Waste Prevention and Recycling

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Martin Horwood: I, too, welcome the opportunity to scrutinise the thematic strategy, the draft revision and the related repeals. I will be delighted to tell UK Independence party supporters in my constituency that I have been involved in a small way in the removal of at least one piece of European legislation that has now become superfluous. I will also be delighted to tell them that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby appeared to regret that there was no directive on plastics, and therefore to be supporting additional European legislation.
This measure comes at what is an historic moment in several different ways in humanity’s use of resources. Hon. Members have referred to the threat of greenhouse gas emissions to our global civilisation in many respects and the fact that we have at best 10 years to prevent a catastrophic escalation in climate change. Waste specifically contributes to that—3.4 per cent. of UK greenhouse gas emissions come directly from waste—but, in general, waste on the scale on which we see it in this country is still symptomatic of a society that is generally more wasteful of its resources than it should be, using more energy, more water and more land than is really necessary.
However, we are also at an historic turning point in world history in another respect. The UN’s population division estimates that, in 2007, for the first time, most of the world’s population will be city dwellers. That represents a historic shift towards a less resource-efficient lifestyle. London alone requires 125 times its own area to provide the resources that it consumes. At the moment, it recycles only 18 per cent. of its waste. I shall not rehearse all the statistics that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle recited, but we are clearly failing to recycle as much as we should.
This is not just about recycling and greenhouse gas emissions, although London also emits 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. It produces 4 million tonnes of household waste, 11.4 million tonnes of industrial waste, 400,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 260,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides and 7.5 million tonnes of wet digested sewage sludge. Such charming statistics underline the importance of the directive in encouraging all EU states, but particularly the UK, to raise our game.
The Library told me its latest comparative figures. They are not fantastically up to date, it must be said, but they are presumably the latest that allow comparison between states. The UK was emitting 600 kg of municipal waste per capita in 2004 and was then 12 per cent. above the EU25 average. In 2002-03, it was still 13th in recycling rates for municipal waste, and at 69 per cent., its landfill rate was still well above the EU average.
As I said in my question, some articles in the directive to which the Government have objected on grounds of subsidiarity seem largely harmless. I referred to article 10, and the Minister did not seem entirely sure what the objection to it was. He imagined, he said, that it was to do with the precise definition contained in more detailed guidance. I suggest that he should consider in more detail the real requirements and whether there is really anything in them to object to.
If Her Majesty’s Government can find opportunities to bring powers and regulations that need not be exercised at EU level back to the national level, they would certainly have my support, but there is a tension between encouraging subsidiarity here and in other member states, encouraging flexibility, which is obviously a good thing, and the desire for EU legislation to be effective. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle produced many statistics to demonstrate that recycling and waste management are not yet particularly effective at an EU-wide level, in that implementation is reportedly very poor. That is the whole reason for revising the directive in the first place.
We welcome simplification, particularly measures such as the waste oils directive’s repeal and incorporation into a single directive. We welcome the improvement of performance indicators and definitions of best practice. All of those changes will give greater certainty to businesses, including the purchasers of recycled products, as well as to municipal authorities. In so far as Her Majesty’s Government support that, we support them.
I suspect that, amid the detail of the Government’s position on the subsidiarity principle relating to fairly minor measures in the directive, some bigger issues are being missed. The first is the waste hierarchy. I was pleased by the Minister’s response to my question, as he remains strongly committed to the hierarchy that runs from prevention to reuse, recycling, energy recovery and finally landfill.
I was also pleased that the Minister shares Friends of the Earth’s worry that the directive may actually undermine that hierarchy by lumping together the last three issues: recycling, energy recovery and landfill. In fact, I am even more concerned by the Conservatives’ position, which seems to be that they were happy to see that take place and that, in many respects, they equate energy recovery with recycling. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle will correct me if that is an unfair criticism.
Gregory Barker: We were trying to make a clear differential between efficient energy recovery and old-fashioned incineration, and in looking to the future, we were trying to say that we hope that there will be a role for efficient scientific energy recovery. That is not the same as the incineration that we know and have experienced in this country in the past.
Martin Horwood: I am somewhat reassured by that, but I am still concerned by the Government’s position, which appears to be to support the hierarchy at home, but then be content to see it diluted at European level. The hon. Gentleman’s answer on whether or not we should have 50 per cent. targets on recycling imply that he is content to see other states, in a sense, damage the common environment by choosing their own path and hierarchy and allowing subsidiarity to undermine the support that exists in this country for the waste hierarchy. Denmark is an obvious example of such a state, because it achieves a very low level of landfill disposal by having a very high level of incineration—more than 50 per cent. in the latest statistics that I have seen.
The Minister said in response to my question that he thought the use of life-cycle analysis was the exception rather than the rule, that the waste hierarchy, quite rightly, should not be a straitjacket and that we should use life-cycle analysis where it is useful. In so far as the Minister will propose that at European level, I will support him. I am slightly concerned that the Conservatives appear—unless I am wrong again—to support the life-cycle analysis.
The Chairman: Order. I am in a generous mood, but we have had two occasions when Conservative policy has been mentioned during the discussion of directive. I should be grateful to hon. Members if they could limit making such comments to two occasions.
Martin Horwood: I am grateful to you for your direction, Mr. Wilshire.
The commitment to the waste hierarchy is heightened by the redefinition of waste incineration as recovery. The Minister suggested that that would not have a material impact. If that is so, why are we suggesting that it should go forward if a risk is attached? Energy efficiency benchmarks are not the only measure by which we should judge waste disposal and recovery processes, and anything that further fuzzes the definitions and priorities seems dangerous.
I gave a concrete example in my question relating to gas plasma technology, which uses a high temperature gas and not combustion to separate the constituent parts of the waste, after recyclable materials have been removed. I am not sure whether that is more or less energy-efficient when used for energy generation, but it certainly produces less carbon dioxide, much less toxic waste and much more recyclable material than incineration.
Gas plasma technology may or may not pass the required benchmark and end up in the same category as traditional incineration plants or even the newer incineration plants. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet gas plasma developers to discuss exactly how the directive will affect their business and whether or not it will incentivise gas plasma technology, which still produces some carbon dioxide and toxic waste, but is obviously preferable to traditional incineration.
On toxic waste, in allowing the boundaries to be muddied between energy recovery and recycling, weare possibly opening the door to an increase in incineration, which would increase the amount of toxic waste going to landfill. That is close to our heart in Gloucestershire, because there is a toxic landfill waste site at Wingmoor farm, not far from my constituency, and to which there is huge public opposition.
An organisation called Safety in Waste and Rubbish Disposal was formed in 2001, when a local resident discovered that the landfill site adjacent to her home was being filled with hazardous waste. In particular, she was alerted to the presence of fly ash, which is a by-product of municipal incinerators and is not only highly caustic, but contains traces of heavy metals such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and dioxins.
Anything that unintentionally presents an opportunity to reverse the UK’s downward trajectory on less hazardous waste and that allows more, not less, waste to go to landfill should be resisted. I am alarmed at any proposal that might lead to the large scale burning of plastics, which again seemed to be what the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby was suggesting. We must make it clear that the hierarchy stays in place.
If there is concern that the reason for the change in definitions is to prevent a drift towards more landfill because incineration and landfill are somehow equivalent, it is unnecessary. Friends of the Earth’s analysis suggests that it is unnecessary to incentivise the movement of waste away from landfill, because there are already two directives that provide legally binding targets to divert biodegradable waste from landfill. That is why the EU Environment Committee, at its meeting on 28 November, rejected under any circumstances the reclassification of incineration as recovery. The Liberal Democrats support that, and I press the Government to maintain their commitment to the strict five-point hierarchy, to put incineration in its proper place and not to shift the goalposts.
Two wider issues have received insufficient emphasis. First, recycling received insufficient emphasis in the directive. The Government love targets, so here is a golden opportunity to introduce some, with Liberal Democrat support. Friends of the Earth suggest a70 per cent. target for total waste by 2020. On this occasion, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that he would support more robust targets, although he declined to say what they would be.
In the European Parliament, Chris Davies of the Liberal Democrats suggested amending article 5 to introduce a 50 per cent. target, and amending article 4 to set a target of stabilising EU waste by 2012, with annual reductions of at least 1 per cent. every year until 2020. He also suggested an amendment to introduce an obligation on the Commission to support member states’ measures to achieve that reduction. The amendments were mysteriously defeated, but I hope that the Government will support their reintroduction; it would be in the Government’s interests, as their record on recycling is not fantastic and they might benefit from the Commission’s measures.
Finally, a question hangs over the directive. My colleague in the European Parliament tabled amendments to article 1, suggesting the incorporation of a fundamental principle: the protection of the environment and of human health and well-being. Waste prevention is not an end in itself; it is about protecting the common environment, and human health and well-being.
The EU can do much better than the directive’s current vision. The Government’s negotiating position could be clearer and more radical, and they could be more committed to taking to a European level many of the good principles that they have expounded in this country.
I acknowledge the positive steps that Her Majesty’s Government have taken, and particularly some of their innovative steps, such as the national industrial symbiosis programme. It is an innovative means of prevention and of encouraging companies to exchange materials, rather than sending them to waste. However, if at EU level the Government are content to pay lip service to the hierarchy that sets prevention at the top and landfill at the absolute bottom, I would find it difficult to support their negotiating position in full, even though I would support those positions that could lead to more subsidiarity, more simplification and more efficient legislation. I am particularly worried about the open door that they seem to be offering with a major increase in incineration—and thereby an increase in toxic landfill.
5.45 pm
Mr. Bradshaw: We have had an interesting and constructive debate, and I am grateful to my parliamentary colleagues for their interest. I agreed with much of what was said in summing up by the hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Bexhill and Battle. I shall give some clarification on one or two points.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham may be interested to know that the latest figures for London show a recycling level of 21 per cent. It is not correct to say that we did not implement the local incentive pilots; we did it last year, and he can see how successful they were. That is another commitment delivered.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we are concerned not about the networks referred to in the document but about insistence on the best available techniques. I shall briefly explain why. Such a provision would constrain the flexibility of member states to specify the general rules for permit exemptions even for low-risk waste recovery and recycling operations. For example, it could mean low-risk activities such as bottle banks being subject to the imposition of BAT. That would be completely disproportionate. It would serve no useful purpose and it would massively increase costs, and I am sure that the Liberal Democrats are as concerned as we are that the costs should be maintained at a proportionate and sensible level.
I would caution the hon. Member for Cheltenham on drawing attention to the attempts of his Liberal Democrat colleague in the European Parliament to delay the arrival of waste stabilisation. That is not particularly consistent with the approach that he took in the rest of his speech. I have been advised that his European colleague was successful in delaying the date on which waste stabilisation should occur from 2008 to 2012, and it was also the subject of a press release by the Committee.
As I said earlier, we have already achieved not only stabilisation but reduction, so I am rather disappointed that the Liberal Democrats should be arguing in the European Parliament for a watering down of that part of the proposal. However, most of the amendments passed by the Committee were a great example of constructive engagement by the Conservative party in Europe, and I join the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle in paying tribute to the rapporteur, Caroline Jackson. They show that constructive engagement can achieve things for the United Kingdom as a whole. However, we were not particularly happy with that amendment.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham was wrong to say that our revised waste strategy envisages a massive extension of incineration—or, as it is more accurately described, energy from waste. The 2000 waste strategy envisaged that about 33 per cent. of our waste stream would need to be incinerated by 2020. As a result of the hugely improved recycling rates since Labour came to power, we believe that we will need only 25 per cent. of our waste stream to be used to create energy by 2020, which is a far lower proportion than for most comparable European countries, particularly those that are often held up as having good and sustainable waste policies.
That leads me to the comments of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle. I was disappointed that he brought party politics into the debate, although I was pleased to hear him acknowledge the large degree of consensus on the question. However, he provoked me slightly when he said that he was dissatisfied that the UK was constantly playing catch-up. But catch-up from where? We are catching up from the derisory 7 per cent. recycling figure that we inherited in 1997. We have quadrupled recycling in the last eight years from 7 per cent. to27 per cent.
It is all very well to talk about targets, and we have ambitious targets. However, just as the Conservatives preached to us about targets on climate change, I can say that it is no good having targets unless we will the means to achieve them—and that means policies. The hon. Gentleman was gracious enough to acknowledge, following the intervention from the hon. Member for Cheltenham, that the Conservatives do not yet have any policies, but I am keen to find out as soon as possible what they are and how the targets will be achieved.
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