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Commercial Waste Legislation in UK

Most of the waste and environmental legislation in United Kingdom has its source in Europe. All the major changes to the law – such as the Landfill Regulations, Hazardous Waste Regulations, producer responsibility schemes and Landfill Allowances and Trading Scheme – have been introduced in order to implement EU directives (Williams 2005).

The key principles of EU waste policy were taking shape as early as 1974 when the first Waste Framework Directive was published. General environmental principles which influence waste directives encompass the Polluter Pays Principle (like the producer responsibility legislation), Precautionary Principle (states that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation), and Proximity Principle (waste to be disposed of at the nearest suitable facility) (Phillips, Pratt & Pike 2001). The 1989 Community Waste Strategy gave legal expression to the concept of the waste hierarchy.

According to (Gray 1997), the waste diversion targets in the Landfill Directive illustrate how legislation is used to move waste up the hierarchy, encouraging waste producers to reuse, recover and recycle their waste where practicable, rather than consign it to landfill. Producer responsibility directives such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive also attempt to increase recycling and recovery (Read, Phillips & Murphy 1997).

Basically, the main aim of waste legislation is to ensure that waste management activities are carried out in a way which does not harm the environment. The United Kingdom Government policy on commercial waste general goal, as commence in its strategy for sustainable development, is to safeguard individual’s health as well as the environment through producing less waste and by utilising it as a resource wherever there is a potential. “…the Government aims to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impact of waste. This means a step-change in the way waste is handled and significant new investment in waste management facilities” (Planning Policy Statement 2005).

Waste reduction is undeniably at the top of the hierarchy but it cannot really be legislated for, and the Government is only able to offer exhortation and information to waste producers. When it comes to legislation and detailed policy measures, the Government’s objective has really been to shift waste from landfill to recycling and recovery (Phillips, Pratt & Pike 2001). In this literature review, different legislations that pertain to commercial waste management will be further discussed and how these legislations promote waste reduction.

Waste Legislation

The definition of waste throughout the EU is taken from the revised Waste Framework Directive 75/442/EEC, as amended by 91/156/EEC. Article 1 of the Directive defines ‘waste’ as ‘any substance or object which the holder discards, or intends to or is required to discard’. A list of waste categories follows, but the courts regard this as being for guidance only. The key word is ‘discard’: if someone is deemed to have discarded the material, it is waste regardless of its value to subsequent holders. The following materials, however, are excluded from the EU definition of waste:

  • Gaseous emissions
  • Radioactive waste
  • Waste from mining and quarrying (though waste from buildings at mines and quarries is not excluded)
  • Natural, non-dangerous materials used in agriculture such as manure
  • Waste waters

Controlled Waste

UK waste controls apply only to ‘controlled wastes’ which are defined in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 as:

  • household waste
  • commercial waste
  • industrial waste

The precise meaning of these three types is spelled out in the Act and clarified in the Controlled Waste Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No. 588). For the purpose of this research, the paper will only discuss what it is meant by commercial waste. The term ‘commercial waste’ pertains to waste that comes from any kind of business, for example shopping stores, food or coffee shop, hotel, building, or office. These commercial wastes must then be managed and stored properly, collected by a licensed waste carrier and discarded at an authorised disposal facility, corresponding to producer’s Duty of Care.

Duty of Care

The Duty of Care has been in force since 1994. In summary, the Duty of Care states that waste holders are responsible for their waste from cradle to grave and must take all reasonable precautions to ensure that no subsequent holder commits an offence of unlicensed disposal, etc, as detailed in s.33 of the Environmental Protection Act (House of Commons 2005). This allows the regulators to prosecute waste producers for engaging cowboy contractors who fly-tip the waste (dispose of waste other than on a licensed facility) and then disappear. To comply with the Duty, waste producers must:

  • draw up a Duty of Care transfer note
  • Ensure that the waste does not escape, either from the site of production or in transit
  • Pass the waste to a registered carrier, or licensed/permitted contractor, or exempt carrier e.g. a recycling charity
  • Ensure that the disposal or treatment facility is licensed to take the waste and is not likely to breach its conditions

The Duty of Care provision takes care of commercial waste in terms of making businesses responsible for assuring the safe and proper discarding or recovery of their waste materials. Their responsibility significantly does not end from the process of disposing or recovery of their waste because the Duty of Care provision holds them responsible even after they have passed their waste materials on to another person or group like a waste contractor, recycler, scrap metal merchandiser, or local council (“Waste - Duty of Care” n.d.). This responsibility will only end after the waste has either been eventually and properly discarded or completely recovered. Significantly, this provision also requires businesses to keep a record of all waste received or transferred using a procedure of signed Waste Transfer Notes (WTNs) (House of Commons 2005).

Waste Management Licensing

The waste management licensing regime, which took effect in 1994, is being superseded by PPC but still applies across several sectors. The Government has recently adapted and extended the licensing regime to implement EU Directives on:

  • Treatment of end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), and collection and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)

Basic Provisions

Like a PPC (Pollution Prevention and Control) permit, a waste management licence is a permit which sets down detailed conditions of operation in order to protect the environment. This basically applies to businesses that deposit, recover or dispose of commercial waste, which is categorised as a kind of “Controlled Waste,” in or on any land or through a mobile plant (Gronow 2000). The framework for the system of licensing is laid down in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, with detailed provisions in the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994 (SI 1994 No. 1056), as amended. The most recent amendments to the licensing regulations are found in SI 2005 No. 1728. Because of the very many amending SIs, the regulations are difficult to follow and the Government therefore plans to issue a consolidated version in the near future. The waste management licensing regime is administered and enforced by the Environment Agency and SEPA. A waste management licence may only be issued to a Fit and Proper Person.

Particularly with landfills in mind, the regime contains provisions to prevent or control pollution from facilities which are no longer receiving waste (Gronow 2000). Before a licence can be surrendered, the operator must obtain a Certificate of Completion from the Agency to confirm that the site is stable and no longer presents a threat to the environment. There is concern that the imposition of the co-disposal ban last year will make it more difficult to achieve stabilization, leaving operators with closed sites to manage for many years to come (Williams 2005).

As with other environmental permits, the waste management licence is a public document available for inspection at the local Agency office. This enables waste producers to check that a site is properly licensed to receive their waste, and that it has a good record of compliance with legislation.

Exemptions from Licensing

Obtaining a waste management licence can be a costly and lengthy procedure, involving detailed technical submissions from the operator. To avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on activities which do not present much threat to the environment, the 1994 Regulations included a long list of exemptions. These cover a variety of recovery processes such as:

  • spreading waste on agricultural land as a fertilizer or soil improver
  • use of garden waste as mulch, etc in parks
  • reuse of construction waste, e.g. in road building
  • small scale recycling activities
  • use of waste soil in landscaping
  • small scale composting
  • storage of limited quantities of waste

Operators wishing to take advantage of an exemption merely have to register basic details with the Agency and pay a small fee. Waste management activities which are regulated under PPC are not covered by the licensing regime and do not have to register as exempt. A separate exemption scheme applied to the scrap metal industry, involving conditions of operation (e.g. working on an impermeable pavement) and a higher fee. Since the introduction of the End-of-Life Vehicles Regulations last year, the conditions have become more stringent and a greater number of sites require a full waste management licence (Williams 2005).

Producer Responsibility

Producer responsibility is one of the general principles which inform EU (and hence UK) environmental policy. The aim is that producers, rather than society, should bear the costs of recovering and disposing of their products once they become waste. This should encourage manufacturers to design products that are more durable, easier to recover and contain fewer hazardous materials (Williams 2005). The existing producer responsibility Directives – on packaging, vehicles and electrical equipment – all lay down challenging recycling targets which will divert waste from landfill and ‘up the hierarchy’.

The concept of producer responsibility has been widened into Integrated Product Policy, whereby producers are encouraged to improve the environmental performance of their products throughout their life cycle (Williams 2005). This takes into account issues such as the consumption of materials and energy in manufacture, energy consumption during use, and the environmental impact of the product once it is discarded. So far there is no legislation on Integrated Product Policy.


The packaging and packaging waste regime was the first producer responsibility scheme to be established under the Environment Act 1995, implementing Directive 94/62/EC. It has succeeded in increasing the amount of packaging recovered, and the UK met its first set of EU targets in 2002. However, despite the scheme having been in force since 1997, many producers are still confused about their duties and each year several are prosecuted by the Agency.

The scheme is complex and relies on manufacturers and retailers gathering detailed data sets about their annual packaging flows (Eden 1997). This has proved a challenge to many smaller producers. The requirements have been modified and supplemented over the years as the Agency seeks to make the regime fairer, more transparent and more effective. Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997 (SI 1997 No. 684)

The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 1997 (SI 1997 No. 684) have been amended six times since their introduction eight years ago. The most recent amendments were brought into force through SI 2005 No. 717, and further amendments are expected in the near future.

The European Commission sets national targets for packaging waste recycling and recovery. Each member state devises its own scheme to achieve the targets. In most other member states, the responsibility is divided amongst industry, consumers, retailers and local authorities, and these schemes are in general more straightforward than the UK one. Consumers segregate packaging for recycling, local authorities collect it and industry reprocesses it. However, fearful of the waste mountains created by the German ‘green dot’ scheme in the early 1990s, the UK went along a different route and assigned all the responsibility to industry (Williams 2005).

The UK Regulations apply to ‘producers’ which are subdivided into:

  • manufacturers of the raw materials used in packaging, e.g. steel manufacturers, producers of plastic granules
  • converters, who turn the raw material into packaging e.g. by manufacturing boxes or cans
  • packer/fillers, who put products into the packaging (e.g. beans into cans)
  • retailers
  • importers of packaging and packaging materials

Producers are only subject to the Regulations if they have an annual turnover of £2 million or more, and handle at least 50 tonnes of packaging or packaging material each year. They must also supply packaging which they own to someone further down the chain (for example, a retailer supplying packaging to the consumer). Because smaller producers are exempt, the UK Government has to set recovery targets for obligated businesses which are slightly higher than the Directive targets (Williams 2005).

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

As with the packaging scheme, the duty to recycle and recover WEEE has been imposed at EU level. The aim of Directive 2002/96/EC is ‘the prevention of WEEE and in addition, the reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery of such wastes so as to reduce the disposal of waste’. The Government also intends that the legislation should encourage sustainable design of new products. The WEEE Directive goes hand in hand with another directive on the reduction of hazardous substances (ROHS) in electrical and electronic equipment.

Landfill Regulation

The Landfill Directive has made a tremendous impact on the shape of waste management in the UK, and will continue to do so over the next decade. It has forced a wholesale shift away from landfill towards a range of other options. Costs for waste producers have risen; some waste producers are finding that there is nowhere for their wastes to go. The waste industry, relied upon by the Government to meet the demand for new facilities, has been late in responding to the challenge due to regulatory and market uncertainties but is now offering an imaginative range of new services.

Fundamentally the Landfill Regulation implies that waste producers must take far greater responsibility for their wastes, particularly where the wastes are hazardous. They have new duties to test, sample and characterize waste streams, and arrange for treatment Among the three interrelated aspects of waste management, which are basically the concerns of Directive 99/31/EC, the classification of landfill sites, and prescription of the precise types of waste they can accept has the most direct impact on commercial as well as industrial waste producers. The two other aspects of waste management under the Landfill Regulation are the diversion of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfill, and engineering and environmental standards at landfill sites.

Dhir, RK, Newlands, MD & Halliday, JE 2003, Recycling and reuse of waste materials: Proceedings of the international symposium held at the University of Dundee, Scotland, UK, Thomas Telfold, Michigan.

Eden, S 1997, ‘Regulation, self-regulation and environmental consensus: lessons from the UK packaging waste experience’, Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 232-241.

Gray, JM 1997, ‘Environment, policy and municipal waste management in the UK’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 69-90.

Gronow, J 2000, ‘The role of landfills in the United Kingdom’, Waste Management and Research, vol. 17, no. 6, pp. 409-412.

House of Commons Defence Committee 2005, Duty of care, viewed 26 October, 2008, . Phillips, PS, Pratt, RM & Pike, K 2001, ‘An analysis of UK waste minimization clubs: key requirements for future cost effective developments’, Waste Management, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 389-404.

House of Commons Defence Committee 2005, Duty of care, viewed 26 October, 2008, . Phillips, PS, Pratt, RM & Pike, K 2001, ‘An analysis of UK waste minimization clubs: key requirements for future cost effective developments’, Waste Management, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 389-404.

Planning Policy Statement 2005, 10 Planning for sustainable waste management, Communities and Local Government, viewed 25 October, 2008, .


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