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A fine that isn’t a fine.

September 23, 2014

Yes, there were four other consultations which closed last week and on which I haven’t yet commented.  The Landfill Tax – Liability of waste ‘fines’ consultation closed last Friday, 19th, (at 5pm.  Because, reasons)  And, genuinely, it’s an interesting document.

The “fines” we’re talking about aren’t monetary fines to start with but

the smaller fractions of waste produced by any waste treatment process that includes an element of mechanical treatment. These fines are separated from other material using screening equipment (including large rotating screened cylinders called trommels) and can include a wide variety of wastes, including soil, paper, plastic, wood, metal etc.

All right then.  So why do we need a special bit of tax legislation about the mulch that comes out of a trommel?

Because there are two rates of Landfill Tax (I didn’t know that.  Did you know that?)

 a standard rate (currently £80 per tonne) for active wastes such as household waste which decays; and  a lower rate (currently £2.50 per tonne) for less-polluting wastes.

So a honking great differential between “active” and “less polluting” waste.  And, oh look, there’s a provision that says a load of less polluting waste that’s mixed with a bit – a “small amount” – of non-qualifying material, well, it can still get the lower rate rather than the upper rate.

Now, the consultation document isn’t clear on why identifying the proportion of non-qualifying material in “fines” is harder than in other waste but I’m guessing it’s because the “fines” are mashed up in processing so you can’t tell from looking at it.  There is, therefore, a proposal that a clear, objective, laboratory test should be used, the “loss on ignition” test.  As far as I can tell, you send a sample off to a laboratory where someone sets fire to it and sees what’s left over.

The consultation comes out of an industry working group and suggests a regime of partly mandatory and partly random testing, to be conducted by landfill site operators and for which they will pay (and presumably factor into their own charging) and it all seemed pretty sensible to me at a glance…

Except…

Current situation

2.2 We estimate there are approximately 6,000 waste transfer and treatment plants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, of which about 450 produce fines, with approximately 4.5 million tonnes being produced each year. There are about 200 landfill site operators registered for landfill tax across the UK.

Well, except that, although I’m sure all the landfill site and waste disposal operators are lovely people and honest as the day is long, there is nevertheless a commercial relationship if not a commercial dependency between the landfill site operator and the person trucking their fines to landfill. And there’s a honking great differential between £80 a tonne and £2.50 a tonne, which would max out at £348,750,000 (the difference between £360 million and 11.25 million).  And where there’s a potential £348 million at stake I wonder how much corruption and graft might eventually creep into the best-conducted industry and how much potential there is for a race to the bottom.   I know we’re in an era of light touch regulation, and co-regulation, and unprecedented austerity and all that, where we let industries regulate themselves and we don’t have any government funds for civil servants or, goodness me no, scientists.

But I’d sleep a lot better at night if we didn’t have this consultation at all, and instead just had a few government inspectors turning up at random to do the checks themselves, on support of honest operators everywhere, and in protection of the rest of us.  Sigh.

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