Ministers have blocked plans for a law to stem the tide of rubbish from homes and businesses in Britain and across Europe. As a result, the best opportunity yet to halt the steady growth of waste is expected to be abandoned this week.
The law, which has twice been passed by the European Parliament, would have obliged Britain and other EU countries to stop waste increasing beyond its present level. But the Government has refused to accept it – and so have its counterparts across the Continent.
On Tuesday the parliament is expected to back down, and agree what Green MEPs call a "shameful" compromise that would put the whole issue of halting the proliferation of waste on to the back burner for another six years.
Enough rubbish is thrown out in Britain every hour to fill the Royal Albert Hall right to the top of its dome. Every person in the country, on average, produces half a ton of it a year – almost the same figure as for Europeans as a whole.
The European Environment Agency expects this continent-wide average to increase to two-thirds of a ton in the next 12 years. It says that by 2020 enough household rubbish will be being produced in Europe each year to cover the island of Malta seven and a half feet deep and urges governments not to "become complacent with regard to the continuing growth in waste".
The amount of municipal trash collected in England in 2006/07, the last period for which full figures are available, rose by 1.4 per cent – seven times more than the average so far this century – to 28.7 million tons.
Yet household rubbish makes up less than one 10th of the more than 330 million tons of waste being produced in Britain each year, and is dwarfed by the detritus from construction and demolition, mining, industry and commerce.
Ministers are, in theory at least, committed to reducing these amounts. The Government's waste strategy says: "If every country consumed natural resources at the rate the UK does, we would need three planets to live on. Reducing our use of natural resources, and recycling materials and recovering energy from those we do use, is a vital part of moving us towards one-planet living."
But when it came to the crunch, ministers failed to put their policy into practice. In February last year – as part of revising a 33-year-old Brussels directive on waste – the European Parliament voted to set a binding target that would have meant that all EU countries would have to stabilise their production of waste at present levels by 2012.
Campaigners in Friends of the Earth point out that both Belgium and Germany have already stabilised their municipal waste. But British and other ministers – who have to agree to any EU law before it is adopted – rejected it. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that it was concerned about "the need to take into account national production and consumption patterns and their relation to economic growth".
MEPs passed the provision again in April, only for ministers to reject it once more. Thhe sides reached a compromise 10 days ago and postponed setting any targets until 2014. In return, ministers agreed to accept proposals to set targets for recycling half of the glass, paper, metal and plastic thrown out by households, and 70 per cent of construction waste, by 2020.
The parliament is expected reluctantly to accept the deal on Tuesday. Caroline Lucas, a British Green MEP, condemned member states' "shameful lack of action" on the issue.