The Government is considering changing the present flat-rate charge imposed for refuse collection by local councils, where everyone pays the same no matter how many bin bags they leave out for collection, into a variable one which would mean the bigger the unrecycled rubbish pile, the bigger the bill.
Variable charging, a government study suggests, would cost the average household pounds 71 a year, with a cost of under pounds 33 for the poorest, and pounds 116 for the richest households, which spend much more on goods likely to end up as rubbish.
The idea was floated by the Government yesterday when it published a consultation paper on its proposed new waste strategy, to be finalised at the end of the year, which is aimed at redressing the UK's comparatively poor performance in waste management. In household waste, Britain is at the bottom of the league table among the developed countries, recycling less and sending more of the 120 million tonnes of waste we produce annually to landfill sites than almost all our major industrial competitors.
Our total recycling of household waste - about 6 per cent - compares with 42 per cent in Switzerland, 29 per cent in Canada, 24 per cent in the US and 18 per cent in Germany. We send 85 per cent of it to dumps, compared with 11 per cent in Switzerland, 67 per cent in Canada, 61 per cent in the US and 46 per cent in Germany.
The previous government had taken important steps forward in changing things, "but it did not recognise the scale of change required to meet its own targets for recycling and recovery," Mr Meacher said.
The suggestion of a variable council tax met with guarded approval yesterday from pressure groups and the Opposition, who stressed, however, that if households were to recycle more, considerable investment was needed in a recycling infrastructure - different boxes for different materials such as paper and plastics and an efficient collection service.
"Local councils at present haven't got the money," said Mike Childs, waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
The document's key proposal is that "there is a need for a substantial increase in recycling and recovery, going beyond the targets set by the previous government". Recycling, it says, should be considered before incineration. The previous targets were to recycle and recover 40 per cent of all municipal waste by 2005, and 25 per cent of household waste by 2000; they will not be met.
The Government is indicating that it is prepared to use regulation to achieve this end, rather than leaving it to the market. It will need to, as the market for some recycled materials has all but collapsed: the value of waste paper, for example, is from zero to pounds 5 per tonne so councils are unable to recover the cost of collection.
The Government says it is encouraging the Newspaper Publishers' Association to come forward with "ambitious proposals" for increasing the recycled paper contents of newspapers, which stood at 41.4 per cent in 1997. And in a number of sectors, the document says, the Government is working with industry to increase levels of recovery and recycling on a voluntary basis. It warns however that "it has in reserve regulatory powers to oblige industry to take action, and is prepared to use those powers".
The Government hints that the cost of local authorities setting up more recycling schemes might be defrayed from the landfill tax, which since October 1996 has imposed a charge of pounds 7 per tonne on waste disposed of in rubbish dumps. The figure is set to increase to pounds 10 per tonne next year, but environmental campaigners claim it is still too low to make landfill an unattractive option and has done little to reduce it.
Friends of the Earth welcomed the paper. "Recycling will become not only the environmental option, but the cheapest option, as tougher and tougher standards apply to landfill and incineration," Mr Childs said. "It looks like the Government is finally grasping what needs to be done, instead of just throwing things into a hole in the ground."