refrigerators
a year from local authorities, in their own special leak-proof
containers for which they were paid by local authorities.
They removed the CFCs in a two stage process to a very high
level, separated and crushed the metal and sold off the component
granules to industry. CFCs were returned to Hoescht for which
RWE paid. Even a decade ago there were 10 refrigerator recycling
plants in Germany and others in Austria, Netherlands and Sweden,
with plans to set up in Italy, Spain and Denmark. My report
on that visit went to our relevant politicians. Clearly it
was never read.
It's not rocket science to think that industry should have
been gearing itself up to build similar plants in the UK,
even if it did have to borrow German technology.
This particular EU Regulation causing grief is not something
capriciously whipped out of a bottom drawer in Brussels to
irritate government in the UK. It has been in the pipeline
for years. The original draft was around in 1998. Work
was interrupted in the European Parliament by the Euro-elections
of June 1999. Finally the text of the Regulation was agreed
by Ministers on 29 June 2000. It took a year and a half to
implement the bit about refrigerators. Nothing mystifying
about the text. It is in English. Discussed, analysed, pored
over line by line by civil servants for years in working groups
before ministerial agreement. Anyone with half a brain could
see it is necessary, overdue and would require substantial
change of UK practice to implement. Action taken by Member
states was supposed to be reported to the European Commission
by the end of 2001. Suddenly on 4 December, DEFRA discovered
it and rushed out a news release saying something had to be
done. This simply is not good enough. How can they pretend
they didn't see it? Or didn't understand it? That's what they
are paid for! Heads should roll.
Why don't we manage to see the obvious? Why aren't we working
with the waste industry to get the right plants built in this
country, creating jobs and prosperity? And yes, for once this
is a perfect subject in which to use PFI (unlike the London
Tight restrictions on disposing of old cars, computer equipment
and electrical goods comprise another batch of EU legislation
about improving quality of life and coming soon to a local
authority near you. All these are set to cause major problems
in coming months because we don't seem to have the slightest
grip on how to plan ahead and invest in what needs to be done.
Joined up thinking? Forward planning? Doing the right thing
by public health and the environment? No thanks, we're British.
Crisis management is the order of the day. Well we're European
too, and we deserve better.
Anita Pollack is former Labour MEP for London South
West and worked on EU environment legislation for ten years
from 1989 - 99.