Britain will today be declared the "dustbin of Europe" after warnings that it will run out of landfill sites in less than eight years.
The UK buries more than 18.8 million tonnes of household waste – two million tonnes more than any other EU country. On current trends, British taxpayers will face "fines" of up to £180m a year by 2020 if targets under an EU scheme to reduce the amount of paper, food and garden waste being send to landfill sites are not met. Penalties will be imposed on local authorities but will, in effect, be passed on to residents.
57 million tonnes of rubbish, including industrial waste, are being disposed in landfill sites each year. With 650 million cubic metres of capacity left in the ground – three times the volume of Lake Windermere – the UK will reach its limit by 2018.
Although the amount of rubbish sent to landfill has fallen by a third since 2000, councils say more needs to be done to head off the threat of fines.
Gary Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association's environment board, said: "Householders should be congratulated for the efforts they have made in recent years to increase the amount of rubbish they recycle. But that doesn't change the fact that Britain is fast running out of space to dump rubbish in the ground."
He added: "An area the size of Warwick is already being used to dump Britain's rubbish and unless there are radical changes in the way we produce and dispose of our waste it is estimated we will run out of landfill space in less than eight years time."
Italy dumps about 19 million tonnes of household rubbish in the ground, Spain 15 million tonnes and France 12 million tonnes. Under the EU landfill directive, the UK must reduce landfilling to 75 per cent of 1995 levels by 2010, 50 per cent by 2013 and 35 per cent by 2020. Landfill allowances given to councils are fewer in number each year to cut the national rate. Allowances are tradable, so that authorities can buy more if they expect to exceed their quota and those with low landfill rates can sell their surplus allowances. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said it will fine councils £150 for every tonne they land-fill above the total amount of allowances they hold. The Government may also pass on any EU fine to the local authorities, meaning that "failing councils" would be responsible for their share of fines reaching £180m a year – £500,000 a day – until the directive's demands are met.