Leading article: Wasted opportunity

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The Independent Online

Britain's record on waste disposal has long been a poor one, especially in comparison with our European neighbours. While countries such as The Netherlands, Germany and Austria have long been recycling up to 50 per cent, or even more, of their domestic refuse, Britain languished at the bottom of the European recycling table with rates no higher than 8 per cent.

The last five years, however, have seen a considerable improvement, as the Government's waste management strategy has at last kicked in and local councils have been persuaded, by means of carrots and sticks, to take recycling seriously at last. The average recycling rate is now 17 per cent - far from good enough, but edging towards the respectable.

Which is why the news that the Government has put off for a second time implementing the new European law on recycling old mobile phones, computers, television sets, and other waste electrical equipment is particularly disheartening. This new law, the EU directive on Waste from Electronic or Electrical Equipment (known as the WEEE directive) is vital if the UK and other European countries are to control their mushrooming waste mountains.

As the throwaway society merges with the electronic society, waste electronic goods are becoming the fastest growing element of all in the waste stream, at 12 per cent a year. In Britain we are now producing 2 million TVs, 2 million computers, over 2 million washing machines and driers and 3 million fridges and freezers - as waste - annually.

Hitherto, most of this great pile of metal, glass, plastic, wires, silicon chips, and dangerous materials such as cadmium has simply gone to landfill, that is, been dumped in holes in the ground. But Britain (plus much of Europe) is running out of rubbish dumps, and virtually all of this material can be recycled. The WEEE directive obliges the producer companies to do it. They must either take the waste goods back themselves at a retail sales point, or contribute to a levy to enable them to be locally collected.

It isn't rocket science; it is wholly sensible. The directive was due come into force last week, three years after it was signed. Yet as the rest of Europe starts to put it into operation, the UK has postponed the start date twice, with last week's postponement putting WEEE off until at least June next year. The Government has simply been too slow at publishing the regulations and guidance firms need.

This is a shambles, a piece of gross managerial incompetence, and the Government should not be able to bury that fact while the attention of most of the public is focused on beaches and barbecues.