Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords]

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Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I am listening carefully to the Minister and he is right to point out that there are methodological problems in making an assessment. However, people are just as concerned with the volume of waste at the point of generation as with the volume taken up when it gets to landfill, if not more so. If one wants an holistic solution, one must consider people's concerns about the large amount of space that card, polystyrene or light plastic bottles take up when they are put into the backs of lorries and trundled long distances to landfill. A lot of people are troubled by the space that such waste takes up en route to landfill.

Mr. Meacher: I understand that problem, but some compaction often takes place then. I am also interested

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in pursing an alternative way of dealing with plastic bottles, glass bottles or containers, which is to consider seriously the practicality of reintroducing deposit and return schemes. Such schemes reduce litter and give people a personal incentive—not through force, or companies or local authorities—to take things back to either the manufacturer or a container, for which they get some small reward. I do not know why such schemes fell out of use in this country, but I am keen to pursue that idea.

Mr. Wiggin rose—

Mr. Hayes rose—

Mr. Meacher: I give way to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

Mr. Hayes: That is most generous of the Minister and entirely appropriate, given our relative seniority—not that I am hierarchical. The Minister has made a good point that deserves the support of all parties, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes shares that view. As the Minister said, it is extraordinary that such schemes have gone out of fashion. We all know from our childhood days that lemonade bottles and other bottles were kept, stored and taken back to get the penny or ha'penny one got for them. That was perhaps the most widely known form of recycling—everyone knew about it and did it. Given the Minister's sensible remarks, which I fully endorse, would he commit himself today to discussing with manufacturers, and perhaps the supermarkets, which do so much harm in other ways, how to make a positive contribution on the issue?

Mr. Meacher: Well, I am very glad to say that I am proposing to do that. However, if the hon. Member for Leominster is going to press me, I also tell him that there are problems and that things are not as simple as they look. One problem is that, precisely in order to reduce packaging waste, manufacturers have reduced the thickness of bottles or containers, whether made of glass, cardboard or other packaging material. If the glass is going to be reused by being refilled, it must be thoroughly scrubbed with a chemical to remove any impurities. That will probably be caustic soda. The problem that has been drawn to my attention is that reducing the thickness of the bottle reduces also its capacity to withstand scrubbing with caustic soda. I do not think that that rules anything out—I am sure that it does not—but I am exploring the difficulties.

Mr. Wiggin: The Minister will no doubt also wish to explore the distance travelled and the waste and air pollution caused by carting around empty bottles so that they can be refilled. I am not against his ideas on the recycling of bottles; that is just one step.

I draw the Minister's attention to the challenge of volume. An immediate and easy solution is not essential, but it would not be impossible to measure the volume twice, first uncompacted and then after the waste has been compressed. We could have two measurements, or even three. The Minister can take this as far as he needs to. If we measured on weight alone, we would send out very different signals. I remember the Minister's comment about the wheelie bin; the volume of the bin was the problem because it was too large.

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Plastic bottles can be a problem. A drinks company in my constituency produces huge numbers of bottles, which it fills with water and soft drinks. It is not necessarily wrong to produce plastic bottles; but if we are going to address the waste problem, we must be more innovative about how we measure the volume. We need to prevent them from ending up in landfill.

Mr. Meacher: We are at one in saying that we need to encourage the separation and recycling of high-volume, low-density materials such as plastic. The question is whether setting targets by volume as well as by weight is effective. I would question it. If it was a mechanism rather than another way of measuring, that would be another matter. The question is how to deal with the problem. Why should measuring by volume be of such great assistance when the problem remains to be solved? Compaction or other totally different ways of solving the problem are the right way forward. There is an increasing demand for alternative materials that do not have that problem.

Norman Baker: We may be repeating a previous discussion, but the problem of measuring only by weight is that it is a disincentive to using glass. It would encourage the market to use plastic, which is lighter, but that may not be the best environmental solution.

Mr. Meacher: It depends. The problem of plastics is their non-biodegradability. That is precisely why they were invented. For certain functions, it is their non-biodegradability and non-wear and tear, even over long periods, that makes them so valuable. We are now finding that it is a problem when it comes to waste management. It would not be sensible to commit myself by saying that we should in all cases favour glass over plastic, because glass itself is a problem. We need to analyse the environmental impacts at each stage of a product's life cycle—manufacture, use and disposal. Indeed, the Department is trying to do so, not only with plastics but with other materials.

The waste resources action programme was set up in 2001 to try to find alternative uses. It is working to develop markets for several materials, including plastics. The strategy unit report recommended that the role of WRAP be continued and expanded. We are concerting that in our response to the report, and we hope to publish our response very soon.

New clauses 13 to 16 deal with strategies for recycling and waste reduction; they would require each country of the UK to have a strategy for setting recycling targets for household, business and construction and demolition waste. The strategy would also have to cover the development of a mandatory doorstep recycling scheme and the development of the market for recycled materials. I fully agree with hon. Members that the issues dealt with in the clauses are very important, and we are dealing with them. The waste strategy set a target to reduce by 2005 the amount of commercial and industrial waste sent to landfill to 85 per cent. of that landfilled in 1998.

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I am aware that industrial and commercial waste is so much larger a fraction of the total waste that goes to landfill; it is about four to five times that of household or municipal waste. Therefore reducing that amount is four to five times more important. However, there is an argument that the recycling of industrial and commercial waste is at a much higher level; I think that it is 45 per cent. That compares with a recycling level of household waste of 13 per cent. The year 2005 is approaching rapidly, and we should consider what further measures are needed beyond that.

Mr. Hayes: I ask a genuinely inquisitive question to which I do not know the answer. [Interruption.] Yes, unlike most parliamentary questions. Is household waste generally more biodegradable than commercial waste? That is relevant to the growth of each of those sectors and to their effect on the problem. Perhaps the Minister will return to the Committee with an answer.

Mr. Meacher: I certainly could not give an authoritative answer now. However, my instinct is that household and municipal waste is more biodegradable because it includes more organic material than industrial and commercial waste does. However, I am sure that my officials will be pleased to look into the matter, and I shall return to the Committee with an answer.

Our aims on the landfill of commercial and industrial waste are supported by the increases in the landfill tax announced in the pre-Budget report in November 2002. Provisional data from the Environment Agency, which I do not believe have been made public before now, based on returns from licensed landfill sites suggest that the amount of industrial and commercial waste that goes to landfill may have decreased by about 8 per cent. between 1998–99 and 2000–01. That is an interesting statistic; it is the one area in which there has been a reduction. That is before the increases in landfill tax have started to bite, although there has been a modest escalator of £1 a year between 1999 and 2004. That is interesting because it suggests that industry and commercial offices are beginning to take the management and reduction of waste more seriously. If so, I certainly welcome it.

The waste strategy also introduced the principle of statutory recycling targets, and I have spoken enough about those already. We will consider what further targets may be necessary and how we can support them. We agree that substantial increases in kerbside collection will be needed to support increased recycling. Indeed, we cannot double and treble recycling without a major increase in such collection. The private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford seeks to make that universal, but my view is that we shall come very close to that simply as a result of the pressure exerted by the targets. I believe that we would need an increase in the level of kerbside collection in the order of 45 to 50 per cent. in parts of local authority areas.

Mr. Wiggin: It is not as high as that.

Mr. Meacher: Well, I shall ask my officials for the precise figure. I am not saying that that is the case in all parts of local authority areas, but my recollection is

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that 45 to 47 per cent. use kerbside collection, at least in part. The national waste minimisation recycling fund—driven by Government funding to support the council tax—is already helping to increase kerbside collection.

3.30 pm

 
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