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6 Feb 2008 : Column 267WH—continued

We are all on board and things are beginning to move.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. This is almost like an away day for the second floor of Portcullis House, in that the Minister, the initiator of the debate and I are all immediate neighbours. My hon. Friend has focused on the domestic and the local, but there is a national strategy, and we also need to look at business. The Government have had a great deal of success over the past three years with their national industrial symbiosis programme, which diverts waste from landfill at 13p a tonne and reduces carbon dioxide by a similar amount for similar reductions. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to sustain that sort of investment, which is a classic example of best practice in Government projects at work?

Dr. Gibson: Of course I agree, but I am beginning to think that my hon. Friend has got hold of my notes, because that is exactly what I was about to move on to. The Portcullis House paranoia continues, because other hon. Members who are based in Portcullis House are in the Chamber.

Most waste comes from the commercial sector, and much more could be done about that. The treasurer of the business resource and efficiency waste partnership—BREW—has asked the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs to develop the programme and to return to businesses £284 million of the additional receipts from increases in landfill tax for three years to encourage and support resource efficiency organisation. That programme is beginning to move forward. The national industrial symbiosis programme, as my hon. Friend has said, brings businesses together to recycle waste and to create a sustainable waste management industry. I will discuss later how that can be taken forward, and whether it will be.

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There is still a lack of education among the public. As I make my way to the station every Monday morning, it is interesting to see where young people live. Their green bins, which take bottles, are always absolutely full to the brim with bottles rolling on to the pavement. Outside the houses of nice people like me is one bottle of wine in our poor little empty bin—I joke, of course. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see from their waste bins how people live their lives. One can see that not only from e-mails that are not properly destroyed, but from the sort of wines that people have been drinking. One can almost tell where they got their bottles.

There is a lack of education, because people still do not know what to put in their bins. Our trip to the Costessey plant outside Norwich was precipitated by meeting people at a local fayre—that is how it is spelt in Norfolk villages—and they talked to us about what people put in their bins. In my area, we have two bins, but we are about to have three, as in many other parts of Norwich, because the programme is being rolled out. We were putting the wrong things in the wrong bins, and if we do so we may receive a yellow or red card. That is to educate people and to tell them that they must do better. It is easy to know where to put bottles, but more difficult with yoghurt tubs.

A major lesson in Norfolk—this may seem simplistic—is that we must not flatten cans because of the way in which they are separated from paper and other items. If a flattened can is put into the bin, it does not get taken out by the process, and ends up with newspapers and so on. It was worth going to that marvellous centre to learn something. One can always learn more about recycling.

We had a huge battle about incineration at the same site, and various quangos and groups fought to prevent that. I shall not go into the arguments about dioxins, gases and potential hazards, but the public did not want it, and they will now have an alternative, greener and friendlier destruction process. However, I saw in today’s paper that there is a threat that local politicians may be trying, sneakily, to bring back the possibility of incineration. There is a threat of an incineration plant in Suffolk. Incineration is popular with many people but, like wind turbines, there is no guarantee of introducing them, because the public have a feeling about incineration, rightly or wrongly. The public must participate in the process and understand why items must be separated. Open days and trips around recycling plants, of which there are quite a few in Norwich, are good for people to see how the process functions.

There have been consultation papers and co-operation between organisations to try to develop the industry in the United Kingdom. I am proud of the situation in Norwich and Norfolk. At the Costessey plant, I met Bob Wade from Broadland district council and Steve Jenkins, the local authority contract manager at Norfolk Environmental Waste Services Ltd. Throughout Norfolk, recycling figures are high at above 25 per cent. Where they have been low, as they were in Norwich until recently, they have suddenly increased and smashed through the barrier set by DEFRA, which I believe was 20 per cent. How was that done? Paper, cans and bottles are collected every two weeks by a door-to-door service. Garden waste goes into brown bins, and bottles into green. There are banks for textiles, plastics and bottles, and about 20 centres with Tetra Pak banks for apple
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and orange juice cartons. It is quite exciting to learn about that, and how much waste we produce in society.

There are small differences from one local authority to another, but Norfolk is leading the way. How do we do that? NEWS recycles dry waste, and it has a V-screen, which is a device to separate waste materials by shape. It separates paper from other materials, and newspapers and magazines from mixed paper. Unwanted material goes through electromagnets, and eddy currents separate steel and aluminium. Those materials are bundled and sold in the UK, and they can be seen outside the plant, where they are properly separated and available to produce high-quality products. The plant also handles plastics, and the various materials are used to make newspapers, cans, fibres for plastic containers, fleeces, and even duvets. They can be used to make a range of things, but if waste is not separated properly, a low-grade material is produced with cross-contamination, much of which goes to the far east, where we hope that it is handled properly.

NEWS is an arm of Norfolk county council, but it operates as a private company and receives no direct financial or operational input from the county council. Not only is it economically sustainable, but it makes a profit, which goes back to the council to help with other services. I must declare an interest, because I once did some work on air pollution for NEWS when I worked at the local university. I discussed how far microbes might travel on wind currents across the Norfolk countryside and whether houses in a certain small village would be contaminated and so on. I believe that NEWS used that information in some of its composting endeavours.

Something is happening not only in Norfolk, but throughout the country, and when one sees it at first hand, one feels proud that recycling is part of an important political agenda. All the district and city councils have signed up to NEWS, and they have similar recycling practices and separation. That was initiated by NEWS, which was a group of individuals who were enthusiastic about doing something. NEWS is not a profit-making organisation—none of those individuals is a millionaire—and there are no shares. That is not a Northern Rock situation, because NEWS was just a group of people who believed in climate change, and that leadership, รก la Alex Ferguson, is important. When people have a desire to make something happen, they sit down, go through all the problems and manage to get there, and NEWS has done that.

NEWS has a red and yellow card system, with brown bins to recycle compost and green waste. Initially that happened only in some areas, but NEWS has now managed to wheel it out throughout the county. It has alternate weekly collections, and the top recycling councils nationally have introduced alternate weekly collections or other methods. They have increased recycling percentages, and reduced the amount of waste going to landfill.

That is pretty good, and a real start. I was brought up in a culture where waste was thrown over the shoulder, but I live in a very climate-conscious house, and I cannot drop anything without being told, “It goes in there.” That is important.

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David Taylor: My hon. Friend mentions alternate weekly collections. He will be aware that the Opposition and their pet daily tabloids have run continuous campaigns to suggest that alternate weekly collections are damaging to the health and environment of the neighbourhood and should be ended forthwith. Will he say how important such collections are in Norfolk and Norwich? That type of approach can work and produce high levels of recycling without incurring great costs.

Dr. Gibson: That is absolutely true. I am not saying that it was easy at the start, but it has worked out. People know exactly when the collections take place. They save the material, keep it in different sub-boxes before putting it in the collection cans. It is part of an education. When people really believe in something, they will work through the process. I hope that we do not end up with a weekly collection because it will mean that drinking has increased, and we want to cut that down as well. I do not want people to think, “I must fill up my box this week because they are coming.” A little bit of discipline can be quite a good thing, and alternate weekly collections work well.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is nothing magic about alternate weekly collections? What we must ensure is that each community devises a recycling scheme that is right for that community and does so with due regard to local people’s lifestyle and habits. It should not devise a scheme simply because it is under financial duress from central Government. All too often, systems are chosen because of the financial settlement and not because of what is right. In London, I have recyclables collected from my doorstep twice a week. At home in the country, the council has just switched to an alternate weekly collection, not least because of the financial implications of doing anything different. I welcome the driving up of recycling, but alternate weekly collections are only one way of doing that.

Dr. Gibson: I do not think that that is a serious political issue, and we should not score points off each other. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is about what can be achieved in a local community. He may need to have his recyclables collected twice a week in London. He may drink twice as much as someone else.

Gregory Barker: Not just me.

Dr. Gibson: I know. The hon. Gentleman may eat twice as much as well. It is what works for people. This has not been motivated by a financial incentive. Getting the collections to happen in the first place was the main problem in Norfolk. I do not mind whether the collections are once or twice a week as long as we can afford them. The more that recycling takes place, the more money there will be to help the local system to work. Money has to be spent on paying people to collect the recyclables in the early hours of the morning and so on. The more that we can encourage people to recycle, the better it is. That should be our priority, not point scoring. We should not have to say, “We do it twice a week. You only do it once a week.” That is a
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silly game that we must not get into. The issue is bigger than that, more political, more important and achievable.

Commercial interests in the private sector have been a problem. I visit Asda in Norwich once a month. One week, the bottle banks vanished and three more cars appeared in their place. I will not call that irresponsible, but it shows the kind of attitudes that develop in the supermarket climate. I will say more about that later. The national industrial symbiosis programme has tried to provide businesses with contacts to improve their recycling record. I think that supermarkets have a heck of a lot to do. They produce a lot of packaging and bottle waste. They need to work in partnership in a non-competitive way with a view to saving the planet and harnessing all the extra packaging that they produce. That is what it is all about.

Following the intervention by NISP, some 1,200 tonnes of paper sludge from a paper manufacturer have gone to a worm farm. NISP runs seminars in which it educates people. I welcome that kind of initiative. More and more of it is happening. It does not matter who does it as long as it is getting through to the public and into the business centres and they are taking up the issues.

Plastic bags are a problem. I sat through a Labour party general committee meeting for two-and-a-half hours and listened to how one handles plastic bags in different supermarkets. Behind my house in Norwich, there is a great “green” grocer’s shop, which sends some of its profits to the Green party. It sells a very good jute bag, which can be used again and again. That is quite positive. The shop also sell paper bags at knock-down prices.

There is also the case of Modbury in Devon, which became the first plastic bag-free town. Such initiatives illustrate that the spirit is there. Spreading the message is what it is all about. Progress has been piecemeal. Certain sectors of the retail trade do not care about saying, “Do you want to put your newspaper in a bag?” I do not want to put my newspaper in a bag.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend leaves the point on plastic carrier bags, I just want to say that there is evidence to show that in some areas, such as Ireland, in which there have been attempts to restrict the use of plastic bags, the production of plastic—plastic film and plastic containers—has increased dramatically. In Ireland, when people could not get a carrier bag in supermarkets, they simply bought a plastic bin liner to carry their goods to their vehicles. The life analysis of a plastic bag compared with a paper carrier bag always comes out in favour of the plastic bag.

Dr. Gibson: I do not know whether my hon. Friend is saying that the plastic bag comes out on top in terms of financial cost or cost to the planet.

Mr. Illsley: Both.

Dr. Gibson: That may be the truth. I still think that it is better to reuse a plastic bag than to get another one. There is no substitute for reusing and recycling the same thing. Sainsbury’s provides a good example of the cynicism that can be seen in the sector. Anya Hindmarch, the queen of bag land, designed a fashion
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bag accessory rather than a useful tool for recycling. It was sold at £5 and it can be bought on eBay now for £350. To be seen with one of those bags was really cool and in, and they were sold on the basis of recycling. The idea was that, once 200 or 300 people bought the bag, it would not be a fashion icon any more; everybody would have it. There was a cynicism and salesmanship that went on there, which we must be careful about. We want to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Some countries tax plastic bags. China has abolished them. New York has a different emphasis, compelling the companies that use plastic bags to put in place schemes to recycle them. We need to compare our record with those of other nations, which may take a more interventionist stance. Some small successes have been made in that area. When it comes to industrial recycling, we must ensure that the Government keep making progress. They will need more support, more help and more money. I hope that the Minister will deny the report in The Guardian yesterday that stated that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make a 25 per cent. cut to the budget of the waste and resources action programme despite its rather impressive record of saving 4.6 million tonnes of waste from going to landfill, and turning 5 million more people—12 per cent. of the population—into committed recyclers. I hope that the national industrial symbiosis programme and others will be given encouragement.

Let me finish by saying that we must examine many problems in the Government’s programme, which I think we can. We have a problem with incinerators that will not go away. We need to provide strong leadership to the local councils and ensure that they are funded for their different programmes. We need to give them more support at any level of recycling to provide new machines, new technology, more of the Royal Society of Chemistry stuff to develop new technologies, the best recycling strategies, and give them the powers to do that.

We should make the targets smarter. Shipping poor-quality products overseas to the far east is not a long-term strategy. We need to examine that. We need to consider the function of organisations such as NEWS. I cannot understand why, if it is a success—I ask the Minister to examine its record and what it has done—we cannot roll out the work of such an organisation throughout the country. We must increase the resources to deal with commercial waste, because that is still a major problem. NISP and WRAP should be maintained and strengthened financially; I hope that they will not be cut back.

We are making progress with very good targets. We can be proud of what we have done on recycling up to now. We are moving in the right direction, although as yet we are a long way from where we want to be. I am proud that I am in a county that is part of the movement to recycle waste, and that I can play a part in that politically and as a citizen. I know that people are worried about claims of a nanny state. I am not too worried about being part of a nanny state if it brings about the saving of the planet and all the advantages that go with the new recycling policy. The concern about the environment and climate change justifies all the efforts that we put in, be they successful or not. We must not allow this opportunity to improve our recycling record to go to waste.

Several hon. Members rose

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Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. This is a 90-minute debate and I am obliged to call the first of the three Front-Bench speakers 30 minutes before its termination, so we have 29 minutes left for comment from the Floor. I ask right hon. and hon. Members who wish to engage in the debate to bear that time limit in mind when making their contribution and when accepting or responding to interventions.

3.1 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cook; I will bear that in mind. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on introducing this important debate.

I served on the Select Committee that looked into refuse collection, but I have a more personal, eccentric, almost spiritual interest in this topic. I dislike waste: I keep old bits of wood and metal just in case they ever come in useful, which is usually not the case; I discard old clothes with reluctance and sometimes under protest; and I treasure old machinery, keeping it in use in a one-man battle against entropy, seeing such manufactured goods as the embodied mind of old engineers. I even lament the piles of perfectly usable equipment that we see in scrapyards up and down the country. In fact, at the moment I am endeavouring to respray my own vehicle, which is 14 years old and has gone round the clock. I am the sort of person who has an old analogue TV in their garage. Worse still, for 30 years I have treasured a fog lamp from an Austin Westminster, which I am reluctant to throw out in case somebody comes past who wants it—so far, that has not happened, but perhaps if I give it some publicity here, somebody will offer for it.

Thinking about all that, I wonder whether it is rational behaviour, sentiment or signs of incipient insanity—I have not got round to hoarding loose bits of string and paper yet, so I suppose I am not that bad. I believe that the things that I have mentioned constitute useful waste. Being entirely rational, we could define waste sociologically as surplus material or property that we do not want—the richer people are, the more that they have. Then we could divide surplus material—waste, as I have defined it—into what would have a use for someone else, what we can reprocess and what we cannot do either of those things with, which we simply burn or bury. It is the last category that we are now driven to reduce, because either the material decomposes and emits carbon dioxide, methane and so on, which results in environmental damage, or it does not—for example, plastic—in which case it hangs around causing environmental and cosmetic damage.

There is waste that is useful but for which no users are available in any convenient way. There is material that is reprocessable, but the processes through which that is done are not economically viable or worth anybody’s time. Outside the developing world, the rag-and-bone trade of Steptoe and Son is not as lucrative as once it was. Now, however, given the environmental imperative, much can be done about the issue.

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