Councils must push ahead with new incinerators to meet long-term targets to cut landfill and avoid landing taxpayers with millions of pounds of fines, the Audit Commission said today.
A report on waste disposal from the Commission congratulated local authorities on their efforts to reduce household waste and boost recycling - which has quadrupled in the last decade.
But while councils should meet EU targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste ending up in the ground to 75 per cent of 1995 levels by 2010, hitting longer term goals would be harder, the report said.
Recycling and waste minimisation will not be enough on their own to reduce the amount of biodegradable domestic waste going to landfill to 50 per cent of 1995 levels by 2013 and 35 per cent by 2020.
If councils fail to meet the targets - even if England as a whole does achieve them - taxpayers in those areas will face paying fines of up to £2 million, the Commission warned.
England also faces increasing costs of sending rubbish to landfill through a rising landfill tax - and the prospect of running out of room to dump it in the ground in seven years.
While incineration is a less desirable way of reducing waste than reusing or recycling it, most plants now use the energy created to generate electricity.
And although the projects cost a minimum of £20 million, are often very controversial in their local area and take up to 10 years to build, the investment is necessary to tackle the UK's landfill problem, according to the Audit Commission.
The report said around 30 new waste disposal plants would be needed, which would divert more than 6 million extra tonnes of rubbish from landfill.
Around 20 to 30 plants are already in the pipeline, and the report said councils must push ahead with the projects as a two-year delay to schemes already under way could end up costing £140 million in fines by missing the 2013 targets.
If all the planned projects are built, the 2013 goal can be met, the Audit Commission said.
Michael O'Higgins, chairman of the Audit Commission, said: "We must keep up the pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle but if we are to avoid being heavily fined for failing to meet the 2013 target then we must also push ahead with the treatment plants that are in the pipeline."
He said new plants that start to be planned now would have no impact on the 2013 target, but delays in finalising plants already on the way could have serious consequences.
He added that there needed to be a "mature" debate about waste, and that instead of Nimbyism people should accept the reality that incineration plants were needed.
In addition, councils needed to work together to come up with the smartest solutions - which could include trading their landfill allowances or negotiating to share incineration schemes, he said.
The UK currently sends one of the highest proportion in Europe of its waste to landfill.
Responding to the report, a spokeswoman for the Department for the Environment said: "The Audit Commission is absolutely right that we need to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.
"Maximising the renewable energy that can be recovered from unavoidable waste, through incineration and other means such as anaerobic digestion, is both sensible and vital to cut landfill and build a low carbon Britain."
But the Local Government Association's environment board chairman Paul Bettison said: "Councils are pulling out the stops to deliver projects that will deal with waste.
"But the reality is the Government has hit the council taxpayer with a £1.5 billion bill over the next three years by going back on its undertaking to refund money raised through landfill tax to local authorities.
"This is cash that could be used to build the facilities that are needed to divert waste away from landfill."
Shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles said: "This report shows that EU and Whitehall rules are pushing up councils' costs, with local taxpayers being left to foot the bill.
"This is yet another driver of council tax inflation.
"Rather than hitting families with bin fines, bin cuts and bin taxes, we should be making it easier to go green."
Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Becky Slater criticised the building of incinerators and said the focus should be on recycling and composting waste.
She said: "Burning rubbish contributes to climate change and sends valuable resources up in smoke.
"Avoiding landfill fines should mean maximising recycling and composting, not committing to expensive and polluting incinerators."Reuse content