Putting the lid on Britain's swelling dustbins: Through recycling, the Government wants us to reduce our household waste by a quarter. Nicholas Schoon examines the prospects for success

THE AVERAGE British household throws slightly more than half a tonne of rubbish into its bin bags each year, but the statistics do not record any expression of guilt about the fact that at least half that weight deserves a nobler fate than the landfill tip. It could instead be turned into compost, raw material for industry or fuel for generating electricity and heat.

We are supposed to have a national tradition of thrift, and folk memories linger of how recycling helped to defeat the U-boat blockade 50 years ago. Yet other nations in north-west Europe, and the United States and Japan recycle far more than we do.

Surveys indicate that half the British population makes no effort to recycle anything - not even glass, despite the presence of more than 12,000 bottle banks (one for every 2,000 homes) - as increasing affluence and the growth of packaging and convenience foods produce more and more to throw away.

In 1990, a trial involving 100 homes in Leeds showed that recycling could cut the weight of their rubbish for disposal by 80 per cent. But it has proved difficult to persuade the average citizen to recycle large enough portions of their garbage; and even where they are willing to do so, there is then often a dearth of demand for the materials collected.

Chris Patten, then Secretary of State for the Environment, declared in 1990 that 25 per cent of domestic garbage (by weight) should be recycled or reused by the year 2000. But he was pursuing green votes for the forthcoming election and had seized on the 25 per cent target through the simplest of arithmetic: it represents half of that half of dustbin contents that is said to be potentially recyclable.

The election passed, Mr Patten went to Hong Kong and the target remains. But those who understand refuse, packaging and reclamation, including Friends of the Earth, say that the Patten target has turned out to be a sensible one - challenging yet achievable - which should bring economic and environmental benefits.

Nearly all forms of waste used in landfill can cause environmental damage. Rotting vegetable matter, paper and plastic buried in tips give off methane. Not only does this gas contribute to global warming, but it also causes the occasional explosion. And noxious liquids that accumulate at the bottom of tips can severely pollute the groundwater.

The use of wastes as raw materials for manufacturing conserves natural resources and usually saves handsomely on energy consumption, thereby reducing pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. And domestic wastes can be substituted for imported raw materials, thus helping to reduce Britain's trade deficit and providing jobs in reprocessing industries.

At present, however, only 5 per cent of Britain's domestic garbage is being converted into raw material.

Ministers at the Department of the Environment were already aware that new policies were needed in order to hit the 25 per cent target, but a mighty German recycling drive has begun to undermine Britain's more modest efforts: recent German legislation, especially new regulations against packaging waste, has flattened the UK market for recycled paper and plastic.

The DoE has told local councils to draw up recycling plans. But the pounds 15m a year it distributes in grants towards such projects, though welcome during the recession, is not a large sum when divided among the more than 400 councils involved. Soon these councils - and any other organisation that diverts domestic garbage from landfill sites for recycling - will be legally entitled to a credit, equal to the full amount of the landfill fees that they would have incurred had the recyclable material gone to a tip. The sums involved range between pounds 8 and pounds 16 per tonne.

Britain has one success story, however. Our recycling of cans - made of aluminium, steel and tin - and glass has grown steadily with little support from central government, and spectacularly so in the case of aluminium which, at pounds 600 a tonne, is the most valuable waste of all.

Manufacturers are confident that by 2000, more than half the glass and aluminium that is taken home by consumers will be recycled. Collection points across the nation are rapidly becoming common street furniture, as they are already in the rest of north-west Europe.

But the recycling of paper and plastics and the composting of food waste - materials that occupy much more room in Britain's dustbins and tips than glass and cans - are economically unattractive. The costs of collection, sorting to the necessary degree and transport to the manufacturer often outweigh the product's market value, which can swing unpredictably.

Waste-paper collection soared in Britain at the end of the Eighties as recycling became fashionable. That led to UK paper mills being oversupplied and a dramatic fall in prices. And at present, Germany's rapid expansion of paper collection is causing another slump in prices.

DoE ministers are considering new recycling incentives and are expected to submit proposals to the Treasury soon. A leading suggestion is a tax on landfill that could be justified as an environmental measure.

A modest tax of, say, pounds 5 per tonne of rubbish dumped, would add little to council tax bills, but it would also make recycling only marginally more viable.

If, however, the pounds 500m or more raised by such a tax were to be spent on recycling projects, it would give a big heave towards Mr Patten's 25 per cent target. The snag is that the Treasury is fundamentally opposed to revenue from any new taxation being committed in advance.

A DoE-commissioned report from independent consultants, published in February, concluded that the new tax would be fairly simple to collect, and would incur extra administration costs of pounds 1m a year. It also pointed out, however, that a landfill tax would lead to an increase in the use of incineration, which is cheaper than recycling.

Friends of the Earth says that, amid all the arguments about recycling, waste reduction is being virtually ignored. Increased use of refillable containers and less superfluous packaging could contribute as much to the conservation of resources and the environment, the group argues.

With the exception of detergent manufacturers, however, there is little sign on the supermarket shelves that the idea of waste reduction is being taken seriously.

(Graphic omitted)