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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920 - 939)



Mr Cummings

  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 week.


  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.

Mr Cummings

  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—

Mrs Dunwoody

  923. What do you mean by "refreshed"? Changed, improved?
  (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.

Mr Cummings

  925. Do you have the resources to carry that exercise out?
  (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 slowly?
  (Dr Leinster) I think they are looking quickly.

Mrs Ellman

  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 basis?
  (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 monitoring on.

  937. How do you see the role of the Environment Agency?
  (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 about it?
  (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.

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