Waste Prevention and Recycling

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Mr. Bradshaw: It is certainly preferable to create energy out of plastics than to send them to landfill—plastics is one area where the waste hierarchy works for a particular material. It is better still to recycle them. I think that I am right in saying that about 80 per cent. of the plastics that are readily available on supermarket shelves in the form of packaging, such as milk and juice bottles, are reasonably easily recyclable. The hon. Gentleman is right. Many countries on the continent that have a higher recycling level than we do tend to burn a lot of plastic because it has a higher calorific value and so it helps to create a lot of energy in those counties that use combined heat and power. I would resist departing from the waste hierarchy on plastics. It is better to increase the recycling of plastics and, where they cannot be recycled, to use them to create energy.
Martin Horwood: The Minister referred to the many amendments that were made in the Environment Committee of the European Parliament. But there were a few amendments that were not passed which I would commend to him. I would like first to mention one that amended article 5 to set a binding target on total recycling of waste of 50 per cent. by 2020. Would the Government support amending the revision to include that?
Mr. Bradshaw: I do not think that we would. We have our own target of recycling fairly near that. As part of the waste review we may adopt similar if not more ambitious targets. We would not want the Commission to adopt those binding targets because some countries with a very good environmental record of waste management recycle around 40 to 50 per cent. and use the rest to create energy. They do not send any waste to landfill. I would not want to insist that those countries start recycling more and creating less energy from waste. It is very much up to them. As long as they comply with the landfill directive and move away from landfill, which they have done much more successfully than we have done, it would not be right for the Commission to create that kind of straitjacket.
Gregory Barker: New Zealand is at the forefront of waste progress. It has committed to becoming a zero-waste country. It aspires to send no waste to landfill, to reduce waste and then to reuse and recycle wherever it is scientifically possible. Given that we are living in a resource-limited world, and with those sorts of aspirations out there around the world, does the Minister consider that that this great document, which encapsulates the vision of the Commission, represents a sufficiently ambitious and creative vision for, say, the next 20 years, or is it just a workmanlike document for the next period? Is it really a long-term sustainable vision?
Mr. Bradshaw: I think that it is, because it recognises that things have moved on since the waste framework directive was passed, which is the reason why the waste framework directive needs changing. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, things have moved on, and we now view waste much more as a resource than as waste. Climate change has rightly risen up the political agenda, and the view was taken that the existing waste directive needed to be audited for its climate change impact. We are doing exactly the same with our domestic waste policy.
There are attractions in a zero waste aspiration, although one has to be clear in defining that. My understanding is that the New Zealand declaration is very much an aspiration, and there is doubt about some of New Zealand’s data, which we are interested in studying. A number of European countries already have what they would call a zero waste policy, which means a zero waste to landfill policy, and that is a long-term aspiration that we should have, too. As long as one accepts the waste hierarchy, wherein landfill is the worst possible option, it makes sense not to send to landfill anything that can be recycled or used to generate energy, which is where I would like to see us aiming.
Mr. Goodwill: My final question is about waste engine oil, which is referred to at some length in the document. I remind the Minister of how unintended consequences can come into play. He may recall that following the implementation of the animal by-products directive, under which the use of waste cooking oil as animal feed was banned, much of the oil found its way into sewers and watercourses following the collapse of that particular market. I am concerned that we may be too prescriptive in specifying that waste oil must be regenerated, rather than allowing it to be used as, for example, a fuel in incinerators or cement kilns. If we are not careful, we might end up with a situation similar to that of cooking oil, with the result that a number of smaller garages and domestic consumers would be tempted to dispose of the oil illegally rather than putting it into a market that would give it some positive value.
Mr. Bradshaw: I hope that that will not be the consequence. We welcome the simplification measures in the proposals that will revise the waste oil issue. I am aware, however, that some people—some hon. Members, of whom the hon. Gentleman may be one, have been lobbied on this matter—do not like the fact that if one burns recovered fuel oil, one must do so in compliance with the waste incineration directive. That is the point that some people in some sectors take issue with. I do not think that there is any prospect of that changing: the latest court case, which took place last week, came out in favour of the Environment Agency’s definition of recovered oil as waste, which, if burned, must be burned in compliance with the directive. I suspect that that will remain the case.
Martin Horwood: My final question relates to concerns expressed by the Environmental Services Association, the trade body for environmental waste disposal, that the directive does not place sufficient emphasis on producer responsibility. If that were done more explicitly, the association would, like us and the Government, support the hierarchy, which puts prevention at the top and lays the responsibility on producers to avoid, for instance, excessive packaging and plastic bags. Would the Government support more explicit references in the directive to producer responsibility?
Mr. Bradshaw: We would wish member states to decide which preventive measures best suit them. There is already a variety of approaches: some countries, such as Denmark, use product taxes; others use voluntary or statutory targets. We have producer responsibility on packaging and have recently signed up the supermarkets to voluntary packaging reduction agreements. I would prefer the overall framework of prevention to be set, but for individual member states to decide which of the various incentivising measures works best for them.
The Chairman: We have run out of questions. I call the Minister to move the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 5047/06 and Addenda 1 + 2, Commission Communication; Taking sustainable use of resources forward: A Thematic Strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste, and No. 5050/06, Draft Directive on waste: and agrees with the Government’s proposed negotiating position relating to the revision of the Waste Framework Directive.—[Mr. Bradshaw.]
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Gregory Barker: My colleague in the European Parliament, Dr. Caroline Jackson, MEP, a rapporteur, has done a great job in taking the Commission’s waste prevention and recycling proposals through that Parliament so far. Waste policy is one of the few concrete resource efficiency policies established at EU level. Thus, the focus on a low-waste and recycling society has a key role to play in our moving towards a resource-efficient Europe and, importantly, in stimulating innovation in this sector.
The proposals represent a move forward towards a more comprehensive understanding and a framework for tackling waste, which we Conservatives welcome. We believe, as I think all hon. Members do, that waste is an environmental, social and economic challenge that needs to be tackled urgently throughout the EU, and particularly in the UK. Some small progress has been made throughout the EU, but it is limited. On a range of indicators, the UK is well behind where the Conservatives think it should be, compared with other member states.
It is important to recognise that throughout the EU there has only been a slight decrease in landfilling despite increased recycling, which is due to the overall growth in waste in line with economic growth. At least 50 per cent. of paper and steel, 43 per cent. of glass and 40 per cent. of non-ferrous metal produced in the EU are currently made from recycled materials. Although those statistics may sound good, they mask the underlying trend in gross waste production. The European Environment Agency predicts that paper, glass and plastic waste will increase by 40 per cent. by 2020, compared with 1990. A similar increase in municipal waste of more than 42 per cent. is predicted by 2020 compared with 1995, according to the European Commission Joint Research Centre.
It is clear that, by working with the EU institutions, some progress has been made in key waste disposal areas, such as landfill and incineration. However, a huge challenge remains. Progress to date falls far short of what must be achieved if we are seriously to tackle the problems of waste and its environmental impact and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in the face of the great challenge of climate change. We cannot consider climate change and environmental policy without effectively dealing with waste. The UK’s approach needs to be bolder, and we need to set more ambitious targets if we are to achieve sustainable waste management. We need to make greater demands on ourselves as a society, not simply in respect of how we deal with waste, but in terms of the amount of waste that we produce.
Although recycling is increasing in all member states, this progress is almost entirely offset by the increase in the amount of waste generated. For example, the amount of plastic waste going into landfill increased by nearly 22 per cent. between 1990 and 2002, even though the percentage of plastic waste being landfilled has dropped from 77 per cent. to 62 per cent. That apparent paradox illustrates how complex the issue is.
Waste in the UK and across Europe has been increasing for many years, although there are now a few signs that stabilisation may be happening. Municipal waste in England decreased by a welcome3 per cent. this year, and municipal waste in Belgium has already stabilised. It is a welcome fact that the revision of the waste framework directive includes the prevention of waste, rather than simply its management, as one of the key priorities.
The proposals require each country to produce a national waste prevention programme. One of the findings from the analysis conducted for the strategy was that no single waste prevention measure could work in all member states, due to the variety of cultural and geographical conditions from Latvia to the Atlantic coast. Prevention can be achieved only by a range of measures designed and applied at a national level—or even at regional or local level. Thus, while the national waste prevention programmes will be mandatory, how waste reduction is achieved will be up to individual states. That is to be welcomed, but the greater flexibility must not become an excuse for inaction.
This issue requires serious commitment from national Government. To date, the Labour Government have failed to give a serious lead in this area, and it is to be feared that that will continue to be the case under these new proposals. Any programme must break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste. The Government must set clear and ambitious targets.
At the same time, we must recognise that dealing with waste is not only a problem, because it represents an opportunity in terms of jobs and business. The waste management and recycling sector is growing rapidly. It is currently estimated to be worth€100 billion, and it accounts for between 1.2 million and 1.5 million jobs in the EU.
The Government’s record on waste in the UK is not particularly impressive. The UK produces about430 million tonnes of waste per annum, according to the national statistics issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in, “The environment in your pocket 2005”. Although municipal household waste accounts for approximately 7 per cent. of the total, or about 30 million tonnes, the corresponding figure continues to grow in much of Europe.
Let us consider the other contributors to our waste: mining and quarrying waste is not subject to control under the EU waste framework directive, and it accounts for approximately 125 million tonnes, or29 per cent.; industrial and commercial waste accounts for approximately 110 million tonnes, or 26 per cent.; agriculture accounts for approximately 90 million tonnes, or 21 per cent.; and the figures for construction and demolition are 75 million tonnes, or 17 per cent.
Although municipal waste accounted for a relatively small percentage of total waste, recycling levels are far lower in this area than they are for other types of waste—I alluded to that point during questions. In 2006, 23 per cent. of municipal waste was recycled or recovered, with levels in England encouragingly rising to 27 per cent. The Government are discussing proposals to increase the national targets for household waste recycling and composting to 40 per cent. by 2010 and 50 per cent. by 2020, and for municipal recovery—including recycling, composting and energy recovery—to 53 per cent. by 2010 and 75 per cent. by 2020. Although we broadly welcome those proposals, we think that the Government still have a long way to go, not least because, compared with the rest of the EU, the amount we currently recycle is not nearly good enough—Austria and Belgium’s recycling figure is more than 50 per cent.
Conservatives believe that waste is worth recycling for three reasons. It not only cuts down on landfill, but saves energy when new products are created—it is worth pointing out that making an aluminium can out of recycled product uses 95 per cent. less energy than creating a new one from scratch. Better recycling also leads to cleaner streets as fly-tipping decreases, so ithas a civic impact. Given that threefold win, we must make recycling an absolute priority and not an environmental afterthought.
If the Government want to make recycling a priority, they have an absolute requirement to support local councils in their efforts to get the public to take better care of their waste. Councils should be given support to implement doorstep recycling schemes for consumers and to offer one-stop advice shops for business. Labour has conspicuously failed to guarantee a long-term framework for waste management within local councils.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is saying many things with which I agree and bemoaning the overall lack of progress both at European and UK level. He has suggested that we need more robust targets. Will he give some precise examples of what such targets might be?
Gregory Barker: We need to go above and beyond the current levels. I do not have a specific figure for the hon. Gentleman, but we need to go beyond what the Government have set out and look at the best practice in Europe. I mentioned that certain countries had already reached our targets and gone beyond them. We are talking about targets in the future, so I do not see why it should not be possible for Britain to aspire to being at the forefront of Europe, rather than for ever playing catch-up. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific figure, but I should like Britain to be at the forefront of what is achievable, not at the rear.
Although increasing pressure is being applied to local councils to improve recycling, there are often great practical and financial difficulties in implementing the schemes, because Labour has conspicuously failed to guarantee a long-term framework. Since the Government launched their flagship strategy in 2000, they have offered neither sustainable sources of funding nor any sense of clear policy direction. All too often in this debate, a failure of political will is the greatest issue. The problem also has to do with the equity and fairness of funding throughout the country. Simply put, Labour must make recycling the priority that it deserves to be, but it must also address the need to reduce waste production at source.
Incineration might need to be an option, within a suite of other measures. Above all, however, incineration should not be a fait accompli while our recycling levels remain so pitifully low. That is why my party broadly supports the EU’s proposals for waste minimisation. In particular, we support the principle of life-cycle thinking, which examines the environmental impacts at each stage in the life cycle of a resource or product. In other words, waste policy must consider not only the pollution caused, but how to contribute to reducing environmental impacts.
We support the principle of reducing the production of waste at source, and we support greater recycling and simplification of waste legislation. We also support the view that waste products can be a resource in themselves, such as through energy reclaimed from incineration or the use of by-products, such as tallow, which as a fuel is carbon-neutral.
We welcome the Commission’s decision to improve further the efficiency of recovering energy from waste by setting an ambitious benchmark for municipal incinerators. The new energy-efficiency benchmark will determine whether an incinerator can be identified as a recovery facility instead of a disposal facility. Waste processed in a recovery facility can be counted towards mandatory recovery targets, which are set in existing EU directives. The review of the waste oils directive is also welcome, now that scientific research has shown that it is better to regenerate waste oils than to combust them and recover the energy. Those are clear examples of where the waste hierarchy must also be understood in terms of the life cycle of waste.
However, we are concerned that the proposals that we are discussing might be too heavily focused on end-of-pipe approaches, such as reclaiming energy from waste, to the detriment of the much greater demand side efficiencies that waste prevention, reuse and recycling can deliver. Numerous institutional policy documents, European Environment Agency reports and the Commission’s own thematic strategy communication highlight the continued lack of progress on tackling the ever-growing quantities of waste.
To reverse the trend of growing waste generation, the five-step waste hierarchy must be not only reconfirmed, but vigorously implemented. To achieve a low-waste and recycling society, the policy debate should focus not just on diversion from landfill. The emphasis must shift to prevention and, for waste that is still generated, reuse and recycling should predominate. As short and medium-term objectives, the EU should stabilise and then reduce its waste generation. As a long-term objective, it should minimise all residual non-reusable or non-recyclable waste. In short, by 2020 the EU should be producing less waste, not more, and should have moved from an average of 70 per cent. incineration and landfill to at least 70 per cent. reuse and recycling.
However, we must be careful not to be over-simplistic in our approach. Some people, such as Friends of the Earth, are calling for a ban on the landfill or incineration of reusable, recyclable and compostable waste, but further research is needed before European law goes further in that direction. The reality remains that we continue to have residual waste that cannot be reused or recycled and must be dealt with. We must avoid a self-defeating situation in which, in a drive to recycle waste, the transportation of that waste causes greater environmental damage than any benefit received.
We must also remember that the situation in respect of waste is highly variable across member states. The current reality facing waste policy is a critical phase of integration of 10 new member states, where much waste management infrastructure has still to be built. Europe has at least two speeds of waste management. It is important that the changes proposed are adapted to meet those realities. However, waste plans, while taking account of the differences of individual member states, must share the common targets across the EU.
Under the better regulation drive, we need better implementation, which in turn requires proper follow-up. It is critical that the waste framework directive is indeed a good example of better regulation—regulation that will set, define and implement environmental objectives and give priority to prevention, and whose implementation will be enforceable and adapted to the realities of a multi-speed waste Europe.
Substantial progress has been made in the disposal and reuse of waste, particularly in Conservative-controlled councils, which dominate the Government’s recycling league tables. The Conservatives believe that waste is worth recycling, but oppose the new definition of recycling as outlined in the Commission’s proposals. Such a definition would simply add to the monitoring and licensing costs of recycling waste that already exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby pointed out, it is essential that we ensure that recycling markets are supported from a demand point of view and that recycling does not just become an end in itself.
The proposals are therefore welcome, but clearly they will need further consideration as they progress. I look forward to working closely on them with the Government and European colleagues. If we get the balance right between landfill limits, waste taxes, support for the waste hierarchy in the light of life-cycle thinking, and categorisation as a recovery facility only for energy-efficient incinerators, we will make real progress on tackling the UK’s waste problem.
We will support the Government where we believe that they are doing the right thing. However, ambitious targets and bold action are required at all levels of Government in implementing this strategy. We believe that the Government should promote the development of totally renewable energy from waste technologies, and encourage the most environmentally friendly methods of residual waste disposal, while also focusing on the eventual phasing out of residual waste. A national waste prevention programme under the revised directive is an opportunity to transform waste policy in this country. I am sure that such a policy would have the broad support of our constituents.
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