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6 Feb 2008 : Column 273WH—continued

We can obviously improve networks, enabling demand and supply to come together better—car boot sales, eBay and so on do precisely that. Better communication is also important. For the Government, there is a role
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through regulation and support for recycling industries, producers and end users to do something about what is and what is not economically viable. That is an extraordinarily important part of the Government’s work.

The Government surely have another role, in getting the producers of the stuff—the primary producers; the people who create the stuff that ultimately becomes waste—to refine and reduce their production processes. Clearly, if we were to cut the number of plastics that are produced, we would improve the feasibility of recycling plastics. If we increase the durability of cars, which we have done quite dramatically—we see hardly any rusty cars on the road these days—we do something about the waste at the end. Car manufacturers are now checking that each piece has a use beyond the life of the car.

Such reduced production has a double benefit. If we produce less and industry produces less, we have a double win, because there are fewer emissions. Self-evidently, however, it is not in everybody’s interest to do that. Toyota has just cut production of its cars, and Toyotas are some of the most durable cars on the road. It has simply made its cars so durable that people replace them less frequently than they did. If it is not in everybody’s interest to have recycling, reuse and reprocessing, there has to be a strong role for the state in encouraging that.

There also has to be, because there will be conflicts of interest, a constant and serious assessment of the costs and benefits of the whole process—a cost-benefit analysis—because false environmental virtue is a possibility. There are green gestures that offer very little in the way of genuine green effects. That might involve lorries loaded with lightweight uncrushed plastic bottles rattling around the country belching out all sorts of emissions, 4x4 owners making the odd trip to the tip with half a dozen bottles or the introduction of heavier packaging and more waste because plastic has been phased out—I am sure that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) will make that point later.

Everybody assumes that the key agents—the people who have to sew all that together—are national and local government. They work directly under the landfill directive, which is an effective sledgehammer, but the use of that sledgehammer can lead to environmentally questionable behaviour. I wonder whether authorities collecting garden waste, which can adequately be composted in the garden, is as environmentally defensible as it might be.

There is good and diverse practice. The hon. Member for Norwich, North illustrated that point with examples from his own patch, but the system is not as good as it might be. Across the piece, there is insufficient planning and initiative. The hon. Gentleman made the point that sometimes there is not sufficient engagement by business and in particular by retail business. There is insufficient policy join-up.

I shall illustrate the point with a case from my constituency. We have recently changed to alternate weekly collections, and there has been a huge increase in demand for plastic recycling, because that makes up a big element in the residual bin collection. However, we are locked into a contract with a collector who is not contracted to do that work, who is not funded to do it and who does not have the crushing machinery necessary to do it economically. We have a waste disposal authority
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that has no particular plans to reprocess any plastic when it is collected, and I have to say that there is a persistently unhelpful attitude from local supermarkets. We have damned the supermarkets already in the debate. I wrote to them all saying, “What more can you do other than offering space in your car park?” The answer from my local supermarkets was not a lot—in fact, nothing at all.

Thinking ahead to what we will face in the future, a predictable volume of stuff is going into the waste stream, and we can all see it coming. I am thinking of cathode ray tube monitors from computers, analogue TVs, VHS recorders and so on. We understand the waste stream better than ever and can predict what will happen.

We do not have anything other than a patchwork of provision across the country. People say that that is bound to be the case because localism is the name of the game at the moment, and local authorities must decide things as they see fit, according to what their citizens demand. However, even if we agree with that, as I think we largely do, we still need local engagement on the part of national companies—I refer again to the supermarkets—and good Government support for local recycling initiatives, both public and private.

I know that there are problems with state aid rules, but let me give one simple example of what I mean. An innovative firm on the Wirral, not far from me, has set up a factory that uses a mechanism to reprocess CDs and DVDs, which we all receive in huge volumes from newspapers and from organisations that feel that MPs will look at their information. Huge quantities of those CDs and DVDs will end up in the waste stream, and I do not know what happens to them then. In the case of the factory near me, however, CDs and DVDs, which are made from polycarbons, are reprocessed, which is a valuable initiative. It may not necessarily go anywhere, and it would be some time before it was developed across the whole country, but the fact that it has not been developed is a matter of regret. Although we have good practice and a great deal of sound local improvisation, we need the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take a strong lead to orchestrate our efforts.

3.11 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and on his interesting and entertaining speech. I agree with him about the strength of public interest in this important issue and the fact that that is a good sign of public concern about the sustainability of the environment in general. We are all increasingly aware that recycling can make a huge contribution to the conservation of resources and energy, and that must be the first line of defence and action against climate change. As he said, we are making progress, but there is still a long way to go in reducing landfill and in increasing recycling to the level of the best of our European neighbours.

I want to raise a few points by way of questions to the Minister, who is committed to dealing with these issues. First, to follow on from the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, will she say more about the action that the Government are taking
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on commercial and industrial waste, which is an important dimension of the challenge that we face? In particular, has she considered imposing a ban on the landfilling and incineration of material that can be recycled or composted? Looking to the future, those are the sort of issues on which we need to be giving the right signals.

My second concern is about what can be done to improve the recycling of aluminium, which it is particularly important to recycle, given that a lot of energy is needed to produce aluminium from its ore, bauxite. Recycling it would therefore make significant energy savings and help to combat climate change.

That raises the vexed question of incineration, which my hon. Friend mentioned. When municipal waste is incinerated, aluminium in the form of cans, foil and so on is rendered useless and non-recoverable. I would be grateful if the Minister explained how the expansion of incineration can be reconciled with improved rates of aluminium recovery and, indeed, with our concern about climate change.

I would also like to ask the Minister whether she foresees waste incineration, like other industrial processes, being subject to some kind of carbon pricing. In Oxfordshire, the county council proposes to build a 200,000 tonnes a year incinerator. On reasonable assumptions, and using the Government’s 2007 shadow price for carbon emissions of £25.50 a tonne, that would result in an annual charge of about £5.1 million, which would rise substantially as the shadow price went up in future years. At the moment, that environmental cost is not factored into the decision on incineration. Does she agree that it should be?

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree not only that it is right to incorporate the shadow cost of carbon into such calculations, but that the shadow cost that the Government are using is much lower than the one recommended in the Stern report, so the real picture is even worse than he suggests?

Mr. Smith: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it would be fair to point out that the Government envisage costs rising significantly in the future, which reinforces my point that we should factor in the real future cost of emissions from burning such volumes of waste in incinerators. Of course, we should take the best independent advice on the appropriate price.

Finally, do the Government intend to encourage, or even force, industry to recycle much more packaging by increasing the targets in the packaging regulations? We are waiting for the Government to make an announcement on that some time soon, and if the Minister is unable to make an announcement this afternoon, it would be helpful if she told us when she will be able to make one.

3.16 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in the next few minutes.

I want to follow on from the point on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) finished. He mentioned levels of packaging waste, and I
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should declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on the packaging manufacturing industry. My first point on packaging waste is that only 3 per cent. of it goes to landfill, while the rest is recycled or dealt with in other ways. A minimal amount of packaging therefore goes to landfill, and it is difficult to see how increasing the targets will bring any further benefits. We have a bigger problem with household waste and particularly food waste, because we waste about 30 per cent. of the food that we produce, and it all goes to landfill.

My main point, however, relates to recycling systems, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned. One problem is that the recycling targets placed on local authorities are completely different from those placed on industry. As we have heard, different systems are in place throughout the country. The good news is that about 98 per cent. of the country is covered by local authority recycling systems, but the problem is that they are all slightly different, and different authorities collect different materials in different parts of the country.

We therefore have different targets. Local authorities are required to collect recycling materials in terms of their tonnage, whereas industry is required to recycle in terms of specific sectors and materials. It does not matter, therefore, how local authorities collect materials, which are simply jumbled up in collection systems throughout the country. When they arrive at industry facilities to be recycled, therefore, they are often unusable, which is why so much is sent to places such as China, as my hon. Friend said. I therefore ask the Minister to look at ways of bringing the recycling systems into sync with the collection systems and of getting local authorities to collect materials in such a way that they can be recycled.

I shall give a couple of examples. My local industry in Barnsley is glass containers, and the first bottle bank, as it was called then, was introduced on 24 April 1977 in Barnsley. We should rename them glass banks, of course, because contrary to the opinion of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North they do not always collect only wine bottles; other glass items can be recycled as well. It was a way of collecting glass to be reused in the glass industry, because glass is a perfectly recyclable product. A glass bottle is melted, and it reconstitutes itself as glass. The problem is that if the colours are mixed together the glass all comes out green. If clear and flint glass or clear and amber glass are mixed, they turn green. Given the number of green bottles that we import into the country from wine-growing areas, we are awash with green glass, and the stuff is unusable for recycling except in road materials.

The quality of what we are now recycling is not very good. One of the biggest glass companies in this country is called Owens-Illinois, which recently bought United Glass. United Glass has a plant at Harlow in Essex, which I visited many years ago to see how it recycled its glass products. Owens-Illinois refuses to use the glass recycled from that plant, even though it owns it, because it is of such poor quality. It goes elsewhere to find a recycler that it wants to use in its glass production. There is thus an idea that we are co-mingling and not getting the synchronisation right between what industry can recycle and what is being collected. We have heard already that some local authorities do not recycle some
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materials that others will. Plastics is one example of a material that many local authorities will not recycle, although it is a valuable product when it is recycled. We should be doing a lot more to collect and recycle that product.

We need to improve. I have recently been given a press release on behalf of a company called Catalyst, which has made an estimate of what the cost of incineration will be as a consequence of the Government’s waste strategy. It states that to meet

Incineration is something that many local authorities do not want on their doorstep, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North pointed out, but unless we recycle more, because we are running out of landfill, incineration is becoming the only alternative. It will require major investment.

I have one or two final points. The first is about lightweighting. The Government have made much of the idea that industry should lightweight products and packaging. Lightweighting simply means making something lighter. A bottle such as those we have before us today could be made with thinner glass and a certain number of grams of glass could be taken out of the product. It seems a very good idea, and one wonders why industry has not already done it. It would mean that industry used less glass to produce a unit—a bottle. The problem is, on a life cycle analysis, that because the product is lighter it is more fragile, and so in transporting the product the pallets, carriers and containers must be stronger. More energy is used to produce the pallets to carry the lightweighted product, so in the end we do not really save anything through lightweighting.

The plastic bag issue that is coming before Parliament is a popular one. My hon. Friend mentioned the plastic bag-free town in Devon, a local authority has a Bill before Parliament on the issue, and there is talk of China and New York banning plastic bags. Yes, everyone would like a reduction in the number of plastic bags littering our country. However, we must act so as to achieve what we set out to achieve, and not do as Ireland did. The tax on plastic bags meant that people did not buy them, or some supermarkets did not make them available, yet the production of plastic increased, because people found other types of plastic container to use as a substitute. We must encourage people to cut their use, or use alternatives, and not simply ban them outright or tax them, with the result that people look elsewhere to meet their needs.

3.25 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I add my congratulations to those already offered by other hon. Members to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and, as ever, displaying great technical knowledge of the subject. He is right to highlight our poor position in the international league table on recycling and waste, but he is also right to give credit where it is due to the Government for some important initiatives.

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There is a question that politicians are always asked at the hustings, which they slightly dread, about which of their opponents’ policies they support. My two stock answers—with respect to the Government, at least—have always been Sure Start, which I have always thought is an excellent programme for early intervention in children’s lives, and the business resource efficiency and waste programme, which is an imaginative programme that has done important work on improving waste resource efficiency and recycling.

The waste strategy contains many positive intentions and ideas, but in general it has not gone far enough. BREW stands out as an initiative that is working very well. I think that the Prime Minister agrees with me, because on a recent visit to China he used the national industrial symbiosis programme as a model, encouraged the Chinese to follow with a similar programme of their own and offered them our expertise in doing so. That programme clearly has the backing of Ministers at a very senior level, which is important, because, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North has stressed, household waste is a minor part of the overall mix—I think that it comprises less than 10 per cent. of UK waste—whereas BREW uniquely addresses commercial and industrial waste.

NISP’s performance is certainly dramatic. The hon. Gentleman has quoted some statistics, but NISP says that it has saved UK industry more than £70 million, attracted £66 million in private investment for reprocessing and recycling, diverted 1.7 million tonnes of waste from landfill, eliminated 285,000 tonnes of hazardous waste and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million tonnes.

NISP has also commissioned independent consultants to look at its performance. Scott Wilson consultants reported last year:

if hon. Members will excuse the language—

Thus NISP is probably the most effective part of the overall BREW programme.

The waste and resources action programme, which has been mentioned, is a little more difficult to evaluate. It makes great claims about recycling capacity, including the claim that an additional 9.9 million people in England are now committed recyclers. It also claims £182 million of investment levered into the recycling sector from commercial sources and increased industry turnover in the recycling sector of £1.3 billion. Of course, it is not entirely clear how much of that is due to WRAP alone and how much to other factors, but it has done some very specific work with the Olympic Delivery Authority, Sheffield city council schools projects and elsewhere with demonstrable benefit.

In a spirit of cross-party co-operation, I shall quote Conservative-controlled Gloucestershire county council, which credits WRAP with helping it to increase recycling in Gloucestershire by 9 per cent. over the past two years from 21 to 30 per cent. with the help of £467,000 of funding in awareness-raising and public engagement activities. In a less cross-party spirit, the increase might have been a little higher, if Cheltenham borough council
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had not fallen into the hands of the Conservatives a few years ago, because although the Liberal administration, having inherited a domestic recycling rate of 9 per cent. from an earlier Tory administration, nearly tripled the rate to 26 per cent., two years after the Tories regained control, sadly, no new kerbside recycling has been added to the Liberal Democrat initiatives on paper, tins, bottles and green waste, and the percentage has risen to only 28 per cent.

In fairness, however, even to the Conservative-controlled administration, there is a general problem in Gloucestershire in co-ordinating the best response locally between different councils, which the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) has mentioned in a different context. The issue is about ensuring a high quality, cost-effective and co-ordinated recycling response across different areas. The Minister perhaps needs to consider how to assist local councils to bring together effective waste partnerships that move forward, because there seem to be barriers.

The statistics highlight the variation between different businesses and local authorities. Real political will is required to drive the issue forward, so it is alarming that WRAP is meeting the Secretary for State today, according to reports, to discuss budget cuts of 25 per cent. or more, and it has already made 31 staff redundant. NISP is also concerned. It has expressed the fear that overall funding for the BREW programme, from which it gets its funding, could drop precipitately from £125 million per annum to as little as £60 million.

I asked the Minister about that in a written question on 7 January, to which she gave the rather cryptic answer that

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