When it comes to waste policy, Europe has been showing us the way for many years now. And if you thought it was torture waiting for the release of the new Waste Framework Directive, imagine what it was like trying to create it. Charles Newman spoke to our woman on the inside, Caroline Jackson, MEP
Caroline Jackson knows her own mind when it comes to waste and how to handle it: “I think that really we ought to be able to clean up our own rubbish and deal with it ourselves without exporting it beyond the boundaries of the European Union.
“We ought to avoid putting anything that can be recycled into landfill or into an incinerator, but recycle economically. And I think a degree of greater self-sufficiency would be a very good thing.”
These are not opinions pulled out of thin air, but thoughts forged in the workshop of the European Parliament, where Jackson has been a Conservative MEP representing the United Kingdom and dealing with environmental issues for the past twenty-five years.
As an MEP, Jackson says she has “played a key part...in putting in place legislation which has completely changed the landscape of waste management in Britain”. But it hasn’t always been an easy job. In her role as Rapporteur for the Landfill Directive in 1999 and for the new Waste Framework Directive just this year, Jackson has been responsible for negotiating with other politicians, lobbyists and the European Commission. Moreover, after the feat of shaping a directive, she says she has faced further frustrations whilst trying to implement EU laws in the UK.
Jackson claims to be “rather ashamed that the United Kingdom has been so slow to deal with its own waste that the European Parliament has acted as the driver”. According to Jackson, some politicians in Britain originally opposed the Landfill Directive because they felt “the European Commission was going beyond its brief; it should be the responsibility of every Member State to deal with its own waste without European rules.” But even after “it was shown that there needed to be a common solution”, Britons were slow to act.
Whilst working on the Landfill Directive in 1999, Jackson surveyed the local authorities in her native South West and was disappointed to find that “nobody at the local authority level was able to think in the long term”.
She explains: “Local authorities are worried about the annual budget and the annual issue of the council tax. So, there I was telling them about some imperative that related to 2020 and they were politely interested, but didn’t think it really had all that much immediate relevance to them.
“The same thing happened with the Government, reluctant to put up the landfill tax. Everything I predicted has come to pass, and I regret that because I think that we could have planned things much better. The Government put up the landfill tax too slowly and the local authorities reacted too slowly, but, above all, the Government in the end agreed to a directive which put various duties for diversion from landfill on local authority and gave them absolutely no extra money with which to pay for this.”
Moreover, Jackson points out that whilst we are aiming to send to landfill one third of what we sent in 1995 by 2020, the Landfill Directive actually specifies that we should achieve this by 2016. “There was a little clause, which said: ‘By the way, if you have difficulty with this you can prolong it on application to the European Commission until 2020.’ And for a long time the UK Government was extremely silent as to whether it was going to do that, and then very quietly on a Sunday night in August, it applies for the deadline to be 2020.”
Jackson fears that even with this extension, we may well not meet the Landfill Directive targets. She is confident that the Government “has got the point” when it comes to raising landfill tax, though, and thinks it should concentrate efforts on affecting behavioural change, which she believes has gone neglected for too long: “Because we do have a culture which has not had to think about what it does with its waste, we actually have not educated people enough about waste and there’s a lot of dumping and illegal littering. And I think that is something where we should have a public information campaign on television.”
For her part, Jackson has been at it again, hammering out deals to shape the new Waste Framework Directive, which was approved by the EP in June of this year and backed by the environment ministers of member states this October. The directive codifies the waste hierarchy into law for the first time and, like the Landfill Directive before it, could have a major impact on UK waste policy. She describes the lead up to the second reading of the new directive as “a long and tortuous road”, but is largely pleased with the final result: “The thing I am most proud about in the Waste Framework Directive is the part of the directive which deals with targets for recycling. It’s important to remember that those targets were not in the original text as it came from the Commission. They were put in the text by the Parliament as a counterpart really to the focus that the Waste Directive had on the incineration formula for energy from waste… It occurred to us during the course of our debates that there were a number of member states and MEPs who were nervous that this would drive out recycling.”
Some compromise was required, however, and Jackson says: “We didn’t manage to go as far with the waste prevention targets that I wanted because I had to put quantitative targets in. These were absolutely root and branch opposed by the European Council, the Council of Ministers, and in the end I could see that we were going to lose the recycling targets unless we gave way.” Nevertheless, overall, she is pleased that the new directive clarifies definitions of recycling, byproducts and biowaste and is quite optimistic about the growing importance of recycling in allowing us to live sustainably.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done. On the ground in the UK, it’s time to sort out, once and for all, battery disposal (as a Waitrose customer, Jackson calls for “Waitrose to be the first supermarket in the field with battery recycling”), as well as collection and monitoring methods for recyclables. Jackson is adamant that door-to-door collections do not suit rural areas and that commingled collection can’t result in quality materials. “It all comes down to money. As in so much else in the UK, we are trying to do things on the cheap… and if we are telling people we are recycling and they are helping us and they are prepared to separate their collections, then why disappoint by slamming everything in together?”
And, on that note, why disappoint by losing track of recyclables after collection (whatever the method may have been)? “If you are in a situation where you allow waste to be exported for recycling purposes, you are in a situation where you will find it difficult to control. We know this stuff is put into containers and taken out of the country and if we can’t control containers from the purposes of arms shipments, we certainly can’t control it just to see whether or not it’s illegal waste. We haven’t got the resources.” According to Jackson, NGOs may well have a role to play in monitoring exported materials, and governmental organisations (both local and central) certainly have their fair share of waste-handling tasks ahead of them in the coming years.
At the European Parliament level, Jackson thinks the time for a ‘Biowaste Directive’ may well be approaching, but she will leave it up to other MEPs to guide the directive through the parliamentary process this time. Jackson is stepping down next year because, as she explains it: “I’ve been at it for twenty-five years and I want to play golf.”