Examination of witnesses (Questions 380
TUESDAY 10 FEBRUARY 1998
and MS CATHERINE
380. If, for example, there were to be more
specific regulations about the percentage of recycled material
in various products would you find that difficult to sustain as
far as retail business is concerned?
(Ms Martin) I will ask George Chadfield to take
(Mr Chadfield) At the moment there is a dearth
of end uses for recycled materials and it is an area that does
need stimulus. That impetus in our view would not happen simply
by introducing prescriptive legislation. It needs to be pulled
through first of all by the Government or by other bodies with
a national remit stimulating the research and development of potential
uses for materials. I instanced polystyrene earlier as a plastic
example which took me by surprise because I always assumed that
polystyrene was a disastrous product to be avoided at all costs.
There are these ways now, however, of using large quantities of
that material without costly remanufacturing processes. So, if
I can be taken by surprise, then I am sure that there is a job
of work to be done. To us the Government's role, the role of the
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in particular,
is to stimulate that investigation of end use products, and we
will support that. Industry generally will support that, not just
the British Retail Consortium, because want to see a pull through
rather than a push. Push through legislation as the German experience
shows just creates waste mountains.
381. The problem that you have got as far
as I can see in terms of the pull through idea is that while I
understand that it is true that retailers intensely deal with
focus groups and various other things about what the consumer
wants, to some extent they are mirroring what the consumer wants
now and putting it in the shops. When people then turn up and
try to buy a product which has greater recycled content they find
that they are not on the shelves and so they go and buy another
product and then, of course, the retailers believe that they have
sold the customer the product that they want. Do you accept therefore
that the pull through model has a problem in terms of stimulating
greater green consumerism in the way that I have described and
are there circumstances under which you think that retailers might
promote green products and green packaging in order to stimulate
the market as well as simply be there when the market arises?
There is a certain circularity in the debate?
(Ms Martin) Nicola Ellen will answer this.
(Ms Ellen) When a consumer buys a product he or
she is looking for one or more unique selling points and recycled
content may be the decisive factor and it may not be. There will
be other functions that they will be looking for from that product,
so it is unusual that somebody would be looking for one single
factor. There will be a number of people who do, of course, but
usually it is a combination of factors. Another thing to think
about if you are setting percentage of recycled content is that
there are technical limitations and one would hope that with time
technology will speed up and find ways of adding recycled content.
Also one can have anomalies arising. If I may just go back to
the waste hierarchy and the case of carrier bags, for example,
Safeway used to offer customers carrier bags with recycled content.
Now at that time we had a thickness of about 20 microns and we
then took the decision to remove the recycled content in order
that we could make the bag thinner in order to use less material.
By having recycled content you actually had to have a thicker
bag because it did not perform as effectively. Therefore, we took
the decision to take out the recycled content so that we could
reduce the thickness by two microns which in effect meant that
we saved in the region 840 tonnes of plastic and therefore resources
per annum. So sometimes you can get an anomaly. If you add a recycled
content does that mean that you actually have got to have a heavier
bag or a thicker product.
382. I am afraid that I just do not understand
that. What worries me slightly is, if you are making them thinner
so you can use unrecycled material, then surely that is a false
economy? Why are you not sticking with the recycled stuff?
(Ms Ellen) Because there is an added cost. If
you look at the packaging and waste regulations and the way that
383. The cost to the store, you mean?
(Ms Ellen) The cost to the business and ultimately
therefore to the customer. With the packaging and waste regulations,
of course, a levy is being raised on the amount of packaging by
weight that companies are handling.
384. So it is environmental cost because
you are saving money for the shareholder?
(Ms Ellen) We are managing the business efficiently
by trying to reduce the amount of resources that we are using.
385. I am not concerned about the Safeway
shareholders here, but you are saying that you have made the bags
thinner because it saves the company money even although that
has an environmental price?
(Ms Ellen) What we are trying to do is to offer
value to the consumer whether in terms of the products that we
are selling or the way that we run our activities, and we have
to manage the business efficiently. Any business would do the
same: we have to be shown to be efficient.
386. Just to finish on this question of
the bags, why did you not offer them a hessian bag with a nice
Safeway logo on it so that the consumer can use it for multi-trips?
(Ms Ellen) We offer a range of containers for
customers. We did in fact trial four years ago hessian bags, but
they did not prove popular with consumers. What we try to do is
to offer choice and other retailers do the same. Consumers can
either bring their own carrier bags or hessian bags or whatever
or they can use paper carriers or plastic carrier bags or they
can buy a stronger bag. We also offer boxes that customers can
use or, indeed, there are much thicker bags that they can use.
It is all about trying to offer choice.
387. This is a good example of the push,
pull. Leclerqs, the French supermarket chain, do not offer any
plastic bags at all to their customers. They will provide something
with recycled plastic for one franc and when it wears out they
give them another one for free and the customers who go to Leclerqs
know that they are not going to get any plastic bags. If you go
to a supermarket and there is a plastic bag there, the chances
are that you will not bring it?
(Ms Ellen) What we try to do is to offer a choice
so that if consumers want to buy a particular bag they can or
they can bring their own. The bags are there if they want to use
them, they are not being forced on them, but we are trying to
offer the consumer a choice and they are shopping in the store
and they are looking for something perhaps to take their shopping
home in. It is a balancing act really of trying to offer choice
and at the same time clearly trying to reduce the amount of bags
that you are using.
388. Do you think that Leclerqs have got
it wrong then? They do not appear to have gone out of business.
(Ms Ellen) It is one option. As I say, supermarkets
do offer bags that customers pay for.
Chairman: I think
we really do need to move on now.
389. I quoted Tesco a moment ago about their
packaging recycling. I understand at the same time, however, Tesco
now are thinking, so I understand from an ENDS report, of removing
local authority recycling bins from their sites in order to capture
the packaging recovery notes for themselves. Now that does seem
to me to be an awful duplication of effort in terms of recycling
whereby what previously was a harmonious relationship between,
say, local authority effort and retailer effort is possibly going
to break down because of that factor?
(Ms Martin) Yes, Mr Chairman, that is very true.
I will ask George Chadfield to reply.
(Mr Chadfield) In a moment, Mr Chairman, I will
correct the record in respect of Tesco. Just on the point generally,
however, because I do not think that we should get bogged down
with one specific retailer anyway, the packaging waste regulations
are centred on shared producer responsibility and, as I said earlier,
retailers have wholeheartedly supported that for a number of years.
The legislation is not prescriptive on the form of evidence that
is required from obligated holders under those regulations. The
devil, I am afraid, is in the detail of the statutory guidance
produced by the Environment Agency which invented this instrument
of the packaging recovery note, the PRN, which really set the
cat among the pigeons, quite honestly. We had not envisaged such
a tight regime and that this would be the only evidence of recovery
that would be acceptable, and it has caused enormous problems
because in many cases we have had to fit this new instrument with
existing contracts and, as you will be aware, because of the size
of the waste problems centred on large retail sites managing waste
has always been a big deal, and part of that has been recovery.
Most supermarkets have invested considerable sums in handling
their own waste and in offering the opportunity to customers to
return waste to banks. Sometimes those banks are there because
they were tied up with planning permissions and so on. Sometimes
they are there because they are the result of community relations
efforts and so on. For whatever reason, it is characteristic now
for large supermarket car parks to have these bins. The partnership
with the local authorities that this represent was, frankly, rocked
to its foundations by the introduction of these packaging recovery
notes, but I am happy to say that now generally we are back on
an even keel. The British Retail Consortium has played the role
of honest broker in actually resolving some of these problems
and as of today that problem that we have just instanced does
not exist. It never really existed in that form anyway so there
was a lot of hot air talked by people outside the industry about
possibilities. It is certainly not going to happen. All major
retailers value the partnerships with local authorities as representatives
of the community within which they trade. The British Retail Consortium,
as I say, acted as honest broker. It has now been clearly established
that the benefit of that recovery should pass to the local authority.
The piece of paper, the packaging recovery note, that is evidence
of recovery having been engineered by the owner of the site should
rightly pass to the person, whether it is Tesco, Sainsbury or
whatever, with the obligation and that is now falling into place.
So far as retailers are concerned and local authorities are concerned,
Mr Chairman, the problem that we have still got is that the existence
of the packaging recovery note system, as I say, is not in the
regulations, it is merely in the statutory guidance, it is a creature
of the Environment Agency. They designed the system and they are
going to police it. That could almost have been purpose designed
to benefit one player in the packaging chain, the reprocessors.
Now the principle behind it is that the shared producer responsibility
approach would result in money being injected into the system
which would be devoted to increasing capacity because the moment
that we start developing end use markets, increasing the recovery
doing a bit of pull, a bit of push, we are going to increase the
demand for recovery capacity. Now without new funds that increase
is just not going to happen. I am afraidand I am sorry
to have to report this to the Committee, Mr Chairmanthat
it is not going to happen as a result of the packaging recovery
note system because all that is going to happen with the money
that flows through to reprocessors is that it will go to the benefit
of those businesses and their shareholders and it is highly unlikely
to be injected into the environmental benefit of increasing capacity.
In fact, the situation is compounded because the net effect of
it is that retailers who have long co-operated with local authorities
and promoted recovery, in particular through bin systems on their
sites, are actually now being penalised and having to pay for
packaging recovery notes to discharge their obligation.
Chairman: We do need
now to move on, please.
390. In your written evidence you say that
you need better enforcement of current legislation taking a risk
based approach. This is page 5 of your memorandum. Now that seems
a little at odds with what you have just said to us about reprocessors
and the evidence on page two of your memorandum where you talk
about producers and reprocessors having been allowed to divert
attention from sustainable waste management. Could you comment
(Mr Chadfield) Can you direct me to the exact
line on page 5?
391. It is just under the first block, the
need for additional legislation or alternative policy instruments
to achieve a sustainable balance of waste management options.
I am just trying to clarify what changes you would like to see.
You seem to be implying that the current legislation is inadequate
and the other comments, written and verbal, seem to suggest that
you are not satisfied at all?
(Mr Chadfield) We are not satisfied with one particular
feature of the packaging regulations. As I said, it is not the
regulations themselves that we take issue with; it is the creature
of the regulations as applied in the form of statutory guidance
by the Environment Agency which has caused the problems that I
have just given chapter and verse on. Generally what we want to
see is the framework of the producer responsibility regulations
in respect of packaging waste settling down and being made to
work. Retailers are committed to make them work and so are most
of the other major players with, unfortunately, the exception
probably of the reprocessors. We would then want to stand back
and review what is actually neededwhere are the greatest
environmental effects for us? That is what we mean by a risk based
approach, that UK Limited should take a step back, stop the rush
to legislation for whatever a reasonand a lot of this has
been driven for political reasons or because of European pressuresand
look at it from a considered scientific point of view, if you
like. That we see to be the role of Government, to take the overview
and to declare what is sound and what is not sound. A very good
example of where we need practical intervention is in landfill
versus incineration. Now I was amazed to read in the Department
of the Environment, Transport and the Regions evidence to this
Committee, Mr Chairman, that they put those two on a par and they
are even canvassing for the possible taxation of incineration.
If we do that, then we are gong to be alone in Europe in doing
it. As far as incineration is concerned, if you go back to the
producer responsibility group and the work that we did that led
to the shared responsibility regulations three or four years ago,
you will find buried in that mass of statistics a requirement
to increase incineration six fold if we are to meet our targets
by the early part of the next century. There is no evidence that
that is happening. There is plenty of evidence that landfill is
going to dry up completely in five to ten years' time. Certainly
within ten years there is going to be no landfill within reasonable
distance, and transport costs are a major driver, of most of the
cities in the United Kingdom.
392. And what are the barriers to incineration?
(Ms Martin) The barriers to incineration are largely
public perception at the moment and also the planning regime.
Because of the NIMBYnot in my back yardsyndrome
and so on, all applications for incineration facilities go to
appeal so they are all ultimately decided by the secretary of
state, so really Government calls the shots on both incineration
and landfill, because it is the same thing, it happens now to
landfill as well.
393. Do you feel that public perception
should be ignored?
(Mr Chadfield) No, public perception through a
programme of public educationand again, Mr Chairman, I
note that one of the good things that the minister has announced
394. Mr Chadfield, I do not want you to
get very far off answering the question, please.
(Mr Chadfield) I am sorry. There is a role for
Government in changing public perception. Public perception is
the major barrier on incineration. It is no longer scientific,
it is no longer a properly placed concern over emission. Science
can control the emissions problem, and the modern incineration
plants are safe, otherwise most of Europe would be poisoned because
there are at least two European countries that use incineration
as a complete alternative to landfill.
Chairman: Then one
last question from Christine Butler.
395. I think that we have already touched
on the packaging recovery notes except to say, would you like
to see amendments made in the legislation because it seems as
if there is a bit of profitability taking from companies that
should not be doing this?
(Ms Martin) The brief answer is, yes, we would
like changes to the statutory guidance so that packaging recovery
notes are freely available to those who deposit waste.
396. Perhaps you could give us a note?
(Ms Martin) Yes, Mr Chairman, we could do that.
397. On that note, we thank you very much
for your evidence. We have found it very useful. It has run on
a little bit, but thank you very much.
(Ms Martin) Thank you.