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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. Forgive me, I may just have missed it; you quoted a figure, a moment ago, of, if you like, the before and after effect of the number of producers. Could you just say again what that was?
  (Mr Lee) We think it will just about treble. There are about 200,000 at the moment; we estimate that there could be up to 600,000 caught under the new definition of "hazardous" waste.

  141. Gosh; and just refresh my memory on the timescale that this net is finally going to close round this additional 400,000?
  (Mr Lee) Of course, that would depend on when Government came forward with their new, revised Hazardous Waste Regulations; there is a forthcoming consultation document. We would anticipate that the new controls would come in during the calendar year 2003; the exact time would depend on many factors, including the period when the regulators and the waste management industry need, frankly, to get their systems ready to cope with such a volume of business.

  142. Is this uncertainty over timing going to mean that there will be a neat, smooth introduction of the new arrangements, or will it be lumpy and will it be expensive, and, if so, how much?
  (Mr Lee) You know that it would be very optimistic for me to say that there will be a smooth transition from one regime to another. One of the things that we want DEFRA to recognise, in their timing of the introduction of the new regime, is for a period where hazardous waste producers are given an opportunity, or even required, to register before the changeover in the regime, so we continue with the existing special waste regime for maybe another quarter after the implementation of the Regulations, such that we allow ourselves that dual running period, to make sure that we do not go into the first day of the new regime and find that we have got an absolute registration mountain to climb.

  143. And are you going to adopt an approach which does not end up with the United Kingdom being fingered as overzealous, in terms of the implementation procedures, because people will no doubt come back from other parts of the EU, saying, "They haven't implemented it like we are; we're being treated unfairly"?
  (Mr Lee) We do have a published "enforcement of prosecution" policy; hopefully that not only makes clear how the Environment Agency is going to react in given circumstances, it should also make clear that the Environment Agency is not going to be an unrealistically harsh regulator. We have to take cases that meet the public interest test.

  144. We had some evidence last week, or further information from our witness last week, which gave the indication that one of the things that happens, as you tighten up on control regimes for hazardous waste, is that people produce less of it and become more efficient and actually leave us a beneficial gain. Do you think, in this case, that will happen?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes, I do. I think that, certainly for industrial producers of waste, if they see a cost associated with their waste disposal activities then they will concentrate on reducing their costs; so I think there will be a signal, and I think industry will reduce the amount of hazardous waste produced. So it will be a good thing.

Paddy Tipping

  145. Can we focus on landfill, for a moment, and what is happening now and what is going to happen. I think the UK is atypical, in that a large proportion of hazardous waste goes to landfill just now. With the new Directive on that, what do you think is going to happen?
  (Mr Lee) You are right, that we have got a strong reliance on landfill for hazardous waste disposal; just under half of the hazardous waste we produce goes to landfill at the moment. We predict quite a dramatic change in the hazardous waste production and management market over the next two, four or maybe five years. The most important changes in that programme are going to be the banning of co-disposal, so-called, hazardous with non-hazardous waste in the same landfill, which will happen in 2004, and the introduction of the pre-treatment requirements for any hazardous waste still going to landfill and the introduction of the waste acceptance criteria. The introduction of the waste acceptance criteria, that is a decision yet to be made by the Commission, we expect them to make that decision public towards the end of next month; the UK could choose to introduce the waste acceptance criteria slightly earlier, but our current best guess is that that would be in around 2005 or 2006. So somewhere between 2004 and around 2006 there will be quite a strong reduction in the types and quantities of hazardous waste going to landfill. Now if they are not going to landfill they are either going to have to not be produced in the first place or made non-hazardous through on-site treatment at the place where they are produced, or they will have to go through some alternative treatment or disposal, either on their way to landfill or for things like energy recovery. So quite a big change-around in the market.

  146. So let us go through that timetable a bit, because there are some important milestones there; co-disposal finishes 2004, and by 2008, in a sense, there has got to be a final storage solution. Now tell me what is going to happen between 2004 and 2008, because disposal companies are going to be quite anxious about operating under a regime during that period that is far from certain?
  (Mr Lee) We suspect, but we do not know, because it depends on commercial decisions yet to be made by the operators, that the number of hazardous waste landfill sites will fall sharply in 2004, it is currently about 240, we guess, by mid 2002, that number could have fallen to maybe 150; we suspect that after July 2004 the number could have collapsed to maybe fewer than two dozen. So that will be the first big change. Those two dozen that decide that they wish to continue to operate as hazardous waste landfills will do so as "hazardous waste only" landfills, and the wastes that they take will have to satisfy the requirement to have been pre-treated, and they will have to satisfy the interim waste acceptance criteria that we have made clear in our Regulatory Guidance Note No.2. So those will be the controls that those "hazardous waste only" site are operating under. We think that the waste acceptance criteria, and possibly the broader pre-treatment requirement date, will cut in before 2008; we do not know what the Commission are going to say, if we did we would be publishing it, but we suspect that they will be advocating a date of around 2005 or 2006 for the full waste acceptance criteria to cut in.

  147. But these 24 sites could be anywhere in the country; there is no strategic planning about where they are going to be, is there?
  (Mr Lee) That is correct; as I said, it is down to commercial decisions to be made by the operators, they will read the hazardous waste production market and make their decisions appropriately.

  148. You do not give any advice, DEFRA did not give any advice on this?
  (Mr Lee) I do not think it is for the Environment Agency to dictate where these facilities should be.

  149. But there is a public interest here, is there not?
  (Mr Lee) There is a clear public interest, and that is one of the major reasons—

  150. So who is looking after the public interest?
  (Mr Lee) That is why we advocate that there ought to be some national overview, over the number, the type and the distribution of hazardous waste facilities that we will need into the future. Without that overview we are depending either on happenstance or individual commercial decisions, and there is no guarantee that we would end up with the type and distribution of sites that we need.

  151. So this is a DEFRA issue?
  (Mr Lee) We think that that overview would have to be a Government overview, because there then has to be some link between a national strategy or a national plan, and the planning system and the development control planning system that would actually make those facilities available.

  152. And in the 20 or 24 sites that may, or may not, exist, what kinds of materials are going to go in there, because all good people are going to say, I can read the headlines now, "These are ticking time-bombs;" what is going to go in there?
  (Mr Lee) I can understand that the public might be alarmed, but we have to remember that the materials going into the hazardous waste landfills that are left will be fewer and probably less hazardous than the hazardous materials that are currently going to landfill; so the change is actually for the benefit of all of us. You ask what sorts of materials. I think there are probably some hazardous materials that lend themselves less obviously to other forms of treatment, fibrous asbestos is perhaps a good example, that we may well expect that to continue to go to landfill after 2004.

  153. But the move away from landfill is going to require other disposal techniques; are they going to be ready in time?
  (Mr Lee) Again, that is not something that the Environment Agency can guarantee; clearly, we hope and trust that they will be, and two things could help the provision of that adequate network. The first thing is some form of national plan, linked to the development control planning system; and the second is an appropriate date by which the waste acceptance criteria and pre-treatment requirements cut in, such that that leaves the private sector, in particular, long enough to react, to design, finance, give planning permission for and actually commission the new facilities that we need.

  154. You told us, a little while ago, about these waste acceptance criteria, when you thought they might come in. Just take me through that again; it is an EU agreement, but it can be brought in at different dates by different Member States?
  (Mr Lee) Yes. We are led to understand, but certainly cannot guarantee it, that the Commission is likely to favour a date of around 2005 or 2006; you can tell by the language I am using that we are not in a position to be any more exact than that, it depends on a decision to be made clear by the Commission at the end of next month. I am also led to understand that, if it wishes, the UK could introduce the waste acceptance criteria early, through change to Regulations, probably to the Landfill Regulations, which I think have just been issued.

  155. What do you think is going to happen; because, if I were an operator, I would be pretty confused about all this, how am I going to make some investment decisions, I do not know what I am doing?
  (Mr Lee) I will tell you what I think is going to happen, but I would stress that what does happen is going to have to be a decision made by DEFRA, and I would urge very strongly that that decision is made in the light of arguments from both hazardous waste management producers and hazardous waste managers, with input, of course, from the regulators. What do I think is going to happen is probably much less important than what DEFRA actually say is going to happen, eventually, but my guess is that the full waste acceptance criteria could be applied to certain types of facility earlier than others; for example, those sorts of landfill sites who wish to continue to take hazardous waste in a separate cell in a non-hazardous waste landfill. And then the full waste acceptance criteria could, conceivably, come in at other facilities, at a different date. But, I would have to stress, that is just my guess as to what could happen, and it is DEFRA's decision that matters.

  156. But you advise DEFRA, do you not, you are the watchdog, the powerful watchdog, that DEFRA takes a lot of notice of?
  (Mr Lee) I would like to think that the Environment Agency is one of the important voices that DEFRA will listen to. I would be equally concerned if we were the only voice that DEFRA listened to.

  157. What is the resource within DEFRA to come to decisions like this?
  (Mr Lee) We work well with DEFRA. They are a public sector organisation, as we are, and, of course, we would call for more resources for them, particularly legal advice, given that a lot of what they need to decide and make public is through regulations, or statutory guidance that needs to be published. So, of course, yes, I would call for more resources for DEFRA in general and, of course, I would call for more resources for DEFRA on waste.

Mr Lepper

  158. You talked about alternatives to landfill, and the Government's Waste Strategy published in 2000 recognises the importance of a network of high-temperature incinerators, suitable for the disposal of hazardous organic wastes and other wastes. Does less landfill mean more incinerators?
  (Dr Leinster) Not necessarily. What we need to do is, as Steve was explaining earlier, to have this national strategic waste management plan; it is only on the basis of having the knowledge of the types and quantities of the different wastes, of the various options for treatment and disposal of those wastes, that you can then make a value judgement as to what types of facilities are required. So I think there is more analysis to be done before you would necessarily say that you wanted more incinerators.

  159. I think the Waste Incineration Directive comes into force in December 2002?
  (Dr Leinster) Yes.

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