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What happens to waste

That people produce waste is a fact of life we cannot change. However, we can change how much we produce, how we manage it and what we do with it. Indeed, managing waste in a sustainable way, optimising recycling and re-use, as well as limiting production, forms a core part of Government policy to protect the environment.

This page outlines what is in place to help local authorities reach their targets, some of the support available for businesses to manage their waste more effectively, and how everyone can play a part in ensuring we work together towards a future much less reliant on sending vast amounts of waste to landfill.

What is waste?

There is no definitive list of what is and is not waste. Whether or not a substance is discarded as waste - and when waste ceases to be waste - are matters that must be determined on the facts of the case and the interpretation of the law is a matter for the Courts. It rests, in the first place, with the producer or holder of a substance to decide whether it is being discarded as waste and the Environment Agency is responsible, as a "competent authority", for the enforcement of waste management controls in England and Wales.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has issued several judgments on the interpretation of the definition of waste and the meaning of "discard". ECJ judgements are binding on Member States and their competent authorities. A summary of ECJ judgements on the interpretation of the definition of waste has been published:

The waste hierarchy is a useful framework that has become a cornerstone of sustainable waste management, setting out the order in which options for waste management should be considered based on environmental impact:

Reduce: waste minimisation

National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP)

Symbiosis is defined as 'the coming together of dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship'. This world-leading industrial symbiosis initiative therefore aims to develop links between different industries to help improve the way they use their resources and minimise the waste they produce.

Set up by the Business Council for Sustainable Development (UK), NISP currently has over 500 industry members in England alone. And this year it will be expanded thanks to £2m of funding through the Governments Business Resource Efficiency and Waste (BREW) programme. The ensuing three years should therefore see, among other developments:

  • at least 100,000 tonnes of waste diverted away from landfill in each region every year
  • creation of 300, and securing a further 300 jobs
  • reduce CO2 emissions by 600,000 tonnes a year
  • encourage £40m worth of private investment into waste projects
  • save industry £10m a year through improved waste management.
Commercial waste

For every tonne of household waste produced, commercial, industrial and construction businesses produce another six tonnes. To this end, manufacturers could save around 1% of turnover through simple, yet effective, techniques to minimise waste.

An initiative launched in spring 2005 by Defra will help to take things a step further. The Business Resource Efficiency and Waste (BREW) programme will fund a range of free services and targeted support to help businesses cut waste and manage resources more efficiently.

Coupled with this improved waste management are new regulations covering hazardous waste. These will ensure businesses will no longer be able to 'discard and disown' their waste: they will now have to look closely at what they are producing and how they are dealing with it to help reduce the five million tonnes of hazardous waste produced each year in England and Wales.

See also


Waste minimisation is not going to reduce waste output to zero. Therefore we also have to think about what we do with the rubbish left. The re-use of products or materials that would otherwise become waste can provide a range of social, economic and environmental benefits. This is an area where the voluntary and community waste sector has lead the way. The sector has pioneered many of the services that are widespread today, such as the re-use of furniture and white goods.

See also

Recycle / Recover

Recycling is a way every individual can help the environment every day - and it is easier to do than it has ever been. Indeed, the latest figures from our Municipal Waste Survey showed that, for the first time, England has not only met, but exceeded, its target for recycling and composting household waste.

Surpassing the 17% mark for 2003/04 was great news for all those local authorities striving to improve the services they offer, but this progress is just the beginning. In terms of recycling, England is still very much the poor relation among its European partners, with countries like Austria and Belgium recycling more than 50% of their waste.

Moving to more sustainable waste management requires enormous changes: new facilities, new skills, new investment and new attitudes. As such, there are immense challenges ahead for Government, local authorities, and the public.

Although waste awareness initiatives are not a new concept, engaging the public remains a high priority; only then can we hope to encourage more householders to use more recycling facilities, more of the time.

Energy from waste


Landfill and the Landfill Directive

Landfill restrictions

On 18 March 2010 Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government published a Consultation on the introduction of restrictions on the landfilling of certain wastes. The Consultation asks for views on a number of new policy measures to restrict the landfilling of biodegradable and recyclable wastes in England and Wales.

Review of Inert Waste Regulation

The Quarry Products Association published a Position Statement in June 2006. Of particular concern was the need to ensure that inert waste remains available to restore exhausted mineral extraction sites. In November 2006, the Davidson Review report recommended that Government and the Environment Agency should conduct a full review of the regulation of inert waste.

In 2007, Defra, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Environment Agency undertook a review of the regulation of inert waste. An informal consultation was launched in December 2007. A workshop was held during the consultation period to engage stakeholders on the proposed way forward. The aim was to adopt a more proportionate and risk-based regulatory approach to the inert waste recovery and disposal operations.

In line with the Davidson review recommendations, the review covered:

  • the appropriate use of inert waste exemptions [derogations] in EC legislation;
  • the creation of a more level playing field between different activities involving inert waste (proportionate to the risk posed);
  • how the implementation of the waste acceptance criteria might be made more efficient;
  • inconsistencies with the landfill tax regime; and
  • the quality of guidance, including the issue of when an activity should be classified as recovery or disposal.

The Government's aim is to regulate in a way that minimises burdens on business, whilst securing outcomes which maximise resource efficiency and protect the environment and human health. To do this, we reviewed the existing regulatory regimes and in particular the requirements of the Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) and how they impact on inert waste management and identify how they can be improved and simplified.

Next steps

The informal consultation closed on 21st March 2008. A summary of responses and Government response to the consultation was published on 12th September 2008 and is available below. This contains a list of actions for Government and the Environment Agency which are currently in progress.

Pet cemeteries

Pet cemeteries are landfills and will need to comply with the requirements of the Landfill Directive. Our aim is to give effect to the Landfill Directive in respect of pet cemetery operations whilst continuing to regulate those operations under the Waste Management Licensing regime.

Waste acceptance criteria

Defra and the Environment Agency have agreed a joint statement on the use of higher  Waste Acceptance Criteria (WAC) limits under the provisions of the Landfill Directive. This statement was updated on 23 July 2008.

Landfill tax

Landfill Tax is payable on waste that is disposed of at landfills. The Tax is regulated by HM Revenue and Customs.  Rates for 2010/11 are:

  • Active waste - £48/tonne (+VAT)
  • Inactive waste - £2.50/tonne (+VAT)

Government announced in the Budget 2010 that the rate for active waste will continue to escalate by £8 per year until at least 2014/15, when it will reach £80 per tonne.

Further information

Types of waste


Waste management controls, manure, Agricultural Waste Stakeholders' Forum - agricultural waste


Guidance for small medium sized businesses on how to comply with environmental law - NetRegs website

Advice and support on improving resource efficiency measures, minimising waste production - Business Resource Efficiency and Waste (BREW) Programme

"Less is more": Business opportunities in waste and resource management (PDF 850 KB)

Commercial and Industrial

A new Statement setting out Defra’s policy aims and objective for commercial and industrial waste in England was published on 13 October 2009.  It describes a number of new and planned actions to help further those objectives.  

Commercial and Industrial Waste in England - Statement of aims and actions 2009 (PDF, 1.45 MB)

We believe this statement will help encourage businesses to use resources more efficiently and to think about what they do with their waste as well as delivering benefits for the environment. There is also the potential to create new job opportunities. We are keen to work with stakeholders in taking forward the actions described in this statement, so please contact us if you would like to help:

Statistical information on commercial and industrial waste including links to charts on commercial and industrial waste management and materials – Industrial and commercial waste statistics.


To stimulate diversion of construction waste from landfill, the Waste Strategy for England 2007 proposed a possible new target of halving the amount of CD&E waste going to landfill by 2012 as a result of waste reduction, re-use and recycling - construction waste


The Government working together with industry aims to reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated in the UK and the hazardousness of such waste - hazardous waste

Extractive industries

Information on the Mining Waste Directive, Transposing legislation in England and Wales, Guidance and Supplementary EU legislation.


Defra, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Environment Agency are undertaking a review of the regulation of inert waste. The aim is to adopt a more proportionate and risk-based regulatory approach to the inert waste recovery and disposal operations - Informal consultation on Review of Inert Waste Regulation.


The Waste Strategy for England 2007 proposed a programme of work to develop energy markets for waste wood.  In April 2008 Defra published a market information report on waste wood as a biomass fuel.

Further information
See also

Page last modified: 13 April 2010