Piles of rubbish on the streets of Naples have been a familiar sight over the past two decades, but in 2008 the situation reached a crisis. The inability of Italy’s Campania region to manage its waste – despite repeated infringement charges brought by the European Commission – became an embarrassment not just to Italy, but to the EU’s entire waste disposal strategy.
The problem is not confined to Italy. Violations of waste management legislation consistently account for around 20% of EU environmental infringement cases. Yet the EU lacks the ability to directly monitor progress by regions and municipalities. Monitoring is instead left to member states, and often the Commission is left in ignorance until disaster looms.
“Right now the EU lacks enforcement tools to challenge national actions,” says Stephane Arditi, waste campaigner for the European Environmental Bureau. “When there is a request issued to a member state [on infringement], it is enough if the member state answers that they will solve the problem, and they will tell the Commission at a later date what they have done.”
Largely as a result of the 2008 Campania debacle, there have been increased calls for a dedicated EU ‘waste implementation agency’ to monitor and enforce legislation. A December 2009 Commission report backed the idea, but member states – particularly the UK – have expressed reservations, fearing loss of sovereignty and high costs.
The Commission is now set to go into reverse on the issue. Tomorrow (13 January), it will publish a report rejecting the idea of a new agency, arguing that existing bodies should take the strain. The report proposes that the European Environment Agency (EEA) take on monitoring and analysis duties, and that enforcement activity be carried out by the existing network of national environmental inspectors (Impel). Until now this network has mainly been focused on waste shipments rather than waste disposal. The consultancy that compiled the report, Bio Intelligence Service, concluded that a new agency would be too complicated and too costly.
Arditi says that although environmental campaigners believe that dedicated resources would have delivered the best results, they agree that this is not the right time for a new agency. “We liked the idea of a dedicated waste agency in the December 2009 report,” he said. “But at that time there was already concern over budget restrictions. Now, in a time of economic crisis, the acceptability of a new agency would have been very low. We are not convinced that this waste implementation agency idea would fly now.”
The report recommends that the EEA be given additional duties and that it should set up a network of national monitoring authorities. Extra resources would be allocated, but the agency would also benefit from existing in-house expertise. Legal changes to the EEA’s mandate would be necessary to extend its remit. The consultancy considered recommending that the Commission itself undertake these tasks, but concluded there is greater expertise in the EEA.
Case study: Naples
A state of emergency for waste in the Campania region was declared in 1994, and the European Commission ordered the region to clean up all illegal dumps and develop a disposal programme, with separation and recycling. But little progress was made. In December 2007 the crisis came to a head when waste-collectors went on strike. Despite opening new incinerators and exporting waste to Germany, organisational and infrastructure problems have proved difficult to overcome.
Naples remains in violation of the waste shipment regulation and the landfill directive, and Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for the environment, recently said that it would take “several years” to bring Naples into line with EU waste legislation requirements.
Cost of €24.7 billion, including export fees, management costs and lost revenue. (Source: Althesys)
Health impacts from the burning of waste by residents and waste leaching into ground water include increased rates of stomach, lung and hepatic tumours, and an increased percentage of birth defects. (Source: Italian Public Health Conference)
Case study: Brandenburg landfill
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Brandenburg region had to restructure its waste management system to comply with EU law, specifically the landfill directive. Almost 2,000 former or existing landfill sites were ruled unsafe or badly managed. The majority were shut down. Brandenburg received €138 million in financial aid for this work.
At the same time, 15 recycling plants were set up, and waste separation and recycling were introduced. As a result, the total amount of waste sent to landfill in Brandenburg was reduced from four million tonnes in 1992 to less than half a million tonnes in 2009.
Annual turnover of €100 million from the 15 recycling plants.
Management cost of €115/tonne of waste, well below German average of €137/tonne. (German and Eurostat figures)
Groundwater contamination has been reduced by 90%. (Study for the environment ministry)
The task of auditing national inspections should remain with the Commission, the report says, with legal changes made in order for this to happen. But inspections would still be carried out by national experts within the Impel network.
The Commission will now consider its options and is expected to propose measures to improve implementation this year, which may involve increasing the budget for EEA and Impel.
But Arditi says the Commission will need to demonstrate that these changes will really make a difference. “The possibility for national inspectors to challenge a country exists now and it is not working,” he said. “Member states will have to take the decision to increase resources for Impel. But at the moment any new budget item, even if it is for job creation, is really difficult for member states to accept.”