Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. I think everybody who wants to be in is now in. Can I welcome Councillor Kay Twitchen, you are the Chairman of the Local Government Association Waste Management and Environment Executive, is that right?

  (Cllr Twitchen) That is the one.

  2. It sounds a wonderful title, I must say. Mr Fielding, you have the problem looking after all the mounting piles of fridges in your area being the Waste Services Manager of Hampshire County Council.
  (Mr Fielding) Yes, that is correct.

  3. You are both very welcome. I am sorry the start of our inquiry has been disrupted by votes. There may be other votes and if we all run out it is nothing to do with you, it is just the procedures that we have to follow. Can I thank you very much for coming this afternoon. You are our first witnesses in this inquiry into the disposal of refrigerators. It is a wonderful title for our Sub-Committee, the Disposal of Refrigerators Sub-Committee, but there are some very important issues on this. I wonder if I could just throw the first question to you both for comment. On this whole thing there has been an enormous amount of uncertainty demonstrated by the Government about what exactly the Regulation 2037/2000 which deals with Ozone Depleting Substances is all about and there has been a lot of concern that this delay has caused the problems which will be central to our inquiry. Do you think that the Government has acted very well in this particular matter? What is your view of the way that they have conducted themselves?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I think the effects of the delay have been catastrophic for local authorities, there is no doubt about that. Had we had warning that these regulations were going to apply in the way that they do then the industry would have been prepared and local authorities certainly would have been better prepared and we would not see fridges stored on civic amenity sites and in other areas very visible to the public. Having said that, which sounds a bit negative, I would like to make the point at the very outset that local authorities are very supportive of environmental legislation that achieves better environmental standards. Fridges are not waste, they are a resource. Can I just very quickly show you, I went to Germany a couple—

  4. I thought you were going to produce a refrigerator.
  (Cllr Twitchen) I went to Germany and saw a plant where they are recycled and this is the product. That is pure aluminium and pure steel. Those were German fridges a few weeks ago. In this country we used to refurbish some of them, some of them, I am afraid, we also used to landfill. The idea that we are now not only going to deal with the CFCs in an appropriate way but also reclaim the metal as part of that process is something I think we should be very proud of and it is certainly something that local authorities support. We are in this situation now, not the situation we will hopefully be in in a couple of years' time when all of this is taking place, because there was not enough warning, there was not enough forethought and planning and nobody was given the right information at the right time to enable us to prepare for the new regulations.

  5. You are in a body which keeps a very close eye on all developments which affect local authorities. When did this particular issue, if you like, first appear on your radar? When did you suddenly say "hang on a minute, something is happening that could affect the recycling of refrigerators and freezers"?
  (Cllr Twitchen) Late last year.
  (Mr Fielding) If I can clarify that. The first I became aware of it as an individual officer was through press articles probably last July/August time. The first formal meeting I went to on the subject was on 21 August last year. Sorry, I beg your pardon. There was a meeting on 21 August last year called by DEFRA, I believe, to which there were no local authority invitees. The first meeting I went to was on 14 September, a meeting hosted by the Industry Council for Electronics and Recycling. I was invited as a local authority representative to a meeting involving mainly industry retailers.

  6. That is 2001?
  (Mr Fielding) 2001, sorry, yes. After 21 August I wrote to DEFRA seeking clarification personally after reading the press articles on 5 September. That was the time that I became aware of it.

  7. Can I just ask, does the Local Government Association have any kind of monitoring facility about what is happening in Brussels in terms of looking at the output of the Commission or the Council of Ministers where this particular item might have come to your attention earlier in the middle of last year?
  (Cllr Twitchen) Not formally. We have links with the CEMR and we serve on their Environment Committee. We try very hard to keep track of these issues but we did not realise the specific implications for local authorities. Maybe with hindsight we should have done, and I am sure we will cover the are we learning some lessons from this aspect of it all. In this particular instance, no, we did not. I could not say to you that we are really resourced to have work done at that level.

  8. What about in terms of communicating to Government? You mentioned, Mr Fielding, a meeting that you went to. Was that the first time that Government, if you like, had a flavour of where those in the world of local authorities were coming from when it came to dealing with this now identifiable problem?
  (Mr Fielding) It is difficult for me to say what happened before I was involved because I was not involved, but clearly the local authorities' views were made plain at the meeting I attended on 14 September. As I said, I also wrote to DEFRA on 5 September wanting clarification and informing them of our concerns if take-back schemes were to fold and a possible three-fold increase in the numbers we would have to handle and the cost issues. What happened before then I am not sure but certainly since that date I have taken every opportunity to make local authorities' views known at the meetings I have attended.

  9. Did you ask questions of Government about the cost implications or did you supply them with some early indication of the implications for local authorities?
  (Mr Fielding) I have the letter here. I sought clarification on the implications of the regulations and I made Government aware of my views of the likely implications if they were to be implemented as I understood them at that time.

  10. What kind of response did you get back? Did you write to officials or Ministers?
  (Mr Fielding) To an official.

  11. What kind of response did you get back? Warm and friendly, lots of information?
  (Mr Fielding) Unfortunately, I did not get a response until 23 October but, having said that, a lot of the issues that I raised in my letter of 5 September were then subject to discussion at meetings from that time all through September so I was getting answers to my questions, albeit not written down.

  12. What were the top three questions that you asked them, the things that were most on your mind?
  (Mr Fielding) I was seeking clarification on whether or not we would be able to place fridges into a disposal stream after 1 January and, therefore, if the answer was negative, would we have to store them or would we be able to landfill them and how finances would be dealt with.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Patrick Hall

  13. On the issue of not having warning regarding the scope of the Directive, that may well be so and we are looking into that, but why do you think that without the Directive being enforced, in advance of it and with the encouragement of the LGA and others, good practice has seen CFCs in the coolant of British fridges removed quite successfully by the industry in this country, why do you think that happened and it did not happen with regard to the foam? Why could good practice not apply to all of it?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I understood that the removal of CFCs from the coolant was done in response to a regulation. I may be wrong there, I am sorry, but I understood that it was. The previous practice was that retailers had a take-back scheme through which roughly half of fridges that became waste were as a result of somebody buying a new one, so somebody delivered the new one and took the old one away, and only about 40 to 50 per cent came to local authorities through other routes, which is people bringing them to civic amenity sites or house clearance where there was not a new one for it to go back through the retailer. A lot of them were resold or reused, refurbished by people like Remploy. A lot, as you well know, were exported to developing countries, up to about 50 per cent according to the Environment Agency. The rest were either recycled or landfilled. There just was not any expectation that any of that was not acceptable practice. The CFCs from the coolant was removed, which is the bulk of the CFCs, and my understanding is there was not any understanding that there were CFCs in the foam that had to be dealt with until this ODS Reg came along. Everyone was quite happy with the way it was being done. We know better now but we just did not see this coming.

  14. I very much question that people did not see or understand that there were CFCs in the foam because we have been aware of that for a couple of decades actually, generally speaking. I just wondered why good practice that applied to the CFCs in the coolant could not be applied to the CFCs in the foam. I have heard your answer.
  (Cllr Twitchen) There is not any reprocessing capacity in this country. I think to expect local authorities to suddenly say "hey, this is not best practice, we are going to store these fridges until we can find something better to do with them" is actually asking rather a lot.

  15. Local authorities have an interest and a responsibility for the environment and best practice and, as you have said, have been successfully instrumental in encouraging industry to draw off CFCs in the coolant, so the industry has developed a capacity to do that. In fact, if good practice had been pushed earlier then it might have done so with regard to foam. That is not to take away at all the Government's responsibility, let me make that absolutely clear, I am not trying to do that, I am just trying to see why that other area was not explored and nobody seems to have been aware of it, which I find surprising.
  (Cllr Twitchen) Well, we know now.

Mr Lepper

  16. I was concerned with the issue of what we might have learned from this situation that has developed so far. You have already indicated perhaps in what you have said, and I think in your written submission, that you feel there are some lessons to be learned from what has happened over the fridges.
  (Cllr Twitchen) Yes.

  17. Could you just sketch out for us what they are?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I think there are lessons for local authorities, for Government and for the industry. I think British industry, certainly in terms of waste management, is pretty quick on its feet but it cannot produce factories for this kind of process overnight, so it is a matter of understanding which regulations are going to kick in at what point. We have a whole raft of environmental legislation coming through the system: the End of Life Vehicles Directive, the WEEE Directive, the Batteries Directive, there will be a Composting Directive, it has been held back but it will come eventually. There will be a whole raft of environmental legislation that will quite rightly impinge on local authorities as well as the industry. I think if this episode has taught us one thing, it has taught us that we must look ahead and be prepared and have clear understandings with the Commission what the timescales are and clear arrangements within the UK for implementation processes. We were caught unawares with this one. The term "fiasco" I think is not too severe. Yes, we must learn the lesson that if it goes wrong it can have very serious cost implications and environmental implications for everyone and we must not let it happen again. At the LGA we are already getting much better quality advanced briefing on upcoming European legislation.

  18. Were there already mechanisms in place for the LGA liaising with the Commission or receiving information?
  (Cllr Twitchen) As I say, we have a seat on the CEMR Environment Committee and there are informal arrangements through the LGIB but I do not think they are very structured. The other thing is although the LGA seeks to represent the interests of local authorities, it cannot tell them what to do. They are members of our organisation but we do not have any control over their activities, they are all autonomous bodies, 400 different local authorities with 400 different ways of looking at things, and it is for them to make their own decisions.

  19. I think my own local authority, working with one or two others, has an office in Brussels and I think it is probably a common practice among local authorities. Even if the LGA did not get the early warning, would one expect it from that kind of representation on the part of individual local authorities in Brussels for it to have been picked up earlier?
  (Cllr Twitchen) I think it is probably not an area of work that they focus on, or have not focused on until now. I think they are very often concerned with trade links, with grants, with exchange of information on a more commercial and job creation level, that is my impression. Certainly maybe it is something that we should encourage them to pay a bit more attention to in the future. I do think until now we have just relied on the Government departments to be aware of the necessity for these arrangements.

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