Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 380 - 397)



  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 that.
  (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.

Mr Gray

  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 they are——

  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.

Dr Whitehead

  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.

Dr Whitehead

  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 afraid—and I am sorry to have to report this to the Committee, Mr Chairman—that 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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 on that?
  (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 needed—where 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 reason—and a lot of this has been driven for political reasons or because of European pressures—and 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 NIMBY—not in my back yard—syndrome 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 education—and again, Mr Chairman, I note that one of the good things that the minister has announced it——


  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.

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.

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