Packaging and Packaging Waste

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Mr. Wilson: On implementation, I am sure that my colleagues in other Departments will note my hon. Friend's comments. I agree with his analysis that one of the biggest nuisance wastes is plastic. Quantitively, I suppose that a relatively modest proportion of plastic makes for a high quantity of waste, as it is one of the biggest sources of the problem. Some impact is being made on that problem, but there are economic and technical restraints on recovery and recycling of plastics. I am told that good progress has been made on the necessary technology. The incentive exists to make good progress in technology, because the proportions of plastic recovered each year are increasing.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister referred in his opening remarks to the significance of maximum targets in preventing distortions of the internal market. Will he clarify what he meant? The only interpretation that I could think of was that a green-dominated Government who set a 100 per cent. target for recycling, in the face of all the economic and cost-benefit logic, might seriously distort the operation of the market in their economy.

That may be the reason for the significance of the imposition of maximum targets. However, is not the range of targets suggested by the Commission intended to reflect the different optimum recycling levels and recovery levels in different domestic markets, because of their different structures? Is not the same danger liable to arise if a country whose

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optimum recycling or recovery percentage level is at the bottom end of the range, for political or other reasons, chooses to adopt a target at the top end, or vice versa? Is that not likely to create the same market-distorting effects as those to which the Minister referred when he mentioned the importance of overall maximum targets remaining in the directive?

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the reason for sticking to maximum targets is to avoid distortion of the market, but that is distortion not so much of the domestic as of the EU market. In other words, if a country has a very high rate of recycling and recovery, with which the domestic industry cannot cope, there is a spill over into other countries, which distorts the domestic targets of those countries.

If a member state needs to collect very high volumes, it might import them from other member states, that material not being available domestically. The maximum targets are intended to ensure that each domestic target is met and that there are not distortions caused by excessive cross-border transactions. A problem would arise if one country had high targets but no domestic market for recycling and therefore flooded other markets.

I hope that I am making my point about that balance clear, but that is the thinking behind maximum targets. Exactly the same logic applies to the other issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. The important thing is to get the targets right, which is the subject of ongoing negotiation. Any excessive target, out of kilter with recycling capacity, would create exactly the sort of problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Jack: In the explanatory memorandum, the Minister has helpfully provided a table to compare the United Kingdom's achievement of its recycling target in 2000 with the proposals for 2006. For metal, the current achievement is 30 per cent. and the target 50 per cent. The Minister will be aware of the difficulties currently faced in the UK over the recycling of refrigerators, which are largely metal. Part of the problem is that no identifiable revenue stream for recyclers has yet been devised to enable the growing fridge mountain to be disposed of.

In the context of the targets, can the Minister tell us what schemes he will encourage to get round the problem of the future disposal not only of refrigerators but of other domestic items—items for the ultimate disposal of which the consumer currently pays nothing? Such schemes will be central to meeting the enhanced target for metal recycling.

Mr. Wilson: I do not want to engage in departmental buck-passing, but I have to say that fridges are not us.

Mr. Jack: But metal is.

Mr. Wilson: But metal is. I have no doubt that in all such matters there are lessons to be learnt from

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previous experience. The first point to make is that the directive is not something new, but a development of a well-established directive. Mr. Jack indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilson: The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head but, as I said earlier, it dates back to 1994. We will need to increase the recovery and recycling of packaging waste, including metals, but the fridge issue is a problem not of metal recycling but of lack of treatment technology for the extraction of CFCs. We must not think of fridges, in so far as we think of them at all, as single entities but separate the metal content and the CFC content. The problem is with the CFC content.

Mr. Jack: I want to pursue the Minister on that, because he may not have had the opportunity to read regulation 20/37/2000, article 16, parts 1, 2 and 3; otherwise, he may not have made the statement that he has just made. I accept his points entirely, but my first question is a general one. What mechanisms exist to enable Departments such as DEFRA, the Department of Trade and Industry and other parts of the UK legislature to sit down and discuss such problems together? The difficulties that have arisen over the negotiations on fridge disposal expose some poor cross-departmental communication.

I return to the point that I should like to ask the Minister about. Accepting that fridges are metal, at the moment there is no identifiable revenue stream available to those who want to invest in the specialised recycling equipment for old refrigerators. I want to know how that revenue stream is to be developed in pursuit of those targets because that solution is not unique to refrigerators. It refers to the ultimate disposal of many other things under the waste electrical equipment directive, the end of life vehicle directive, and so on.

Mr. Wilson: I do not want to be unhelpful, and I do not want to repeat myself, but my understanding is that the fridge problem is not one of metal recycling. Taking the right hon. Gentleman's logic and extending that point, the issues for metal recycling that arise under other directives, including this one, would not be a problem either. If he would give me the particular reference, I should be very happy to see whether there is any conflict between what it says and what I am saying.

The fridge problem is specific to the CFC content of fridges. It is absolutely fair to point out that there is not a recycling capacity for those, and maybe that should have been foreseen. Perhaps communications, either interdepartmentally or between Whitehall and Brussels, were inadequate. I am quite happy to discuss any of those propositions, but I do not see a read-across to a particular problem about metal recycling. I am, however, very happy to correspond with the right hon. Gentleman on that point.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister clarify how the negotiations on the compromise text, or the agreed text, are to be carried forward? Will he be progressing

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those negotiations with our European partners, or will it be the Minister for the Environment, at the Environment Council on 24 and 25 June? Will the Minister explain to the Committee the logic that has him here today dealing with the issues raised by the Scrutiny Committee if it is the Minister for the Environment who will represent the United Kingdom at the Environment Council?

Mr. Wilson: The latter question is one that I have been known to ask myself. The rough answer is that the content of the directive is a Department of Trade and Industry responsibility and the implementation of the targets in the directive is the responsibility of DEFRA. The answer to the question about who will be at the Environment Council meeting is that it will be my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. Those lines are never clear-cut, and it is just one of the foibles of government that sometimes matters that would be more logically contained in one Department cross between Departments. That would be fair comment in this case.

Mr. Jack: On page 14 of the Commission documentation, which was included in our briefing pack, I see that under article 6.5 of the current directive, some member states are allowed to postpone their attainment of targets. I wonder whether the Minister might comment on the fact that it appears that Portugal, Ireland and Greece are seeking dispensation? Member states should proceed in tandem. Why is the notion that those countries should have some form of derogation from the proposals being given sympathetic treatment?

Mr. Wilson: The right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that the point is that Portugal, Ireland and Greece are the member states that, alongside the UK, are looking for postponement until 2008. Certainly, the list of member states that he read out coincides with the ones that are with us in wanting that postponement. I hope that answers his point.

I add that intelligence has reached me that aluminium scrap goes for £500 a tonne, so there is a market in recycling. If ever any of us is looking for a second career, we might take note of the fact that there is a very good price for secondhand aluminium just now.

Mr. Jack: I shall send the Minister a copy of the Select Committee report on fridge recycling that we are currently writing. It becomes apparent on reading the papers that, if the enhanced targets are to be reached, local authorities will have to do much better at ensuring that the populace take their part in recycling. Will the hon. Gentleman say what his or any other Department is doing to ensure that some of the deficiencies of the so-called kerbside schemes will be more widely promulgated? He cited an example of good practice in Peterborough. At present, although good authorities produce good results, there does not

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seem to be much in the pipeline to drag the worst up to the standard of the best. What is being done about that?

Mr. Wilson: As I said to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), there is a limit to which I can transgress into other departmental responsibilities. The promotion of kerbside collection is not my Department's responsibility. I am in favour of it, but I am not responsible for it. By promulgating best practice, we hope that others will follow such an example. We have a long way to go in this country to make it easy for ordinary citizens to participate in such schemes. Local authorities are responsible for making their schemes more proactive and imaginative. I am speaking as an individual citizen, rather than someone who is responsible for promoting the schemes.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the Minister speak as a Minister, not as an individual citizen? Is he really saying that he cannot come up with an idea that would reward authorities that are meeting their targets and, in some cases, exceeding them, and penalise and incentivise those who are not?

Mr. Wilson: I am trying to draw a distinction between what is my responsibility and what is not. Local authorities have the statutory responsibility to meet their own recycling targets, so they have to come up with schemes that assist them in that objective. Under current regulations, they also have a consumer information obligation to encourage the recycling of packaging waste. Compliance schemes are currently being devised by a wide range of local authorities. I am not saying that nothing is being done. Indeed, local authorities are under an obligation to undertake some of the tasks that I have mentioned. All I am saying is that if we are to meet more ambitious targets and if there is to be more individual citizen involvement, local authorities will have to be more imaginative.

Mr. Hammond: Although I sympathise with the Minister's difficulty in that we are talking about a cross-departmental issue, is not that absolutely essential to what we are discussing? We are talking about increasing targets to the point at which we will have to tap household waste streams as well as commercial and industrial waste streams. That will have serious cost implications. If I understand the position correctly, we are facing a step change in the level of costs that will be involved.

What detailed work have the Government done in mapping the cost curve so that we understand at what point the curve will start to steepen? The Minister has acknowledged that there will be a point beyond which it would not make sense to go in respect of recovering and recycling. There will be clearly be different points for different materials, but based on the Commission's proposals—both specific and overall—will the hon. Gentleman say what assessment his Department has made of the increased need to tap the domestic household waste stream? What percentage of recycling will have to

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come from the household waste stream as opposed to the commercial and industrial waste stream? What are the specific cost implications of that? At what point will the curve start change shape? When will we run into significantly increasing marginal costs because of the need to tap the household waste stream?

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Prepared Wednesday 15 May 2002