Packaging and Packaging Waste

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However, I agree with my hon. Friend that the balance is difficult to get right. We are starting from a very low base, so we have an even stronger environmental imperative to do something. That does not detract however from the fact that the process involves cost, which we want to phase in order to maximise environmental benefits and minimise costs to industry. On the whole, industry has been supportive of that approach, on which there has been political consensus.

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Mr. Hammond: I promise the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) that I shall say something later about the degree of cross-party consensus.

I should like the Minister to turn his attention slightly. We are considering a proposal to increase targets with the knowledge that at a later date further proposals will be suggested that address other aspects of packaging, managing and minimising waste. Is the Minister confident that it is right for us to embark on a road in this piecemeal fashion of agreeing to higher targets without knowing what the Commission will propose for other parts of the jigsaw? Is he confident that the Government will be able to maintain their position, which effectively exempts the majority of small enterprises from the scope of the regulatory regime? We have 14,000 obligated businesses in this country, and it is essential that we maintain the focus on larger economic players and do not allow small and medium enterprises to be sucked in at a later date.

Mr. Wilson: There is more integration in the measures initiated by the European Union than the question implies because the issues are not compartmentalised. For instance, the present regulations include incentives for re-use and minimisation, and it is not as if each of those is coming forward under a separate heading. It is not the EU but the UK Government who will make the decision about SME exemption. It will therefore be up to us to decide whether we continue to do that, but I certainly have no interest in reversing that policy.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Having read the documents, I hope that the targets are achievable over a period of time. Let us compare the current reprocessing and waste management system in this country with the systems in countries such as Germany. Does the Minister agree that the essence of those countries' success in recycling waste properly is the infrastructure of the companies involved in waste management? Can we do more in this country to encourage the growth of such companies? Germany has several large companies that deal with waste management, which operate over national borders. Would it not be wise to try to encourage similar growth in this country in order to hit our targets?

Mr. Wilson: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have the bad habit in this country of looking at everything as a burden rather than as an opportunity, and these proposals are a classic example of that. By creating new responsibilities and targets, we are also creating a fantastic opportunity to expand an industry, which, as my hon. Friend has said, flourishes in other parts of the EU. On the other hand, we must be careful that that does not result in a duplication of effort, which occurs to some extent in Germany and clearly adds to cost. I know that my hon. Friend's background is in local government. Local authorities have a big role to play because they can run businesses in their localities that are both useful and profitable.

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Richard Younger-Ross: I want to develop the Minister's point about the role of local authorities. Meeting the targets will obviously be a matter of bringing together local authorities, Government and business. What does he intend to do to help local authorities meet those targets? How will he stop the many local authorities that are still using landfill? How will he improve the removal of recycled waste from waste bins on the streets of my constituency and those of other Members?

Mr. Wilson: I am anxious not to start saying that that is not my responsibility but that of DEFRA, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Scottish Executive or whoever—although I have just done so. I am sure that members of the Committee will understand that if I pontificate about what local authorities should do, it would create difficulties because I would be straying into other Departments' responsibilities.

I am advised that work through the Advisory Committee on Packaging has led to local authorities establishing their own targets for recycling, which are now statutory responsibilities. A lot of work is going on in that field, but we cannot send the message out widely enough that there is an awful lot more to do, and an awful lot more benefits if we do it. The separation of waste by the domestic consumer in a way in which is recyclable is, for instance, at a primitive level in most of the country. Anything that we can do to educate people and, even more importantly, make it easier in practical terms for them to recycle would be beneficial and would contribute to the targets.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): I am not an expert in this field, but it seems to me that the targets for specific materials must be kept in balance. There might be a problem if there were differentiations between wood, paper, plastic, glass and so on and, as a result, one industry became disadvantaged because people moved from one to another. Are the targets for the various materials that we are trying to recycle in balance?

Mr. Wilson: The important point is that we were actually opposed to differentiated material-specific targets but, as in all negotiations, one can see which way the wind is blowing. It appears that there will be a majority in the EU in favour of differentiated targets, so we must adapt to and accept them.

Mr. Hammond: Disaster.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that would be a disaster. That is a rather cataclysmic response. We must adapt to and accept new challenges. However, this is a matter for negotiation, and we must negotiate in a way that safeguards specific sectors against threats of exactly the type to which my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) referred. The Commission believes that it balances the costs and environmental benefits. Different materials have different environmental impacts, so the Commission

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would say that it, too, is keenly aware of the need not to handicap any particular industry. From a domestic point of view, we must ensure that that is followed through in practice.

Mr. Jack: The Minister mentioned that the targets were UK-wide, but he will be aware that a Scottish organisation, Wastepack, recently failed to meet its recovery obligations. Would he explain how he will ensure that the burden of the more exacting targets that are to be agreed will be spread evenly throughout the United Kingdom so that all parts of the country will be able to respond adequately? Can he tell us what mechanisms exist to ensure, as much as possible, a uniformity of approach, and can he relate that to the county level, where waste structures are currently in place?

Mr. Wilson: The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to Wastepack. The Wastepack saga is a particular irritation to us, for the simple reason that it is the difference between our achieving 48 per cent., which is below the target, and more than 50 per cent., which would have been above the target. Again, I make the departmental point not to avoid the question but because I have to make it, particularly as the regulatory body involved in that instance is the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Wastepack is the second largest compliance scheme in the UK, with more than 500 members. Oddly, it is registered in Scotland with SEPA but based in Herefordshire, so, in a sense, it is a UK-wide body. DEFRA will be in touch with SEPA about why its compliance monitoring exercise, in accordance with the regulation, found Wastepack to be in default. The Government have said that they will discuss the regulations with the Scottish and Welsh devolved bodies to determine whether any changes are needed. The right hon. Gentleman's point about conformity and even-handedness of implementation and of regulation was well made.

Mr. Hammond: May I ask the Minister about the Commission's methodology? There is considerable criticism in the European Scrutiny Committee's report and in Parliament's consideration of the measure of the methodology that the Commission has used, particularly for the material-specific targets. Can the Minister tell us what has been done in the UK to validate—or otherwise—the Commission's methodologies? The Commission has indicated what it calls optimal recycling rates of between 50 and 68 per cent. overall. Does the Minister agree that each domestic market within the European Union will have different characteristics and different marginal costs of extracting, recovering and recycling waste? How is he satisfied that that optimal recycling rate includes the rate that has been assessed as the optimal rate for the United Kingdom—given UK market conditions—and what work has his Department done in order to make us satisfied?

Mr. Wilson: The Commission proposal is based on draft studies that were commissioned from two environmental consultants—Sofres and RDC/PIRA.

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Both acknowledge that their findings are limited due to time restrictions and the lack of comparative data across member states; they do not believe that they are the last word. We are all entitled to question the methodology, and my officials have done so on behalf of the UK. We have questioned a number of the assumptions in the methodology, including the estimates of costs to the UK, based on our own data and experience. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the process of questioning the methodology and the conclusion that it reaches is ongoing.

In spite of that, we agree that the results broadly reflect the different costs of recycling differential materials. While I am willing to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's broad point, I have been advised that the outcomes are not far adrift from our conclusions. I assure him that we shall continue the process of questioning the methodology and any results that we think would be unfair to the UK or to particular sectors within it.

Richard Younger-Ross: The justification of much of the directive is its impact on the internal market. Can the Minister say what the comparative impact is across Europe on individual businesses? It is up to the member states to see how much companies charge for their contribution to the recycling process. Do British businesses pay more or less than our European competitors?

Mr. Wilson: I certainly do not think that British businesses pay more, but I shall be pleased to supply the hon. Gentleman with more detailed data.

Mr. Jack: The Minister said earlier that credit could be taken for recycling by means of an energy result. If I have understood it correctly, that would involve a degree of waste being incinerated. Can the Minister tell us, in the context of incineration involving combined heat and power, what his Department is doing to overcome current public resistance to that form of waste disposal?

Mr. Wilson: The matter overlaps with my energy responsibilities. What is common to all forms of energy generation is that someone will object to them. I defend people's right to object; all I ask is that they do not do so unreasonably or in a ritualistic way to every proposal. I cannot talk about specific cases, but all I would ask in general would be that, in making proposals, developers should be as sensitive as possible to community interests and that they should involve communities at the earliest possible stage to explain what they are doing and the benefits that flow from it. In that way, there is often a chance to give the majority of people—there is never unanimity—an understanding, so that they will support the work. If those basic steps are not taken, rumour abounds and entrenched opposition develops before a project is even at the planning stage.

The Government can do some work. I am not sure whether consultation on a review of planning law has begun yet—

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Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): It has begun.

Mr. Wilson: It has begun, I am told. That has the energy implications of planning law in mind. Ultimately, acceptability depends on the reality and the perception of the project. In each case, the developer must be open. The story has to be a good one to win public acceptance.

Energy savings come from not having to extract primary material, as it is recycled. Incineration is a separate policy issue. The energy savings that I mentioned did not flow from incineration, but I am pleased to have given an answer anyway on the issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman about planning acceptability for incineration and other energy projects.

Mr. Luke: I want to follow an earlier question about differential targets set for different types of materials recycled. Obviously, the lowest target is set for plastic. As a Member of Parliament and in my local government career, I have helped community groups to pick up rubbish from beaches and parklands. The largest amount of waste residue found in those sweep-ups is plastic containers and bottles. That is a big issue, so it is worrying that the targets are so low. I know that that is because there are technical problems in doing a good recycling job on plastic. Are the Minister and his officials aware of any research or investigation that would make recycling of such plastic much more amenable? Such research would help us raise the targets.

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Prepared Wednesday 15 May 2002