Waste Prevention and Recycling

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Gregory Barker: Domestic waste constitutes just 9 per cent. of UK waste. The largest single element is construction waste, just half of which is recycled. That compares very disfavourably with, for example, the Netherlands and Denmark, where they recycle about 80 per cent. of their construction waste. What plans do the Government have to encourage the reuse and recycling of building materials and, specifically, the 20 per cent. of construction waste that is delivered to building sites and never used? Do the Government’s plans include a commitment to formal targets and do they intend to place standards on the building industry?
Mr. Bradshaw: Those questions are not strictly related to the European waste framework directive, but I shall happily answer them, if you are content that that is in order, Mr. Wilshire.
The Chairman: I will let you know.
Mr. Bradshaw: On construction waste, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that the debate in this country is usually dominated by municipal and household waste, which constitutes only about a tenth of the overall waste stream. The reason is that the targets to which we are signed up, as indeed is every other European Union country, for diversion from landfill, are for biodegradable household and municipal waste. If we miss those targets, we will be liable for fines under the landfill directive. There is a very good reason for those directives—the biodegradable waste going to landfill sites causes methane, which contributes to climate change.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in the past our waste strategy has not paid enough attention to the construction sector. He acknowledged that we recycle a higher proportion of construction waste than of household waste—about double the amount. However, we need to do much better. The landfill tax escalator is, of course, an important driver and we are looking very closely at whether we need to set targets for construction waste as part of our revised waste strategy.
On the need to regulate at the other end, as it were, on procurement, I imagine that that was the purpose of the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. That is something that we are looking at carefully as we prepare our response to the sustainable procurement taskforce, which reported in the summer under Sir Neville Simms. We will respond to the report soon.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am sorry that I was a few minutes late and so missed the Minister’s introductory remarks. Having read the documents with considerable care, I was quite surprised to see that they were not printed on recycled paper. That might have been a good way to lead the nation.
One thing from paragraph 7.6 puzzles me: why is it that the “Water Framework Directive” is going to be merged with the “Hazardous Waste Directive?” Surely that should be the waste framework directive rather than the “Water Framework Directive”?
Mr. Bradshaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give me that reference again?
Mr. Gray: Yes; paragraph 7.6, on page 4, under the heading “Simplification of existing legislation”, states:
“The Commission proposes that the Water Framework Directive should be merged with the Hazardous Waste Directive”.
Mr. Bradshaw: It is a typo, and I apologise. It is not our typo, however; it is from the European Scrutiny Committee and so the observation needs to be passed on to them. Also, I am pretty sure that all paper in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is recycled, although it may not say so at the bottom of every sheet.
Mr. Goodwill: The UK Government raised a number of concerns about subsidiarity problems and the erosion of national sovereignty regarding the way that some of the regulations are to be implemented. How far do those subsidiarity concerns affect the UK, Malta, Cyprus and to a lesser extent the Republic of Ireland? Do other member states see such concerns as less important when it comes to building a qualified majority, given that such states may have common borders with others and therefore the possibility of more cross-border trade in both waste and recycled products?
Mr. Bradshaw: No; I do not think that that is an issue. I am not an expert on the details of other countries’ waste policies, but a number of other countries, such as Belgium—Flanders has a very good reputation for its waste management—have similar problems to ours over these issues. It is partly about subsidiarity, but it is also about the fact that there are considerable differences in the waste management policies, systems and technologies between countries. We are keen to avoid a straitjacket approach that says we have to do something in a particular way. We want and welcome a good framework in which we use the technologies that this country has built up over many years, and the particular characteristics of our waste management sector, to achieve those goals.
Those concerns are shared by a number of countries, as reflected by the amendments tabled at the European Parliament—we have not had a chance to go through how many hundreds of amendments there were. The proposals have already been improved since being put before the European Scrutiny Committee at the beginning of the year, and I anticipate that they will be improved further as a result of concerns raised not just by the UK, but by a number of other member states, that the proposals are a bit too prescriptive.
Martin Horwood: The Government maintain that the directive supports the waste hierarchy with which we are familiar. The hierarchy runs from prevention through reuse, to recycling, energy recovery and finally landfill. The Liberal Democrats support the Government’s position. However, in its commentary on the directive, Friends of the Earth says that it suspects that the introduction of life-cycle analyses into the directive may undermine the hierarchy by placing prevention first and reuse second, and then lumping the other three together. Are the Government committed to clearly establishing the hierarchy and using life-cycle analyses as a last resort?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. I have my disagreements with Friends of the Earth on waste policy, but not on this issue; it is right. We support the hierarchy, but it should not be a straitjacket, because there are examples where one could make a case for exceptions. Life-cycle analyses can help inform policy, but they are an inexact science. Different life-cycle analyses often come up with diametrically opposed recommendations. The analyses can be a useful tool, but they should not be a rigid straitjacket for waste policy.
Gregory Barker: The EU strategy asks each country to break the link between economic growth and waste creation, and countries such as Denmark have been successful in breaking that link. What are the principal policy tools that the Government believe will enable this country to replicate Denmark? I should be grateful if the Minister would be as specific as possible.
Mr. Bradshaw: We have recently had some encouraging data on the link between economic growth and waste growth. Total municipal waste arisings for the last year for which figures are available show a 3 per cent. drop, which is the second only drop in modern history but also the biggest. There was a smaller drop three years ago, then a slight increase in the year in between, which is very encouraging. It is caused by a number of things. I will not go through the details of the landfill tax escalator again, but it is an important driver.
The Government’s recycling targets for local authorities have been very important and the landfill allowance trading scheme, which began last year, operates in a similar way to the emissions trading scheme. Local authorities are given a landfill allowance and if they think they will overshoot it they can buy in an extra allowance from local authorities that are doing better in recycling. That seems to have driven diversion from landfill, which increased by 10 per cent. in the last year.
Although it is right to learn lessons from other countries that are doing well, it should not be overlooked that we, too, are having a considerable success in breaking that link.
Mr. Goodwill: Reading through this document, one gets the impression that the European Commission sees recycling almost as an end in itself. The UK Government may have fallen into that trap, given that they set targets for local authorities so that they will go for the bulky, easy-to-recycle products such as paper and glass and not more toxic waste materials such as batteries.
Does not the Minister think that there should be more emphasis on the reuse of recycled materials and a more demand-led strategy towards waste, rather than the current situation which can lead to big surpluses in recycled products for which there is no particular use, which has happened in Germany? In one case I heard of, waste paper was going to China as ballast in the bottom of a ship.
Mr. Bradshaw: It would not have been allowed to go to China as ballast in the bottom of a ship as that would be illegal unless it was going to be recycled once it got there. As I said in answer to a earlier question, there is nothing wrong with a global market in recyclable goods in terms of the overall environmental life cycle and climate change. It is better for China and India to be making goods out of our recycled paper, plastic and so on to export to us rather than cutting down trees or using virgin oil to make them.
It is not fair to imply that the Commission has a misguided obsession with recycling. In contrast to one or two reports in the medium-term past, in almost every case all life-cycle analyses show that it is better to recycle stuff than to put it in landfill, or to burn it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we want to see more reuse, which is often the neglected bit at the top of the waste hierarchy.
For those who think Ministers lead glamorous lives, I spent five hours on Saturday travelling on a train to Birmingham to attend the annual conference of the community reuse, recycling and composting network, which was attended by enthusiasts, I am sure from the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members, who do wonderful jobs in towns and cities running the reuse networks. I want them to play a bigger role in our future waste strategy.
Martin Horwood: I want to raise the issue of the possible redefinition of incineration, which is suggested in the revision. Admittedly, that is where energy-efficiency benchmarks are met, so there is a safeguard there. However, there is a particular worry about whether it would sufficiently differentiate between incineration and a new technology such as gas plasma, which produces far fewer carbon emissions, far less toxic waste and far more recyclable material—in this case, aggregate. Would the Minister agree to meet gas plasma innovating companies—the producers—to discuss the implications for their businesses of that redefinition, and whether it would discourage or encourage them?
Mr. Bradshaw: If the hon. Gentleman would like to bring a delegation to see me, I shall be happy to meet it. His request rings a bell, as does advice suggesting that this is not the right time. However, let him write to me again, and I shall consider his request. I am not sure that he should read too much into the proposal to set a new limit as to where incineration qualifies as recovery. Our view is that that will not have a material impact on our waste policy. Given the problem of climate change, anything that drives greater energy-efficiency in incineration technology has to be a good thing.
Mr. Jackson: In view of his former remarks, I am full of admiration for the Minister’s commitment to his portfolio. Let me bring him back to aluminium cans. As he will know, the UK recycles some 41 per cent. of its aluminium cans. That is less than in many places in Europe. What is the Government’s policy on that, and should we be doing more to encourage that specific form of recycling?
Mr. Bradshaw: Yes; there is no doubt that aluminium cans form a waste stream that it is useful to recycle in climate change terms, partly because of the considerable emissions involved in the primary manufacturing process, and also because aluminium is a valuable material. The recycling of cans is one of the most rapidly increasing forms of recycling. Until now, local authorities have not given it priority because, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, our existing targets are weight based, so they have tended to focus on heavier materials such as glass and paper in order to get their figures up. However, the market is now kicking in in respect of both aluminium and plastic, which is making it more economically worth while for local authorities to recycle those materials. I think that 80 per cent. of local authorities now recycle plastic. I am not sure of the figure for aluminium, but I might be able to tell the Committee before the end of this question and answer session.
Gregory Barker: The EU strategy wants greater transparency and the enforcement of member states’ waste policies. In the UK, fly-tipping is a particularly serious problem. With the decreasing frequency of collections around the country, as more councils switch to fortnightly collection, it has the potential to increase further. How do the Government propose to tackle an increase in fly-tipping?
Mr. Bradshaw: One must be slightly careful about saying categorically that there has been an increase. We have had the data for only two years, since the Government introduced the flycapture database. It could be that the hon. Gentleman is right, and that there was an increase in the second year, but that could simply mean that local authorities are getting better at monitoring the situation. However, I accept that it is a potential problem. Under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, local authorities have new powers to take action against fly-tipping, including the imposition of significantly increased fines and prison sentences. Fly-tipping has now been made a criminal offence, so the police can also become involved, and the Environment Agency takes very effective action against the most serious offenders.
I only wish that the courts would take environmental crimes as seriously as they should. Often, the Environment Agency spends a great deal of public money on taking cases through the courts, and then the fines that are levied form almost no disincentive to the convicted parties to carry on as they were doing.
Mr. Goodwill: The Minister briefly mentioned the vexed problem of plastics. It is interesting that there is no directive on plastics, although they make up a large part of electronic equipment and vehicles. We have directives on things like brominated flame retardants and other hazardous substances which can be incorporated in plastics. How does the Minister think we can best try to recycle plastics? Schemes to separate different types of plastics are too costly to be economically viable and simply bundling plastics together produces a very low value product that can be used only to substitute concrete or wood. Rubber, or synthetic rubber, from tyres is used in cement kilns as a co-incineration fuel. Is the Minister adverse to the idea of treating plastic as frozen oil and recycling the plastic by burning it and thus displacing oil that otherwise would have been burnt in those combustion plants?
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Prepared 6 December 2006