UK: Europe - The hard road to harmony - REFUSE DISPOSAL.

UK: Europe - The hard road to harmony - REFUSE DISPOSAL. - Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

Britain is good (and cheap) at garbage disposal. EC rules could hurt.

While Maastricht, which was supposed to chart Europe's future, remains bogged in confusion and second thoughts, the creation of the single market goes majestically ahead. The target date for its completion, 31 December 1992, is now less than three months away, and everything is, more or less, on schedule. Or is it? To get a feel for the more intractable realities of "harmonisation" and the construction of "level playing fields", it is instructive to look at one of the humblest and least glamorous aspects of economic activity: garbage disposal. We are all in favour (aren't we?) of the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour in the new frontierless society that Delors and his political colleagues have been working so hard to organise. But somehow we don't seem quite so keen when the items in question are truck-loads of other people's unwanted rubbish. Especially when the consignment includes quantities of noisome and probably toxic industrial waste.

As it happens, this is one area where Britain enjoys a very considerable natural advantage. Thanks to the presence of large quantities of clay in our geological structure, there are lots of places where it is cheap and easy to dig holes for burying things. As a result, our charges for dumping assorted junk are, by a wide margin, the cheapest in the Community. When the OECD looked into this a couple of years ago they found that the average cost of dispatching a tonne of contaminated trash to a UK landfill ranged from £15 downwards to a bargain basement £9. Even Spain, with its large, relatively empty landscape, could offer nothing lower than £30. And in Germany, with its legally backed passion for environmental purity, demand is so heavy that disposal charges start at £75 and rise to £270.

That demand is now set for a further dramatic increase. Two years ago, Bonn's forceful minister-for-greenery, Klaus Topfer, launched a blizzard of new regulations, ostensibly designed to clean up the environment by setting high disposability standards for packaging materials (the "green dot" scheme) and insisting that companies take back and recycle the bulk of the crates and wrappings in which their products are habitually swathed. This has brought a chorus of bitter complaints from foreign suppliers, who claim these standards are really just another subtle protectionist device, favouring the indigenous competition in Europe's richest market. But more immediately it has created a rubbish mountain, as stockrooms and warehouses throughout Germany fill up with discarded carrier bags, beer cans and old squeezed toothpaste tubes. Existing recycling capacity is grossly inadequate to its newly-imposed tasks, and even if it was able to cope, there is only a very limited market (as all boy scouts and charity organisers have painfully learned) for old newspapers and unsterilisable plastic containers. So the universal solution tends to be "put it on a lorry and get it out of here".

Roads choked with trucks taking old orange crates and fish boxes back to their country of origin are not calculated to reduce the cost of intra-Community transport; nor are ministerial corridors packed with exporters trying to clarify the "green dot" rules likely to advance the EC's central objective of reducing the barriers to trade. And the initial response of Germany's partners has merely been to intensify the pain. In the past two years Denmark, the Netherlands and France have all moved to counter what they see as "unfair green competition" by passing similarly confusing and restrictive laws.

In principle, all this was supposed to be sorted out by Brussels, when the Commision finally got around to imposing a Community-wide policy on waste management. Then, it was argued, no-one would be able use the dustbin or the recycling depot to promote local advantage.

In the event, the only comment must be "don't hold your breath". Recently the acting Environment Commissioner, Karel Van Miert, made his long-awaited announcement, and it was hard to decide which aspect deserved the greatest scepticism: the leisurely 10-year timetable before anything in the programme achieved the force of law, or the over-ambitiousness of the ultimate target. This, almost unbelievably, lays down that no less than 90% of packaging waste must be "recovered" and in some form re-used.

This has to be a pretty mind-boggling objective. The EC collectively produces 50 million tonnes of this sort of junk every year. Half comes from households and half from business and industry, and even if "recovery" is stretched to include composting and burning (which, just to make life even more complicated, Germany has already decided to ban as a method of disposal) the 90% figure looks quite impossibly high.

So it is back to the landfills again, and that little matter of Britain's comparative advantage. In the emptier bits of our northern and western regions, dumping can cost as little as £2-£3 a tonne, even after the recent round of regulatory tightening has eliminated the more noxious environmental side-effects.

To a desperate German with a truck-load of chemical sludge that surely must sound like the bargain of the century. But do we encourage him - even plaster the Ruhr with advertising posters - or do we try to put him off, as environment officials are currently considering, by imposing a hefty levy? It is all a great puzzlement and it certainly does remarkably little to promote the great ideal of the single market.

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