EC tackles the rubbish mountain: Tim Jackson in Brussels says the Community is determined to turn the millions of tons of waste produced annually into an economic asset

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FEW of the thousands of German tourists who come to sail on Holland's Zuyder Zee notice it. But if you sniff the air of the small lakeside town of Lemsterland on a warm day, you can catch a whiff of the future.

Lemsterland is one of a dozen or so European towns that are pioneering a new way of collecting and recycling household rubbish. Under a scheme set up by private industry and the city council, some 4,500 local households sort their rubbish into categories.

Outside each participating house are two big containers: a grey bin, with separate compartments for paper, plastics and metals; and a green bin for food scraps and other organic waste.

Sorting the waste makes economic sense but there is just one problem: the bins are emptied only once a fortnight.

Emilio San Giorgi, the project's co-ordinator said: 'The containers are sealed, but I must admit that on a hot day they have a bit of a smell.'

It is tempting to dismiss the project as something for do- gooders in sandals. But in 10 years' time, we may all be doing the same.

Yesterday, the European Commission approved a draft directive which will require governments of EC countries to dump no more than 10 per cent of all their packaging waste, and to recycle two- thirds of the remaining 90 per cent that they recover.

The directive will become law only if it is approved by the Council of Ministers.

It also requires EC governments to tighten rules on packaging, and to force makers to mark everything from banana crates to chocolate wrappers for easy recycling.

Each country will be free to choose its own method of achieving the targets. But proposed rules or tax incentives will have to be notified to the Commission in advance to make sure that they do not discriminate against products from other EC countries.

Two things have prompted the Commission to act.

First, the Community is being smothered in its own rubbish: of 50m tonnes of Eurowaste thrown out last year, only 9m were recovered. The rest was dumped in landfills or the sea.

Second, draconian new German laws on packaging due to take effect at the end of the year have frightened other EC countries into looking for a

co-ordinated approach to the problem.

Without a single set of rules, they fear, the EC's much-vaunted 1993 single market might not come about: countries might use packaging rules to keep out competing products.

In the United States, where there are 350 different local and state packaging rules, it is often impossible to sell a product in the same packaging in both New York and San Francisco.

European industry, while furiously opposed to the new German rules, is surprisingly enthusiastic about the Commission's proposed 90 per cent hurdle.

The directive was partly the result of advice given to the Commission by the European Recovery and Recycling Association, a group of 18 multinationals - among them Coca-Cola, Spa and Procter & Gamble.

Yet even 10 years away, the target of 90 per cent recovery and 60 per cent recycling may still be ambitious.

Few pilot programmes at the moment are recovering more than 50 per cent of total household waste; and what works for a few hundred thousand people may not work for 320m.

There are also doubts about how much can be expected of consumers. Unlike a similar programme being run in Britain, the Lemsterland project requires households to do their own sorting.

But in one survey run by the association, half the households asked admitted that they would not be prepared to clean out the inside of a sardine can before throwing it away.

One thing, however, is clear: no matter how governments decide to put the plan into practice, the waste management business - from aluminium recycling to compost-making - is likely to benefit hugely as a result. As they say in Holland: where there's muck, there's brass.

Leading article, page 26