A tough new European law means that soon most of the refuse will have to be diverted away from rubbish dumps. Launching the Government's draft waste strategy, Mr Meacher said radical targets for waste recycling and recovery would have to be set.
In the next six years, local councils will have to triple the amount of household waste they recycle, from 8 per cent to 25 per cent of the total, and between 40 and 130 big waste incinerators might have to be built. Friends of the Earth vowed to fight an incinerator building programme. "People don't want these monsters," said Mike Childs, its waste campaigner. "Intensive recycling is the way forward."
Britain's domestic refuse heap is increasing by 3 per cent a year largely because of our throwaway society, which jettisons millions of takeaway food cartons annually, as well as rapidly obsolescent electronic equipment, and an enormous pile of newspaper supplements.
The EU landfill directive requires the amount of UK household waste ending up in rubbish tips to be cut from the present 85 per cent to no more than 35 per cent by 2020. The Government calculates that, by then, 35 million tonnes of rubbish might have to be accommodated elsewhere than on rubbish tips each year.
By 2005, the Government also wants to get 40 per cent of household waste "recovered" - using recycling, composting and incineration to recover energy or heat. At the moment only 14 per cent of energy is recovered, but that figure should rise to 66 per cent by 2015.
Landfill for the country's industrial and commercial waste - between 70 and 100 million tonnes a year - will have to be cut to 85 per cent of the 1998 figure by 2005, the Government says. Recycling will be boosted by government help for the recycled materials markets. A study group has been set up to work on recycling schemes and Mr Meacher indicated that the Government might intervene to guarantee prices.
The need for the strategy was "stark", Mr Meacher said yesterday. "We are rapidly running out of landfill spaces. We need a major sustained change in public attitudes to the creation of waste." In the Netherlands 45 per cent of household waste is recycled; in Switzerland the figure is 42 per cent and, in the United States, 31 per cent.
The Government has abandoned a "variable charging" plan - higher bills for more waste removed - which has been criticised as a waste tax.