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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon and welcome to the first evidence session of our inquiry into hazardous waste disposal. Would you be kind enough to introduce yourselves and your responsibilities.

  (Ms Hackitt) My name is Judith Hackitt and I am the Director General of the Chemical Industries Association. I have been in post as Director General for just over two months and was formerly Director of Responsible Care.
  (Mr Rodger) I am Doug Rodger, Director of Responsible Care and Health, Safety and Environmental Policy. Responsible Care is the industry's voluntary programme for looking after the things we do in relation to Health, Safety & Environment.
  (Mr Hayward) I am Chairman of the Responsible Care Board for the Association from a member company, the member company being Thomas Swan & Company, and I am Director and General Manager of that company, which is based in Consett in the North East.

  2. Thank you very much for coming and thank you for your written evidence. This is the first of our sessions, and most of us are learning about hazardous waste and the complexities involved. I was very struck by a sentence in paragraph 5 of your evidence in which you say, "In truth, our sector has more questions than answers with regard to the shape of industrial waste management in the short to medium term as there are so many uncertainties in this policy area and many strands of waste policy are developing separately." It sounds like a recipe for chaos. Would you expand by way of introduction into this area and tell us what prompted you to make what is quite a powerful statement of almost disarray in the area of government and European policy making in this very important area.
  (Ms Hackitt) Perhaps I can provide a brief description of the industry and put ourselves into context. We, the Chemical Industries Association, represent close to 200 member companies in the UK who between them have close to 400 manufacturing sites, many of whom will generate waste as a result of their manufacturing processes. However, whilst we generate both hazardous and non-hazardous waste as part of our manufacturing processes, when you look at that in the context of the total generation of industrial waste in the UK, we represent some 6 per cent of the total industrial waste and 12 per cent of the hazardous waste. So whilst the problems that we are describing here today for the chemical industry are our immediate concern, in our view, this uncertainty and the level of unknowns affects much more of industry than just the chemical industry. As we get closer and closer to deadlines—and I will ask my colleague Mr Rodger to go into detail about this in a moment—our member companies do not have answers to the questions they have in order to plan for the future, the next three to four years, and even the next month, as we will hear, on what will happen to waste streams that they currently produce, because they are still waiting for guidance to be published by the government department so that the regulators and the waste disposal contractors can issue us, their customers, with definitive advice and instruction on what they will or will not be able to take. This is a problem of deadlines looming and no firm answers to questions people have in order to be able to satisfactorily plan their business activities.
  (Mr Rodger) Our major concerns are the uncertainties that have been occasioned by the UK implementation of the EU Landfill Directive. The major uncertainty is whether there will be enough treatment and disposal capacity over the next few years to deal with the hazardous waste produced by UK companies. As background to this, bear in mind that waste management in this area is a commercial activity, so I am quite confident that, subject to the important caveat of the planning system in the UK, in the fullness of time market forces will prevail, supply and demand will balance, and disposal capacity will balance supply. We are concerned that these market forces might not work too well over the next few years because of all the uncertainties. There are three major uncertainties here. First of all, how much landfill capacity is there going to be? The reason for that uncertainty is that the implementation of the Directive tightens up the conditions under which landfills can be operated. Operators of landfill sites will have to make decisions very shortly as to what kind of sites they want to have. No-one knows what the outcome of those decisions will be. All the indications are that there will be a sharp reduction in the number of landfill sites for disposing of hazardous waste. The second major uncertainty is what is going to happen to all the waste that is displaced from landfill, the waste which, because of the implementation of the Directive, is banned from going to landfill. We are talking about substantial quantities which are going to be diverted from landfill and it is not immediately clear how they are going to be dealt with. The third uncertainty is the amount of hazardous waste that is going to be produced. Of course, industry makes efforts to reduce its waste, but there are re-classifications going on at the moment, and our information is that 600,000 tonnes of extra waste is going to be classed as hazardous as a result. To put that 600,000 tonnes into context, it is not far short of the total that we as an industry produce.

  3. Can you just put a couple of things into context for me? In terms of the Landfill Directive, the changes have been known for some time. Who in government has been consulting with you about this? How have you been involved in that process? Have you done it strictly Association to UK Government, or have you done it both to the UK Government and to the Commission? How have you been involved in the loop? Can you give us a feel about the timetable of activities between Directive moving along to ultimate agreement, and this position which you describe where there is a lot of discussion going on in the UK about implementation, which has left you facing the questions which you have summarised so far for us.
  (Ms Hackitt) I will ask Mr Rodger to answer the question in relation to policy and Mr Hayward will give you a very good example of how that plays out in his particular company's case.
  (Mr Rodger) At one level, the EU process is comparatively straightforward and manageable. There is usually a reasonable amount of time for all the prior discussion that goes on, then the Directive, then two years for implementation. That is the usual timescale, and that seems reasonable on the face of it. The problem in this case is that the Directive only tells us so much, and to back up the Directive, almost in all cases, you need some technical guidance, some more detailed information. The Commission was due to produce that a year ago, but it is not yet available. The England and Wales regulations are only just in place, but even they do not tell you very much in terms of how the regime should be operated. There is still a lack of guidance as to how it is actually going to work. It is because of that lack of detailed technical guidance that the waste management industry is not able with confidence to make investment decisions. They are waiting for clarification before they can move. We are hard up against the first of the deadlines, which is July this year, when things start to happen. So on the face of it, the timetable probably did not look ridiculous when the Directive was passed, but we are still waiting for the detailed guidance to help us make sure it works properly.
  (Mr Hayward) I have two particular waste streams where I have known that this was likely to become an issue ever since the Landfill Directive was first mooted.

  4. What does Swan & Co do?
  (Mr Hayward) We are a small to medium sized enterprise, a family-owned concern. We make a variety of speciality products for incorporation in a range of things from inks, tyres, coatings, rubber goods of all sorts, medical devices, disinfectants—a whole variety of things across a number of markets. We export 70 per cent of all that we make. We are very typical of the kind of company that has a variety of waste streams arising from a variety of different industrial processes to make a very broad range of products. Try as we might, chemistry does not work as neatly as we would like, and there is inevitably a waste stream associated with just about any production. That is unfortunately a fact of nature that we cannot yet get around. As I say, there were two particular waste streams that we became concerned with, and for the last two years we have been trying to get some degree of certainty from the disposal market, the waste contractors, as to what would be likely to happen, how we would handle it—either ourselves or jointly—and as to how we could therefore continue to make the products available to the market. It is only three months ago that one of the more proactive companies came forward and said that they would provide us an outline plan. None of the other waste disposers have come forward with any indication yet, and here we are within a month of the tightening of the regime and the beginnings of the likelihood of those waste streams not being able to be disposed of.

  5. Have you as an Association made representations to government about these concerns, and if so, to which department?
  (Ms Hackitt) Yes. We have been in dialogue with DEFRA for some considerable time now, and in fact, we have written to DEFRA since the beginning of this year to propose the formation of an industrial waste forum, because we recognise that this is an issue that affects more than just the industry; the producers of the waste, the disposers of the waste, and indeed the regulators are all caught in this deadline box. It is a problem we share and where we feel it would make sense for us all to get together and talk about industrial waste per se, because it is a very different issue from the broader issue of municipal waste, for the reasons outlined by my colleague in the sense that it is a commercial issue in the long term.

  6. How long ago did you put that proposal to DEFRA?
  (Ms Hackitt) The proposal for the industrial waste forum we put to DEFRA in March of this year.

  7. Have you had a response yet?
  (Ms Hackitt) We have had one meeting with the Minister, where that proposal was received positively, but there has yet to be any formal indication that that forum will be set up.

  8. Is DEFRA the only government department with a finger in this particular pie?
  (Ms Hackitt) That is the department which is in control of it, as far as we are concerned. Certainly as far as the industry sector is concerned, we have made our concerns known to the Department of Trade & Industry, to our sponsoring department there too.

  9. The Government have got the PIU involved in a study into this whole question of waste disposal and hazardous waste. What are your expectations as to the outcome of that? Are you making representations to them, and if so, what are you saying to them?
  (Ms Hackitt) All of the information that we have provided to DEFRA we have also copied to the PIU, so they are aware of this. We have provided it to them for information at this stage.

  10. One of the things that concerns me, looking at this picture you are painting of a lack of forward planning, is are we heading for a chaotic situation where, because of this lack of definition and the timetable looming, we will end up with piles of chemicals here, there and everywhere, and people saying, "What do we do with them? How do we dispose of them? What is the guidance?" Is that too exaggerated a position or not?
  (Ms Hackitt) Until we have answers, that is a fear that we have. That is where our concern about these uncertainties comes from. Undoubtedly there may be some solutions that pull us back from that, but in the worst case, yes, we will be facing situations where companies will have to make decisions about what to do with their hazardous waste in the interval, and one of the possible solutions of that is to continue to store it.

  11. On the industrial site?
  (Ms Hackitt) Yes, but what you can be confident of in this particular industry is that we will handle it responsibly and within the law, but in the more general picture, one does have to have concerns about whether there will be a proliferation of illegal disposal in some other parts of the industry.

  12. One of the things you mentioned earlier was this question of the classification of the sites, and the lack of clarity will obviously make it difficult for people to take decisions as to what classification their landfill site ought to have. Can you talk us through this? I would like you to explain one point that is bothering me, as to whether landfill site operators in your judgement will have to make an either/or decision. Will they, for example, be able to divide up big sites to do different, specific tasks?
  (Mr Rodger) In answering this, Chairman, you have to recognise that we are not experts in the operation of landfill sites, so you may want to ask the same question of others who are more expert, but our understanding is that, although in theory you can operate a divided site, in practice most of the them will be one way or the other. The decision will be driven by a question as to whether the revenues will meet the costs of the engineering that is necessary, and quite rightly, to properly run the landfill site, and any financial guarantees you have to make about after-care of the site, etc. It will largely be a black and white decision. There may be room somewhere for a mixed site, but I do not think they will be too common. In terms of the answer to the last question, our understanding is that there are 200,000 producers of hazardous waste on a regular basis, which gives you an idea of the numbers involved here.

  13. Why do you think it is that there has been all this delay? There are some pretty nasty substances out there which need to be responsibly disposed of. You have had quite a long period of time in which you could see the problem coming down the track. Why is it that, with the implementation of a piece of European legislation into UK law, we seem to be running behind the ideal timetable and we have all these uncertainties? What is your analysis of how the situation has come about?
  (Mr Rodger) One other thing that you need to be aware of, Chairman, is that most of the other member states of the European Union do not have the same level of dependence on landfill as the UK. The UK traditionally relies to a much heavier extent on landfill as opposed to incineration, which is quite common in other member states. The demands of the Landfill Directive are much less of an issue for them in terms of changing their infrastructure to deal with it. The question is, with hindsight, should the UK have realised that this might take a bit longer and sought more time to introduce the requirements of the Landfill Directive? I have to say, when we as an Association first discussed UK implementation with our members well over a year ago, we decided not to challenge the timetable; we decided that we should concentrate on informing our members and encouraging them to meet the timetable, but as time has gone on, we are beginning to wonder if we made a mistake in that decision.

Mr Mitchell

  14. No wonder you all look so depressed! Tell me as a layman whether you are happy with the process of consultation within Europe and in this country when a new Directive has been formulated? Is the industry sufficiently consulted?
  (Mr Rodger) To be honest, it varies from Directive to Directive and it varies from department to department within government. Very often it is a question of personalities. In general, industry is consulted, yes. There is usually some attempt made to take the views of industry while the Directive terms are being negotiated, but it is quite often the case that the UK views are in a minority in terms of the discussions at member state level. That is a fact of life. What does not always happen—and this may be an area for improvement—is more input from the regulatory bodies like the Environment Agency, who are going to have to implement the Directive, in this case once it is in place, so that they can keep an eye on what the practical problems might be of dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.

  15. That is a British problem rather than a European problem.
  (Mr Rodger) I would say so in this particular case because of the historical reliance on landfill.

  16. In terms of what you were saying earlier about the need for detailed guidance, whose fault is that?
  (Mr Rodger) In this case it was Commission guidance we have been looking for. The draft of that is only starting to emerge now. The UK in one or two places has tried to put forward UK guidance to fill the gap, but frankly, they are not in a position to give guidance of good enough quality to enable people to take decisions on it. We need the Commission guidance to be sure of what we can do.

  17. So that is a falling between the stools problem. You mentioned the problem of landfill here as opposed to incineration there. Is waste disposal, hazardous and otherwise, a greater cost on industry in this country than it is in other European countries? We have a bigger chemical industry and we have a small, rather overcrowded set of islands as opposed to having the space of France or Germany.
  (Mr Rodger) To be frank, at the moment, it is the reverse. Our information suggests that waste disposal costs in the UK are lower. A large part of that may be the fact that landfill is cheaper than incineration in general terms, and we are more heavily reliant on landfill than incineration, so there is a mix coming into the equation.

  18. So generally, this is a process of bringing our standards, and therefore cost levels, up to European ones.
  (Ms Hackitt) That is true in part, but the problem we are describing is one of a capacity squeeze, because other countries in Europe have taken decisions years ago to invest in incineration and other disposal routes that we in the UK, for a variety of reasons, have not done. We have continued to rely on landfill to a much greater extent as those other countries have diversified into other means of waste disposal, and therefore the capacity squeeze on this particular issue is particularly acute for the UK. It is the capacity issue that we are concerned about more than the cost issue.

  19. And also the timing. If you bring in incineration now, you will face more public opposition, it seems to me—this is a hot political issue, certainly in my area—than in countries where it is already established and accepted.
  (Mr Rodger) Absolutely, and even if we decided now that we needed more incineration capacity to solve this problem, when would we get it on line?

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