Britain could be taken to Europe's highest court as early as next month over delays to plans to recycle millions of electronic goods from mobile phones to mowers.
The dispute, which could come to a head in January, has echoes of the chaos seen three years ago when a "fridge mountain" built up because Whitehall failed to make preparations for a change in recycling legislation. It coincides with this week's launch of a long-term EU waste strategy designed to make Europe "a recycling society".
Britain's slow progress is underlined by the delay in putting a directive on recycling electronic waste into UK law, even though the legislation had been under negotiation for years. The UK's three fellow laggards are France, Poland and Malta.
The directive should have been in UK law by August 2004 and by this summer collection systems ought to have been in place. By the end of December 2006, 4kg of household electrical waste per head of population will have to be collected, including 80 per cent of some items, such as fridges and microwaves.
The European Commission said Britain had received two official warnings, the first of which was issued in July this year. The Government was due to provide an explanation this month as to how it will implement the plans.
Instead, the Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks announced a Whitehall review which "will be followed by a full consultation exercise in the spring before we proceed to transpose the main provisions of the directive into UK law".
That makes it almost inevitable that the UK will be taken to the European Court of Justice for failing to implement the measures.
Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said: "It is not acceptable. We need to abide by the law. We have waited a long time and it is time for the directive to be transposed. If not the UK will have to face the court."
In Brussels officials believe that the Government is politically committed to the directive, to which it agreed, but that Whitehall has proved incompetent in making it work.
One theory is that too few resources were deployed to implement the law; the other is that there were errors in the version of the draft law.
Under the new directive consumers will be able to leave old electrical goods with shopkeepers when they buy new ones or take them to recycling points set up by local councils. 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 landfill, 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.
The European Commission's latest strategy document highlights the growing urgency of the need for recycling. Waste generation in the European Union is estimated at more than 1.3 billion tons per year and is increasing at rates comparable to economic growth. Municipal waste grew by 19 per cent between 1995 and 2003.
Stavros Dimas, the European environment commissioner, said "Waste volume has been disproportionately increasing, outpacing even economic growth. Waste generation, disposal and recycling are of concern to us all: individuals, companies and public authorities. Now is the time to modernise our approach and to promote more and better recycling."