Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920
TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000
920. How reliable is data on waste arisings?
When will the Strategic Waste Management Assessments be published?
(Mr Lee) A very timely question. I will start off
on the quality first of all. We know that everybody, including
this Committee, the industry, the Agency, local authorities, have
recognised that there is a dearth of reliable waste production
and management information. We can divide the types of waste neatly
into two, into household and then into industrial and commercial
waste. Household waste is very mixed, monitored on an annual basis
by the local authorities and Government. That is probably the
best known and understood waste stream that there is. We still
need more information on what the exact composition of household
waste is and whether that varies from area to area or from one
socio-economic class to another, and the Environment Agency with
other partners is embarking on a major exercise to characterise
household waste. Industrial and commercial waste are rather less
well known and, to be quite honest, before the Environment Agency
was brought together in 1996 I do not think it was possible to
carry out a national single shot survey of industrial and commercial
waste arisings. That is because waste regulation was practised
by 83 individual Waste Regulation Authorities. Since the Agency
was brought together in 1996 we have carried out the first national
survey of industrial and commercial waste arisings in 1998 and
1999. We have processed that data to the nth degree. We have presented
a summary of the statistics for the Government to include in the
Waste Strategy and your question is timely because the Strategic
Waste Management Assessments were published at the end of last
921. I thought that was absolutely brilliant
timing. One arrived in the post for me this morning. I thought
that was very clever, that I could not complain today that I had
not got it but I could not have had time to read it to ask you
awkward questions on it.
(Mr Lee) I can assure you that was not the intent.
If you could have had them a week ago by all means you can believe
that you would have had them.
922. So what you are saying is that you are
absolutely confident that the waste assessments are reliable,
because several witnesses have shed doubt upon the reliability
of such assessments.
(Mr Lee) That is another very good and timely question.
The Strategic Waste Management Assessments are based on the first
national waste survey. We think at the moment that that survey
needs to be refreshed at least every three years and we would
like to carry out another major waste survey
923. What do you mean by "refreshed"?
(Mr Lee) It is a snapshot. It certainly gives us no
information on trends. If we do another survey in about another
12 months we can use the output of that survey to check on the
correctness of the first survey and update the information.
924. So you would repeat it?
(Mr Lee) Yes.
925. Do you have the resources to carry that
(Mr Lee) I am afraid we do not. We made a proposal
to the Department for inclusion of additional Grant In Aid monies
for 2001/02 and 2002/03 to allow us to carry that survey out.
I am afraid that was not recognised in the settlement. At the
moment we are exploring with the Department alternative ways of
enabling the Agency to complete that second major survey.
926. So until the second survey has been carried
out there are severe doubts as to reliability?
(Mr Lee) No, I do not think that is fair criticism.
I would not say there is severe doubt. You have to bear in mind
that although this was the biggest and most comprehensive survey
of which we were aware of this kind anywhere ever, (it was about
20,000 businesses) the United Kingdom has something like one and
a half million businesses, so the statistics of the gearing up
of the results from the survey are always going to be open to
question: are they statistically valid? That is one of the reasons
why we want to carry out a second survey, to check up on the assumptions
of the first.
927. Will we ever reach a situation where we
see the prompt publication of data?
(Mr Lee) I think you will see increasingly prompt
publication of the data as we go through further surveys. In fact,
having carried out a second survey, if we can carry out a second
survey, we would like to move not towards a periodic three year
re-survey; we would like to move to a rolling survey where we
can top up the information on an annual basis. We would like to
make public that improved information, again on an annual basis.
928. Are there any costs that will be required?
(Mr Lee) The first survey, because it was the first
that we did and there was an enormous amount of preparatory work
built into it, cost the Agency about £3 million. We think
that a second survey to the same sort of specification we could
repeat for about £2 million. A rolling survey would depend
on the statistics, how many of each type of business and which
industry sector we would have to survey to make sure that we had
a statistically significant rolling sample. That I am sure could
be carried out at a much lower cost but obviously spread out each
year in the three-year cycle rather than just in the third year.
929. On this point, do you think it was that
the Government was tight-fisted in not wanting you to repeat the
figures, or do you think there was a more political motive in
that it did not want you to repeat it because it would have indicated
that the Government's waste strategy was failing?
(Mr Lee) I have to say that all of my efforts, and
the efforts of the corporate planning machinery in the Agency,
have been directed at trying to persuade the Department that they
should make that money available for the re-run of the survey.
I have never quizzed the Department or Ministers on what their
reasons are for not giving us the extra grant in aid. That is
a question for the Minister.
930. It would have been very convenient. If
you have not got the figures then they could still claim that
their strategy is working, can they not?
(Mr Lee) I would say that the survey that we have
done is good.
931. But until you do a second survey we cannot
tell whether the problem of waste is getting worse or getting
better. The Government's whole strategy is that it is going to
get better, is it not? If we do not know they can still claim
that it is actually working.
(Mr Lee) That has to be true and that is one of the
reasons why we want to repeat the survey and why we want to move
to a rolling programme. You would have to ask the Minister.
932. Oh yes, that is all right.
(Dr Leinster) Can I just say that we are actively
looking with the Department as to how we can fund the survey so
they are looking with us as to how we can fund it.
933. Do you think they are looking quickly or
(Dr Leinster) I think they are looking quickly.
934. Is there a conflict between reaching the
recycling targets set out in Waste Strategy 2000 and then taking
decisions on an individual basis on waste management on the basis
of Best Practical Environmental Option?
(Mr Lee) That is a good question. Underlying your
question is the tension between targets and the search for individual
Best Practicable Environmental Option driven solutions. The Agency
recognises that the real world needs targets. You are right: the
targets can shift or bend people's behaviour and they can drive
people past the environmental or economic natural limit of a certain
type of activity. That is inevitable but it is important to recognise
that people do need targets to plan for, to make investment decisions
against, and to be able to measure progress against. There is
always going to be this tension between targets and BPEO. We are
as happy as we can be at this stage with the preliminary targets
in the strategy. What we need to do, as we need to do with the
data, is to find out in two or three years' time where we are
going as a society in England and Wales to meeting those targets
and whether or not the pursuit of those targets is taking us beyond
the natural limit of the application of those techniques. Even
recycling, carried on beyond a certain limit, starts to consume
natural resources rather than protecting them.
935. But are you taking seriously the recycling
targets set out in the strategy?
(Mr Lee) Yes, we are. Those targets are serious, particularly
for local authorities. We will do what we can to support them
in achieving them but that is for the local authorities to do.
936. How are you going to assess whether those
targets have been achieved when decisions are taken on an individual
(Mr Lee) Clearly there is room for a monitoring role
here, not just under recycling but under the Article 5 targets
on the Landfill Directive, that is, the diversion of biodegradable
waste away from landfills. We have already started discussions
with the Department because I think it is clear that they do not
only recognise the need for a monitoring role; they recognise
that the Environment Agency is the most likely body to take that
937. How do you see the role of the Environment
(Mr Lee) I am not a director or a board member but
I suspect that the Environment Agency will accept that role.
938. What are your views on the use of the WISARD
tool in assessing those strategies after questions have been raised
(Mr Lee) Rather than just concentrating on the WISARD
tool, the Environment Agency firmly believes that strategic waste
management decisions have to be based on the pursuit of, if not
the Best Practicable Environmental Option, then at least better
practicable environmental options. Understanding and information
will always change but we want to put people in a position where
they can understand what the various options open to them are
and they can weigh one against the other and choose the least
environmental cost option open to them. That leaves the Environment
Agency firmly committed to the principle of Life Cycle Assessment,
and we are putting resources into updating the information that
is needed in absolute fathoms to support LCA and to provide waste
management decision makers with the tool that enables them to
use that information. You can drown very quickly in information
if you do not have the right sort of tools to help you draw the
right sort of conclusions from it.
939. But this Committee asked for that tool
to be made freely available.
(Mr Lee) The Environment Agency entered into agreement
with the private sector because we wanted to make a Life Cycle
Assessment tool available quickly. Having entered into that agreement,
we get the advantage of already existing software and an absolute
mountain of environmental data that backs up the use of that system.
We have been able to bring forward the WISARD system almost 12
months ago to the day for people to start basing better practicable
environmental options on its use.