Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hayes: The Minister has satisfied my inquiry. Our thought was that it was widely used and had application to the Bill. It is the background against which the Bill is painted, and it will be adopted by the other parts of the UK, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire proposed the amendments applying the concept not just to England but to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I fully understand the Minister's point. We would not want to fix the concept in stone; it is dynamic rather than static. The environment itself changes, so measurement in broad environmental terms is bound to be a moving target. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 19 and 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

''Biodegradable waste'' and ''municipal waste''

Sue Doughty: I beg to move amendment No. 78, in

    clause 21, page 14, line 41, leave out 'such as' and insert 'including, but not exclusively'.

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 79, in

    clause 21, page 14, line 42, leave out 'and'.

No. 80, in

    clause 21, page 14, line 43, at end insert

    ', and certain plastics designed specifically to degrade within a period of 12 months'.

Sue Doughty: The purpose of the amendments is to recognise that the scope for biodegradable waste has increased in the last few years. We used to think of it merely as food and garden waste and paper and paper board, but new technologies have created packaging, in particular, from other materials. One hears about packaging made from potato starch, which is biodegradable, and plastic carrier bags that can degrade within the year. I worry that we talk about biodegradable municipal waste without really knowing what it is. We all know what garden waste and food waste look like. However, with the packaging and other materials that are coming into use, we do not know what is biodegradable. Our purpose in adding the words

    ''certain plastics designed specifically to degrade''

was to draw attention to the fact that some materials are creeping into common use and to ask whether they are part of the biodegradable waste that we are counting.

Mr. Hayes: My contribution will be in the form of two questions. The Minister may be able to answer them now. If not, I hope that he will either answer them in writing or come back to the Committee. They relate to the first and second parts of the clause.

The hon. Member for Guildford referred to the first of my questions, which relates to the changing nature of biodegradable waste and how it is defined. Just as the Minister said in our last discussion, these things are dynamic, both in the processes that can be employed to assist with waste disposal, which are constantly changing, and in the nature of the materials with which we are dealing. New materials are being developed all the time—for example, plastics are becoming more biodegradable in some cases and less hazardous in others. What impact is that likely to have on the steps that we need to take to meet the requirements of the Bill? That will have an impact on recovery, reuse and recycling. Can the Minister give us more detail about the changing nature of biodegradable waste?

4.30 pm

My second question relates to municipal waste, although, again, I do not expect the Minister necessarily to have the information to hand. I want to know how municipal waste is changing. As lifestyles, technology and the materials that we use change, so does the typical municipal waste bin. To use the Minister's phrase, what goes into wheelie bins now will be quite different from what went into them five, 10 or 20 years ago. We must have a profile of waste so that we can reach proper conclusions about how to deal with it. Unless that profile is accurate—again, I accept that this is a dynamic issue—it is hard

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to reach conclusions about the Bill's likely effectiveness.

So, I am seeking information about biodegradability, the waste profile and the relevant trends. I would be grateful if the Minister could pick up those matters.

Mr. Wiggin: I have a short question. We are dealing with the definition of biodegradable waste, but at what point is biodegradable waste biodegraded? At what point is it no longer biodegradable? Is there such a definition? In my constituency, a tremendous company called Biorganics runs a composting scheme. It deals largely with feathers from the Sun Valley factory, which is just inside the Hereford constituency. One of the factory's big problems is the huge amount of feathers that it produces, because it has no way of dealing with them. They are made of keratin, which does not naturally break down, which is why one sees feathers lying round the countryside. However, the scheme allows compost to be produced—at least, that is the generic term. In fact, it is a sort of soil, which is used on the fields. It is a tremendous fertiliser.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): For growing chickens?

Mr. Wiggin: My hon. Friend teases me.

Unfortunately, the composting process is rather smelly. It produces a strong smell of ammonia, which upsets the residents of Stoke Prior and to which they are quite sensitive.

As I said, therefore, I am curious to know at what point during the process biodegradable waste is biodegraded. I hope that the Minister can tell me, because it would be helpful to know.

I am also curious about the scheme under which councils may find it useful to encourage householders to put their compostable waste in a green bag and have it taken away, rather than composting it themselves in their garden. Councils, as municipal authorities, may be tempted to increase the amount of biodegradable waste that they compost rather than preventing it from going in the bin in the first place.

Mr. Hayes: There is an interesting point, which my hon. Friend may want to tease out of the Minister. Has a model been produced to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of that scheme? An earlier amendment referred to providing composters to householders and raised the issue of whether that might not be an appropriate way of encouraging the proper and responsible treatment of waste. I worry slightly that the alternative of providing a facility where people can have materials composted for them is less effective. It will certainly mean more journeys, and it will be a bigger process. If things are dealt with on site, they will obviously be dealt with more quickly and efficiently. Have the Department or the Minister produced a model to assess the scheme?

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for that. I was about to make those very points myself, and now I no longer need to—without scraping the bottom of the wheelie bin, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle was teasing me earlier.

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I hope that the Minister will address those two important points. First, there is the point about when biodegradable waste is no longer biodegradable. Secondly, what happens if the definition does not encourage people to use their council in relation to composting? I am talking about people who have the chance of composting material themselves, rather than people—perhaps living in a block of flats—who are not in a position to have even a communal composter or wormery.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman may like to know that some research—I do not know the exact references—was carried out by local authorities some while ago, following the distribution of composters. The results showed that only something like 10 to 15 per cent. of people to whom composters were distributed used them as composters. There were many other uses: rabbit hutches, storage for tools and old running shoes and so on. However, the actual use of composters as such was fairly low. I am sure that he will want to take that into account.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for an intervention that was both light-hearted and important. Composters are, as hon. Members probably know, a type of dustbin into the top of which material for compost can be put. Compost is readily available at the bottom. The problem with composters is that many people just have a pile. I believe that at Barker Towers, where my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle lives, there are many compost heaps—that is what he was whispering to me earlier. People would normally have a compost heap, rather than a composter. If people are using composters for storing tools and a variety of other purposes, that is a shame. I hope that every effort will continue to be made to encourage people to have a compost heap of their own.

Mr. Meacher: The amendments are about matters of definition, although one would not have guessed that from the debate. Not only was I asked earlier about an algebraic formula, but I am now being asked about when biodegradable waste is biodegraded. I am not sure that I can answer those questions, so I shall turn to the amendments.

The amendments would amend the definition of biodegradable waste in the clause by replacing the words ''such as'' with ''including, but not exclusively''. They also remove an ''and'' and add at the end of subsection (1)

    ''and certain plastics designed specifically to degrade within a period of 12 months''.

On the first point, we can argue about the meaning of words, but the words ''such as'' mean the same as, but are better than, ''including, but not exclusively''. I am not sure about the force of the argument for making the change. The key point—I shall also argue this about definitions of biodegradable waste—is that the words in the Bill are used in the landfill directive definition. That is important, because, as I keep on saying, we are concerned with meeting our requirements under article 5(2) of the directive. For that reason, I cannot accept amendment No. 78.

The changes proposed in amendments Nos. 79 and 80 would also result in the definition in the Bill being

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different from that in the landfill directive. They would extend the list of examples of biodegradable waste to include specifically

    ''plastic designed . . . to degrade within a period of 12 months''.

What does the phrase in the amendment mean? Does it mean completely degrade, partially degrade, or that the process of degradation has begun? That is one difficulty. The real point is that the amendment is unnecessary: to the extent that any waste is capable of anaerobic or aerobic decomposition, it will be biodegradable. It is not necessary for such waste to be expressly included in the clause.

 
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