Why old teabags have no place in the European dustbin

A dustbin revolution that will affect every household in Britain is being planned in Brussels. Teabags, potato peelings, banana skins, leftovers, old socks, and all other organic materials will be banned from rubbish tips if the European Commission's proposed directive - still confidential but seen by the Independent on Sunday - is approved.

The directive means that families will need to sort their waste so that organic material, which produces dangerous methane gas, can be specially treated.

British Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan is staging a one-man attempt to block the plans, but the Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard is determined to push them through and they are supported by environmental groups like Friends of the Earth.

The plan is likely to provoke yet another row between Britain and Brussels. The Government dislikes the proposed directive, even though it has not yet formally received it and though it would help Europe meet pollution control targets promoted by Environment Secretary John Gummer. The plan comes before a meeting of all the Brussels chefs de cabinet - commissioners' top advisers - this week. It "aims at encouraging the separate collection of organic waste", which would then almost certainly be turned into compost or used to generate gas.

Britain's 23 million households produce four million tonnes of vegetable and food wastes each year. About three-quarters of all the country's household garbage is simply dumped in holes in the ground, known as "landfills", compared to one-tenth in Switzerland. Britain has more than eight times as many landfills as France.

As organic waste decays, it produces methane, which is one of the main causes of global warming and builds up explosively in rubbish tips. The Government plans to compost one million tonnes of organic waste by the year 2000 and to reduce the percentage of rubbish landfills to 60 per cent by 2005.

The proposed directive, however, would revolutionise this approach. It has been circulated among the commissioners, but only Sir Leon has moved to block it. The Government will not comment until it has seen the directive, but is making it clear privately that it opposes the plan. But it is so widely supported by other EU countries that Britain is unlikely to be able to defeat it, as it would be subject to qualified majority voting.

Ministers will also be accused of hypocrisy, because the proposals are partly designed to combat global warming, an issue which Mr Gummer has said should "ring alarm bells in every capital". Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth says that studies have shown the extra cost of collecting rubbish sorted into separate bins will be "the price of half a chocolate bar per family per week". He added: "A proposal that would lead to huge increases in recycling and help tackle climate change, at such a low cost, should be welcomed by the Government.

"Ministers have said many good things about challenging our throw-away society. It is now time that, as in John Major's famous words, they should either put up or shut up."