NB This piece has been updated 5th Feb 2011 - updated figures HERE
The Saudi religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, keep Saudi society under strict control by patrolling for such sins as women drivers or man and women talking to eachother in public. In 2002 14 Saudi schoolgirls were trapped in a burning building; nearby men were prevented from rescuing them by the religious police because they were not related. The girls died. Today in the UK we are starting to feel similar stifling and suffocating effects from the Bin Police. Overfill your bin, put a ketchup bottle in the wrong bin, leave it out an hour too early and you run the risk of a swingeing fine and possibly a criminal conviction. Plus the council's refuse manager can use RIPA to tap your phone and read your emails to check whether you boast to your aunt of hiding cabbage leaves in your non-food waste receptacle, or putting tetrapaks in your recycling bin.
The justification for this most illiberal and repressive enforcement of the trivial is that it's necessary, that the UK has run out of landfill capacity and we must reduce and recycle or die. Charging for refuse by the kg will be trialled before long; a splendid wheeze to extract even more money from the settled middle classes who pay their council tax by direct debit and won't notice an extra tenner a month going out, but howling lunacy if applied to the sort of drifting bedsit population that pays for its utilities through pre-payment meters.
We have always traditionally disposed of our waste through landfill, whether a midden at the bottom of the garden or a worked-out quarry. It's cheap, and as long as only inert waste is deposited near the water table, environmentally friendly. Now personally I loathe plastic packaging waste, and strongly support economic recycling; of course we should collect and re-use metals, glass and paper. But broken crockery, cat litter, paint tins, old furniture and the like still need to go somewhere, and a hole in the ground in which they can slowly degrade to their natural mineral elements is about the best place.
So just how critical is the UK's supply of landfill sites? Well, not very at all. We quarry about 260 million tonnes (mt) a year of land minerals, mostly limestone, granite and sand and gravel, plus 9mt a year of opencast coal. In terms of volume, that equates to new holes with a capacity of about 110 million cubic metres (mcm) a year. Our existing licenced holes have a capacity of about 700 mcm. We produce less than 100mcm of waste and refuse a year. The system, as scientists would say, is therefore in equilibrium.
There are regional imbalances, of course. In order to counter the south-east minerals 'drag', following the recommendations of the Albemarle Report many years ago, a policy of licencing superquarries in Scotland and the north and transporting their products directly by sea or rail to the south-east means that Scotland and the north have more holes than waste to fill them with. And the landfill 'push' from London which places additional demands on sites in the home counties means that the M25 area has more waste than holes. The solution to this is patently obvious. Why have ships and rail wagons returning to Scotland empty?
No. No natural problem, really. The 'crisis' has been created artificially by a combination of EU blind stupid regulation and the Labour government's cupidity. Tyres, for example, are now classed as 'hazardous' waste in the same class as hospital waste and strange glowing chemicals. Artificially witholding waste disposal licences from perfectly suitable holes in the ground creates an artificial shortgage. And the government have not only imposed an aggregates levy that taxes minerals coming out of the holes but a landfill tax that taxes waste going back in to fill them up. Landfill tax is currently £32 / tonne and will rise to £40 t next year and £48 t the year after. Local councils have to pay these charges, but receive nothing extra from government and are restricted from raising council taxes generally to pay for it. Small wonder, really, that the Bin Police have taken off in such a big way and that councils in London are looking at 10p/kg charge to cover not only these and fuel costs but the costs of compliance with Ken's emission charging scheme.
There's no crisis. Just Brown's stealth taxes.
DEFRA landfill capacity pages
UK Minerals Yearbook 2006