Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hayes: I was about to say that I thought that that was an extremely good point, but my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster tells me from a sedentary position that he thinks that it is not and is, I suspect, about to intervene on me to say why.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The point that the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) made was entirely reasonable, and I think that my hon. Friend is about to talk about volume, which is the key point. One problem that we have encountered throughout our proceedings is whether we measure waste by weight or by weight and volume. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire has constantly referred to that, and I draw the Committee's attention to his comments about the ratio of volume to weight of 2:1. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) will soon mention that.

Mr. Hayes: I was clearly doing so with insufficient clarity, but that was the point that I was trying to make. However, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth may have something, in that the calculation will not be simple. There will be occasions when the larger package may be more desirable than the smaller, or the heavier package

Column Number: 232

more desirable than the lighter. That, I think, was the argument put by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth.

We need to measure the likely reuse or recycling of material, or whether it is possible to recover it. That is not as simple as it may appear, but given that we cannot analyse every piece of waste in fine detail at every point of collection and disposal, the volume to weight ratio would at least give us a handle on the increased amount of waste that is large and bulky but not heavy.

I am interested in what the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth said. I shall certainly give it proper consideration, and I am sure that the Minister will do likewise. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor I would qualify on either volume or weight, and the ratio would do neither of us much good. None the less, we should probably have it. I shall conclude by saying that the three-way change of culture that I identified is pertinent and necessary; and that would be assisted by what is yet another constructive amendment.

3 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted, Mr. Amess, to serve again under your chairmanship. I shall not keep the Committee long.

The problem is how to define zero waste. It is a fine notion, in a similar vein to sustainability; both terms are bandied about by those who call themselves green or environmentalist, but they are difficult to include in legislation. I have no problem with the idea of waste minimisation. If we took it to its ultimate conclusion, we would create no waste—we would not have created the item that created the waste—but I am not sure about the concept of zero waste. In a sense, we can achieve zero waste only if we remove many types of production, because they inevitably have by-products, and some of them could be put to alternative and better uses.

We must also consider whether there is a way of creating an exchange mechanism whereby people who create waste can buy a form of allowance from those who are more environmentally friendly. I am not sure how that would fit in with the Bill. We need to give the matter a great deal more thought before using the term ''zero waste'', or we shall be creating a wish list, and that may undermine and degrade the very important work that we are trying to achieve. The Committee may like to ponder on that. Perhaps the Minister will give us his definition of zero waste.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend raised an important point about definitions. Aspirational targets such as zero waste are rather vague. However, I must not let the moment pass without referring to the speech made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, which was remarkable, not because he gave us the best of reasons to include volume and weight, but because of his panegyric about litter. I thought that I had finally found a soul-mate when he referred to zero tolerance, although he was a little wimpish about the penalties. I thought that he might have recommended the reintroduction of the stocks, but he did not go quite that far. However, his general attitude, which the country needs, about the

Column Number: 233

intolerance of laziness and sloppiness is something that is widely shared.

We are dealing with the new clauses together, because they are all concerned with the production of strategies for waste management. They bring together several issues and I shall try to deal with each of them. They express, once again, the understandable wish of hon. Members to extend the scope of the Bill and to tackle all sustainable waste management issues in one go—I see nods of assent. It might help those hon. Members with large ambitions if explain in more detail how the Bill fits with the wider strategy to bring about sustainable waste management in the United Kingdom.

Our vision for sustainable waste management was, I repeat once more, set out in ''Waste Strategy 2000''—perhaps I should circulate it before the next sitting so that my constant pleas do not fall on stony ground—and by the other UK Administrations in their waste strategies. ''Waste Strategy 2000'' gives us the overall framework. It looks at the whole waste hierarchy from waste minimisation to landfill, and it covers all waste streams. The strategy sets out our ambition to break the link between economic growth and increased waste. It also makes it clear that, where waste is produced, we must put it to good use. Although I have said this before and do not wish to keep repeating it, I am vigorous in asserting that it is the right policy. ''Waste Strategy 2000'' is a living document, not one to be archived; it is the framework on which we continue to build in light of further developments, inadequacies of policy or gaps in the strategy. We are delivering, and the Bill is part of that delivery.

New clauses 17 to 20 would require each country of the UK to produce a strategy for zero waste. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked what that means. Zero waste is usually understood to mean that no waste is sent to landfill. In its more radical form it could be zero waste production in a totally closed resource cycle—materials biodegrade, they provide the input for the production of alternative products or they are, in some other way, filtered out of the manufacturing process. However, I suspect that hon. Members mean the former.

The latter is a fine concept, and something that we should aim for, but it is an ambitious goal. I fear that we are running away with ambitious goals when our current position is lamentably inadequate. Only when we turn the corner and fundamentally change existing practices can we begin seriously to aim for such goals. However, even this is a hugely ambitious concept, which goes well beyond the scope of the Bill and of the landfill directive.

Norman Baker: For the sake of clarity, I am referring to the latter definition rather than the former. That is not in the expectation that we can achieve it in 10 years, or even in 20, 30 or 40 years. However, I believe that we should aim high; if we aim for 100 per cent. of a goal, we may achieve 50 per cent., and if we aim for 50 per cent., we may manage 25 per cent. We must be clear about where we want to go. Where is the route map—to use an overused

Column Number: 234

phrase—and how can we best get there? That is not to say that we expect to get there overnight. However, let us aim high and sell the idea to the population.

Mr. Meacher: I am not sure that I wholly agree. I believe in stretching or ambitious targets. However, when one is engaged in a process that is moving all too powerfully in the wrong direction, to set an extraordinarily radical goal in the opposite direction does not inspire greater effort; it just brings the whole exercise into disrepute. That is what worries me.

I hope that members of the Committee will not continue to regard me as an isolated figure, because I speak for the Government on waste; I insist on that. However, like all Ministers, I want to be practical, and I cannot nail my colours to the mast of zero waste in the current circumstances. I am quite prepared to discuss the matter, but it goes far beyond the Bill and, indeed, the landfill directive.

Zero waste to landfill is the more modest definition. It is about not only the management of waste but the lifecycle of products, and we are beginning to take that on board in terms of producer responsibility. The issue is how we, as a society, use our resources. In that respect, I might add that the UK signed up to the world summit on sustainable development. There were five main objectives, the fifth of which was that all participating countries should draw up a plan for sustainable consumption and production. Again, that is an extraordinarily ambitious requirement, but virtually all countries have accepted it. If we think about what we mean by sustainable consumption and production, meeting that requirement would actually go quite a long way towards achieving zero waste. The Government are seeing stakeholders and trying to move in that direction. Significantly, other countries, not only in the EU but much more widely, have signed up to the same objective.

Those are important questions, which are linked to the idea of a consumer-led society. In the Bill, however, we should focus on what we can achieve. If I may put a brake on the ambitions of some members of the Committee, we should not try to run before we have shown ourselves and others that we can walk.

Reducing our reliance on landfill is, after all, the first step, and the Bill will help to achieve that. We must also accept that some landfill will still be needed. In the next decade, we are unlikely to get remotely near a situation in which we have nil waste going to landfill, but we can begin to turn around the amounts. If we do really well, we may be able to decouple economic growth from the creation of waste that goes to landfill. However, the best practical environmental option for some waste, such as asbestos, is probably to bury it.

New clause 30 would require the Secretary of State to put before Parliament a strategy for delivering a year-on-year decrease in the volume of waste—that is part of the decoupling process that I just mentioned—and to report progress to Parliament. It would also require him to specify a formula accurately to measure the significance of waste by volume against waste by weight. The reductions proposed in the strategy would be based on that formula.

Column Number: 235

We had an interesting and lengthy debate on the issue last Thursday, and I said that I would write to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire about it; indeed, I should probably circulate the letter around the Committee. As I emphasised last week, I am extremely sympathetic as regards the underlying problem that he outlined. To be completely honest, we are not recycling enough low-weight, high-volume items such as plastics. That is probably the weakest point in the whole recycling framework, but I am not convinced that specifying targets using volume as a measure is the right way to solve the problem. Most waste can be, and is, compacted, which makes volume a much less robust measure than weight.

That is obvious if one considers the space occupied by a bag of household waste. First, that waste is contained in a wheelie bin, if the authority provides them, as mine does. I am dubious about wheelie bins because they are so large that they encourage people to throw virtually everything bar the kitchen sink into them. The waste is compacted in a dustcart and then it is compacted in a landfill site, where it is subjected to increasingly high pressure as more waste is piled on top. The question arises as to when we should measure volume, and that is not an idle question. Should it be measures when the waste goes into the bin or when it has been at the landfill site for six months? The measure is relative. Compaction of waste once it is in the site is so effective that the volume of such things as plastics is no longer a major issue.

3.15 pm

There are other problems associated with the measurement of volume. The weight of waste can be easily and accurately obtained from weighbridge readings. Volume can be registered only with reference to the nominal rated size of the container, and part loads in skips or tankers can only be estimated. Using volume as a measure simply is not accurate enough to be of value and for heterogeneous solid waste—which is normal—there are no statistically acceptable factors that link weight and volume. I add the highly relevant point that the last Environment Agency survey on waste arisings had to use estimates of volume where weighbridges were not available. Conversion of those volume data to weight introduced such significant errors that further work had to be done to refine the data. I do not pour cold water on the idea, but there are serious methodological problems.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 10 April 2003