Britain faces court for failure to recycle

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The Independent Online

According to the recycling industry, Britain's Government has been "unprofessional" and is the worst prepared for the recycling programme of any large EU country. Meanwhile, campaigners warn of a repeat of the chaos seen three years ago when a massive "fridge mountain" built up because the government failed to prepare for another change in the law on recycling. The parallels are striking: both EU measures had been negotiated for years before their planned start date. Yet both appear to have taken the government by surprise.

Under the new directive consumers will be able to leave old electrical goods with shopkeepers when they buy new products. Alternatively they could take them to recycling points set up by local councils.

Several countries, like Germany, are phasing the scheme in and all but the UK, France, Poland and Malta have provided formal notification of how they will run the scheme.

The directive enshrines the principle that the polluter should pay by making companies fund the dismantling and recycling of products when they are unwanted.

At present, 90 per cent of electrical waste is put into landfills, incinerated or sent for scrap metal without prior treatment. The products sometimes contain metals such as lead or mercury or CFCs, PCBs and PVCs which can contaminate air, water or soil.

By December 2006, 4kg of household electrical waste per head of population will have to be collected and 80 per cent of some items, such as fridges and microwaves, must be recovered.

Such measures are needed because the number of discarded electrical goods has increased steadily. By the end of the decade, 8 per cent of all waste is expected to come from this category. EU nations agreed to start the scheme on 13 August. Last week the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) delayed Britain's scheme until June 2006.

The European Commission said that two legal warnings have been sent to the government for failure to give formal notification of its plans. The next step is to launch a case in the European Court of Justice - an acute embarrassment for the UK which holds the rotating EU presidency.

Barbara Helfferich, Environment spokeswoman for the Commission, said: "We will watch very closely what the British are doing and we may take them to court for non-notification."

Industry sources say that Britain's preparations have been slow because the government dithered over how to apportion the costs of recycling among producers.

Hans Korfmacher, president of the European Recycling Forum - which represents 12 big producers including Electrolux, Hewlett-Packard, Gillette Braun, Sony and Toshiba - said that, of the EU's big nations, the UK is the furthest behind in the process.

The platform made its proposals on how the scheme should operate to the DTI 18 months ago. Mr Korfmacher said: "The government was not very professional. They are struggling with the different options. If you have five different options you have to make a decision at a certain point and push it through.

"Our view is that the DTI was not able to conclude this. It is good to make a lot of evaluations, rather than taking up the first proposal, but, after perhaps half a year, you should take a decision."

A DTI spokeswoman said: "It looks like this issue probably will go to [the European] court. But this is a complex directive and it is better to get it right than to rush it."

That cuts little ice with campaigners who say that the inability to grapple with the details of a long-envisaged scheme is reminiscent of the 2003 "fridge fiasco". That arose when Britain failed to provide facilities to cope with legal changes to ensure that insulating foam is disposed of carefully to prevent CFCs escaping and damaging the ozone layer.

Iza Kruszewska, toxic waste campaigner for Greenpeace, said: "This is very similar to the fridge fiasco and I can see the same situation repeating itself.

"This directive has been on the cards since the 1990s and the British government has had years to get their act together. This postponement of a common sense measure is an unacceptable failure."