Paper, glass and plastics could end up back in landfill sites because of pressure on councils to recycle more and more waste, says a leading group of engineers.
Local authorities might be taking a "quantity not quality" approach to processing waste to avoid exceeding their landfill allowance, said the Institution of Civil Engineers (Ice).
The group called for a multi-billion pound drive to improve the quality and value of reusable materials so they could be re-sold as quality goods.
Reducing the demand for goods made from raw materials could help to reduce carbon emissions because most recycled materials have a lower carbon footprint.
Ice waste and resource management expert Jonathan Davies said: "The UK's waste management policy has been too narrowly focused on diverting waste from landfill and local authorities are stepping up to the challenge to avoid fines by increasing the quantity of recycled material. We still need more action to drive up the quality of the material being produced. Without this, the UK could generate increasingly poor-quality recycled materials for which there are few buyers, and ironically their most likely final destination is landfill.
"In a world driven by carbon reduction and global competition for resources, it is time for the UK waste industry to evolve from a disposal sector into a supply sector that unlocks the real economic value of materials in a low carbon fashion.
"This means collecting, sorting and reprocessing reusable materials based on their physical characteristics and the economic potential for their reuse."
The institution called on the Government to use some of the 842m a year generated by the landfill tax to fund the proposed Green Investment Bank.
The UK produced 334 million tonnes of waste in 2008. Councils face fines of 150 a tonne if they landfill over their allocation.