Sustainable Waste | Waste Management in the UK

The UK is still sending too much waste to landfill, according to a pan-European report.

The Waste Strategy for England and Wales has been published in 2000; but  significant changes, largely driven by EU waste laws, have been made to how waste is produced and disposed of in the UK. The Government therefore published a new Waste Strategy for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in 2007.

Key features of UK strategy for England and Wales

The Government’s overarching approach to waste is to work towards a zero waste economy. However, a zero waste economy is not where no waste is produced, but an economy with the following characteristics:

  • resources are fully valued – financially and environmentally;
  • one person’s waste is another’s resources;
  • over time, we get as close as we possibly can to zero landfill;
  • a new public consciousness to waste is shared.

Waste Hierarchy

The UK policies on waste are built on the concept of waste hierarchy. The hierarchy focuses on prevention, preparing for reuse and recycling followed by other methods of recovery, for example energy recovery and only lastly for disposal.

This is the waste hierarchy as defined by DEFRA:

Using less material in design and manufacture. Keeping products for longer; re-use. Using less hazardous materials
Preparing for re-use:
Checking, cleaning, repairing, refurbishing, whole items or spare parts
Turning waste into a new substance or product. Includes composting if it meets quality protocols
Other recovery:
Includes anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery, gasification and pyrolysis which produce energy (fuels, heat and power) and materials from waste; some backfilling
Landfill and incineration without energy recovery

Waste generation and management in the UK

Waste generation can be divided in three main sectors; construction and demolition, commercial and industrial, and local authority collected waste. Waste production is gradually declining and reached 288.6mt in 2008, with the largest contribution coming from the construction and demolition sector.

In terms of the composition of total waste generated in England in 2008, the bulk of the material was mineral waste [151.2 mt], followed by general and mixed waste [48 mt], paper & card [10.4 mt], animal & vegetable wastes [9.8 mt], metal & scrap [5.2 mt] and chemical & other [3.4 mt].

Of the total waste produced in the UK, in 2008, 48% was deposited onto or into land, 45% was recovered (excluding energy recovery), 5% underwent land treatment and release into water bodies and 2% was incinerated on land (including energy recovery).

Diversion of waste from the landfill

Although the Government holds an ambition to move towards a zero waste economy, it is accepted that there will be a need, however reduced, for some disposal of products and materials that cannot be dealt with in any other way. Historically, the UK relied on landfill as its main means of disposing waste. This is now viewed as the last option for many types of waste, particularly biodegradable waste, due to climate change and EU targets. There are already a number of methods in place to divert waste from landfill, particularly: the landfill tax (£48/tonne in 2010/11), the EU Landfill Directive targets for biodegradable municipal waste (BMW), and the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme.

However, there may be some types of waste where disposal through landfill remains the most appropriate option, such as some types of hazardous waste where recovery or recycling are not recommended, rubble and soil from construction and demolition which is used to restore exhausted mineral workings, and process residues for which there is only a limited market at present, such as pulverised fuel ash from coal-fired power stations and incinerator bottom ash.

In 2009, data demonstrate a 45% fall in the volume of waste disposed of in landfill since 2000.

Household waste generated management

The total household waste generated per person in the UK decreased by 8.3% between 2000/01 and 2009/10, with each person generating 466kg of waste on average in 2009/10. Of this total, 39.5 per cent was recycled or composted.

In 2006/07, the major components of household waste in England were paper and card , food waste, garden and other organic waste, and plastics.


The objective is to get more households in the UK to do more recycling and composting of waste. Recycling waste materials, rather than sending them to landfill, is important as it saves energy and conserves finite resources. According to RecycleNow, current UK recycling is estimated to save more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road.

It is already possible to recycle a huge number of products, from batteries to plastic bottles, both at home and at work. The current rate of household recycling is around 39%, compared to just 14% in 2000/01. As recorded in the 2009 Defra ‘Public Attitudes and Behaviours Towards the Environment – tracker survey’, 91% of respondents said that they were recycling items rather than throwing them away. A total of 56% said that they ‘always’ did this and 30 % said that they did this ‘very’ or ‘quite’ often. 

Hazardous Waste Disposal

Hazardous waste is waste that poses potential or substantial threats to public health or the environment. It is considered a special type of waste because it cannot be disposed of by common means like other products of our everyday lives. Examples of hazardous waste are: paints and solvent, motor oils or antifreeze, pesticides, electronics, mercury containing products [such as thermometers or fluorescent lightings], batteries, radioactive waste.

New waste laws affect the way hazardous waste can be disposed of in England and Wales. Although it may still be possible for individual householders to dispose of a small quantity of hazardous waste in the normal waste collection, larger amounts would have to be disposed in specially managed waste facilities. It is no longer possible to dispose of hazardous liquid waste, batteries, whole and shredded tyres in landfills in the UK.

Hazardous waste production in England and Wales has decreased by 31% since 2007.

In 2008, the UK produced 119 kg per capita of hazardous waste. This can be compared with other EU countries.

Key facts summary

  • Over 40% of household waste was recycled in England in 2010/11, compared to 11% in 2000/01.
  • The average residual waste per person in England has reduced by 88kg since 2006/07 to 263kg/person/year in 2010/11.
  • 52% of commercial and industrial waste was recycled or reused in England in 2009, compared to 42 per cent in 2002/3.
  • 50% of local authority collected waste generated in the UK was sent to landfill in 2010/11, compared to an EU average of 40%.
  • According to RecycleNow, UK recycling saves more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road.
  • The UK produced in 2009 approximately 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink waste per year, 7.0 million tonnes of which was food.
  • In England this could generate at least 3-5 TWh [TeraWatt-hour] electricity per year by 2020
  • The UK water industry treats 66% of sewage sludge, generating 1TWh per year of electricity in 2010.
  • The diversion of biodegradable wastes to anaerobic digestion can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfill. For example, capturing the biogas from one tonne of food waste will save between 0.5 and 1 tonne of CO2 equivalent.
  • Direct emissions from the waste management greenhouse gas inventory sector in the UK accounted for 3.2% of the UK’s total estimated emissions of greenhouse gases in 2009, or 17.9 Mt CO2e compared to 59 Mt CO2e in 1990. Of the total, 89% arises from landfill, 10% from waste-water handling and 2% from waste incineration (these figures are rounded).


DEFRA (2011). Applying the Waste Hierarchy: evidence summary. London, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

DEFRA (2011). Waste Data Overview. London, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

DCLG (2011). Planning Policy Statement 10: Planning for Sustainable Waste Management. London, Department for Communities and Local Government.

FriendsOfTheEarth (2005). Briefing Note. Planning Policy Statement 10: Planning for Sustainable Waste Management. London, Friends of the Earth.

FriendsOfTheEarth (2005). Planning Policy Statement 1: Creating Sustainable Communities. A summary. London, Friends of the Earth.


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