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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 April 2008

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Metals Recycling Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):

Those are very wise words. Unfortunately, they are not mine: they are from the opening paragraphs of the 2007 waste strategy, and they are right. The object of a waste strategy, in a world of depleting natural resources and given the urgent need to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, is to prevent waste from arising wherever possible—in other words, we must stop waste materials entering the waste stream. If we cannot do that, the next best thing is to ensure that they can be reused with as little energy expenditure as possible, thereby stopping the entry into the system of virgin materials that might have been produced at great energy cost with the consequence of the further depletion of natural resources.

Much of what we have called “waste” for a very long time is in reality nothing like it: it could, with relatively little processing, reappear in the resource chain as a raw material, ready to be used for whatever is needed. Projects such as the national industrial symbiosis programme, in which companies match what they consider to be their waste with another company’s raw material requirements, have shown just how much value can be added. The Environment Agency has taken considerable steps down the road of recognising the importance of conveying a resource in the wrong place to one in the right place with the development of its waste protocols project.

Through the operation of protocols setting out how materials are to be stewarded and processed, we can prevent many materials from being categorised and treated as waste, and can make the transition from end of use for one purpose to the beginning of use for another purpose, without costly and deleterious processes intervening. Metal is one material that fits that description almost exactly. By recovering and reprocessing ferrous and non-ferrous metals, we can supply pretty much all that we need for remaking metal products, and we can do so over and over again with no real deterioration in the quality of the recovered material. That means that the energy that we use in the process—and hence carbon emissions—is hugely reduced in comparison with that resulting from the use of virgin material. For example, about 75 per cent. less
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energy is used in making something out of recycled steel than in making the same thing out of virgin materials.

In fact, the metals recycling industry has been doing that successfully for many years—long before anyone thought better of taking away in trucks most so-called waste and dumping it unsorted in big holes in the ground. That is partly because metals have always had value, and so offer advantages as a replacement source material, given the relatively clean and short processes involved in recovering and reusing them. Indeed, metals offcuts from stamping or milling processes require no processing at all.

The age-old image of metal recycling as a dodgy industry full of back-street breakers yards receiving furtive visitors armed with lengths of illicit copper pipe and wire arose because people stole metals in the past. Indeed, recent reports of people cutting up railway side cables at great danger to themselves to steal the copper simply update that long tradition. People have always stolen metals because they are valuable, so stealing and fencing them offers a reward that plastic bottles or composting materials has never provided. However, that old image is just that—an old image. Today, metal recycling is an efficient and, generally speaking, well-rewarded business, with large recycling companies investing substantial sums in reliable and effective stewardship of the collection and recycling process.

In fact, a range of companies—some are very large, many others are smaller family-owned concerns—maintain a high standard of recovery and reuse. Indeed, the metals recycling industry has risen superbly to the challenge of the European Union end-of-life vehicles directive and recycles 2 million cars a year—more than any other EU country. About 95 per cent. of metal recycling is undertaken by companies that belong to the British Metals Recycling Association—an excellent body which, among other things, underlines the professionalism and integrity of the modern metals recycling industry.

That is all good news. Problems remain with some small yards on the periphery of the business evading regulation, and of course there is the continuing problem of stolen metals, not least from regulated yards themselves. Apart from that, should we not just let companies get on with it, and rejoice in their relative success? The continuation of an effective and efficient metals recycling sector is vital to the achievement of waste targets, and increasingly to the effective decoupling of energy use from industrial production, but lurking dangers may prevent it from working as well as it should. To my mind, the chief danger arises from the fact that the metals recycling industry is still classed essentially as a waste industry, despite the overwhelming evidence that, with the right processes, and the existence of responsible companies to operate them—and those companies are responsible—protocols could be established that would class industry as a resource provider, with all that that entails.

There are no protocols, however, and metals do not feature on the list of materials for which the Environment Agency is beavering away to provide protocols. Not even metal shavings and offcuts escape that classification, with all the issues that are then involved—quite rightly for much waste—in the
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operation of the EU waste framework directive, including handling restrictions, processing precautions and the certification processes that accompany waste on its way to landfill, hazardous waste tips or inert disposal. Hardly any metals go along this route, and yet they are classified as if they do.

That is a continuing problem for the handling of recycled metals, and it causes difficulties, given that one of the unsung achievements of the metals recycling is that it ranks as one of the more important of Britain’s export industries. Recycled metal is not just shipped out and dumped, but goes as a high-quality raw material to markets all over the world. In fact, of the 15 million tonnes of metals recovered each year, some 60 per cent. is exported, most of it to countries outside Europe. Indeed, if that export trade were unsustainable, or no longer possible, the UK would simply have to dump recycled metals in landfill, because every year, we have a surplus of recovered metals over and above that which could be used in the UK’s steel and metal foundries. That material is high quality, partly because that is what the companies purchasing it require, but in UK terms, it is regarded as exported waste.

Stringent EU regulations are in place—again, in general, rightly so—to ensure that waste is not dumped in receiving countries and that the EU does not simply pass on its waste disposal and hazardous waste management problems to countries less able or willing to ask questions about its origin and safety. The European trans-frontier shipment of waste regulations state that waste may be shipped to countries outside the OECD only if the country concerned agrees explicitly to accept it. If a country has not notified the EU of its conditions for acceptance—120 countries have not done so—extensive pre-notification requirements on shipments must be fulfilled and considerable details on the receiving company must be logged. Arguably, a declaration of otherwise commercially-confidential material is required.

It is perhaps not surprising that under such circumstances, British exports of clean metal resources should be rejected in favour of sourcing from other countries in which specified quality recycled metals are not classified as waste. If metal were not so classified and there was an industry onus on quality and, perhaps, export protocol, none of those difficulties would arise. However, we continue to classify metal as a waste, and at the heart of the problem is the fact that the European Court of Justice says that it is a waste. That was confirmed in a case relating to the EU packaging directive, which is widely regarded across Europe as setting an inappropriate precedent, but it will take a new waste framework directive to change matters. The revised EU waste framework directive has now completed its Second Reading in the European Parliament, and it will allow metals to be reclassified, but that will only happen after the small print is finalised. The “comitology” process, in which the Commission decides on the small print, is reasonably swift. On the other hand, co-decision, which is joint action between the Commission and the EU Parliament to decide on the small print, will take far longer—perhaps four years or so. It is important that the UK Government press for the early adoption of the revised waste framework in the first instance.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Would the hon. Gentleman prefer the comitology process to discuss the fine print to be held behind closed doors, where there is no possibility of the involvement of Ministers or MEPs, or would he prefer the matter to be decided by co-decision, so that it is completely transparent and we can see exactly how the details are discussed? He did not say which procedure he preferred.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Lady intervened just before I reached the sentence in my speaking notes that clarifies what I mean by choice, but she makes an important point. On the one hand, it is important that the small print of directives is clarified in as public a way as possible. On the other hand, in this particular instance, the principles are fairly clear. The changes in the framework directive start to give a clear idea of what recycling is and, more importantly, of when waste is not waste: the point at which waste becomes a renewable resource. I am not sure that a further process of co-decision making on the directive would add a great deal. However, it would take away, over a considerable period of time, the ability of the UK Government, and of the industry, to make the necessary changes to greatly advance the passage of metal from a recyclable form into a new resource. On balance, therefore, I would prefer the directive to be decided by comitology, because the difference in time scale is enormous. The gain arising from the implementation of a new waste framework directive is so considerable that it is worth going down that particular path. However, that is not to take away from the hon. Lady’s point about the need to ensure that the directive is framed in a transparent and coherent way, and should be scrutinised and examined properly.

Having said that, the UK Government could act even more swiftly on the vexed category of waste offcuts. It is as plain as a pikestaff that offcuts are not waste and do not need to be treated as such, as there is no danger to anyone from their not being treated as waste. They can literally just be gathered up and reused roughly in the way that one uses the pastry left from making mince pies to make more mince pies. I make mince pies and am familiar with the process.

In anticipation of the passage of the revised directive, the EU Commission has produced a draft report on an end-of-waste scrap metal case study. I will not say what the communication clearly states because I think that the phrases “clearly states” and “Commission communications” are not always natural bedfellows. Hon. Members will have to take it from me that it suggests that if excess material from a primary production process can be used directly in a further primary production process it can be considered as falling outside the definition of waste and is in effect a by-product. The UK should take up forthwith what is effectively an open invitation safely to reclassify shavings and offcuts in advance of a decision on the new framework, and I hope that the UK Government will be able to do so.

I have mentioned the efficiency of the metals recycling industry in coping with the challenge of the European end-of-life vehicles directive. Hon. Members will recall the time when local authorities scraped burnt-out vehicles from the tarmac of community car parks in which they were dumped. The introduction of the directive and the reception of end-of-life vehicles
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for comprehensive treatment by metal recycling plants have largely changed that situation. I have visited several large recycling yards and seen just how comprehensive that treatment is. The task is to receive the vehicle and separate it out safely into all its constituent parts; and recycling companies have invested substantially in the technology to do so successfully. Consequently, the UK has been able to reach the current ELV target of 85 per cent. recovery, including 80 per cent. recycling and re-use.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling this debate. I know that he has talked about Europe, but one of the problems in this country is ensuring that there are sufficient sites for vehicle capture and recycling. Will he go on to talk about the planning system because the main site in my constituency, which is currently leased, is subject to the continual pressure of not knowing whether it will be able to stay there? If we lose that site, we will have to recycle cars through Gloucester, and that will not be environmentally friendly.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend tempts me to go on at length about the planning system, which I was not intending to do. However, he is absolutely right. If we look at what we, as a country, will need over the next decade to achieve a substantial changeover from the vast majority of waste going into landfill to the vast majority not going into landfill, we will need a variety of resources of so-called MRFs—materials recycling facilities—and of car reception end-recycling facilities. Those facilities either exist at the moment and are under threat, or do not exist and need to be brought about by the effective use of the planning regulations. They will be needed to shift the enormous body of material away from landfill and into other forms of waste processing. The problem is that, in many instances, the planning process will impede the development of those sites rather than enabling them to be achieved on a planned basis.

My hon. Friend tempts me to set this issue into perspective. In the south-east, we need to find and develop effectively one MRF every fortnight between now and 2015. That does not look likely to happen. There is a real issue over the whole question of planning and the siting of such facilities and an underlying issue of waste. It is up to the politicians, among other people, to emphasise that if we drive our car into a part-exchange garage and get a new car, it is not the end of our car. It is the same as putting our waste outside our front door and expecting someone to deal with it regardless of the consequences. Emphasising that point should be a watchword of domestic waste disposal.

We all have a responsibility to recognise that our communities should be involved in the processing and recycling of waste. Saying that we want the efficient distribution, collection and disposal of waste, while also saying that we, collectively, are not prepared to provide the necessary sites and arrangements to make that happen is a dereliction of our understanding of the whole process.

Before my hon. Friend tempted me down the planning route, I was talking about the processing and disposal of 2 million vehicles a year. However, the
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targets are set to move upwards over the next few years to the challenging target of 95 per cent. recovery, with 85 per cent. recycling and reuse, by 2015. The challenge is not so much in finding the vehicles to make the recovery target, but in ensuring that the vehicle components that are to be recycled or reused can be successfully retrieved, separated and put to good use.

Currently, 75 per cent. of a vehicle’s volume is its metal, pretty much all of which can be recycled and reused. The main issues with recycling vehicles are cleaning the metal, separating its ferrous and non-ferrous elements so that they are ready for smelting, and effectively retrieving the remaining components. Separating rubber, plastic, textiles, glass and some wood components to meet the higher targets will require not only additional investment but a substantial role for metal recycling yards beyond dealing with metal in its own right. Some of that additional material is recycled, and that is reflected in the overall figures, but much of it is placed into piles and sent to landfill. There does not exist, it seems, a systematic strategy to cope with that residue.

In the absence of effective post-shredder sorting, there is no real alternative to landfill, except, perhaps, the energy-from-waste route, where metal recycling and other forms of recycling meet. Can provisions for co-firing and the development of a more effective, banded renewables obligation certificate market for energy from waste, in tandem with combined heat and power, start to take up the slack? If it cannot, it is hard to see how the UK can move from its present, impressive international position on vehicle recycling to the level anticipated for 2015. It is important to address this issue early; we should harness different strands of the recycling industry and government with a task force, perhaps similar to the recent biomass task force, to resolve the issues of moving post-shredder non-metal vehicle residues out of landfill and into the recycling system.

One aspect of end-of-life vehicle disposal is of concern, and touches on the underlying theme of metal theft: ELV certificates of destruction. The certificate system is not effective because it allows considerable numbers of vehicles to go missing in the system, and not just literally into hedges. It under-records the vehicles that have been properly disposed of, and therefore under-reports the UK’s performance on vehicle recycling. Having destruction certificates that travel more effectively with the relevant vehicles, so that vehicles do not slip through the system, would be an important part of the drive to meet the higher 2015 targets.

I started by quoting, with approval, some paragraphs from the beginning of the 2007 waste strategy. If one looks at the list of actions at the end of that document—there are 94 of them—one sees that the words in the opening paragraphs are not really reflected in those actions, at least as far as metals are concerned. Indeed, only one action mentions metals, and that is a partial sentence devoted to aluminium. I do not particularly criticise the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for that apparent omission. It is a testimony to the success of the metals recycling industry and its genuine achievement in dealing effectively with metal wastes—rapidly and efficiently turning them into quality raw materials—that the waste strategy largely considers they can be left
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alone to get on with the job. However, as I have demonstrated today, there are challenges and impediments to continuing that effective job and to achieving even greater, more effective performance.

It is a mistake to assume that metal recycling is the same as generic waste recycling and involves simply dealing with metal. The danger of applying regulation to metal recycling that applies rightly to other waste streams but is inappropriate to metals is that it becomes an impediment to be overcome, rather than a device that shapes our approach to good waste management. Recent discussions about the review of exemptions for metal recycling sites underline this issue. Changes in storage limits, such as the reduction in exempted storage from 50,000 tonnes to 16,000 tonnes, and reductions in inspection seem to reflect general assumptions about waste and not the specific issues of metal recycling, and they may result in a regime of storage and inspections. Those changes might produce additional regulation with no clear environmental benefit, while introducing an inspection regime that encourages the less compliant, smaller fringe sites that can be a problem to fly in the face of the standards that are common among most of the industry.

The metal recycling industry needs a little regulation and a little encouragement to perform outstandingly over the next decade. We will need that kind of performance across the waste industry in the next decade to meet challenging environmental targets and to bring about a rapid reduction in the disposal of waste to landfill. The metals recycling industry can and will play a strong part in that process. I hope that it will receive the necessary support, through legislation, regulation and inspection, to enable it to do so.

9.55 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Chope. Metal is the most recyclable of materials. High-quality metal can be made from recovered metals and used time and again. In the UK, metal recycling is a well established, £4 billion to £5 billion industry. Recovering 15 million tonnes a year, it is the UK’s biggest recycling industry. As we process far more metal than domestic manufacturers need, we are one of the world’s largest exporters of recovered metals. In short, metal recycling is a UK success story, but I suspect that because the industry tends to be scattered across the country and is not concentrated in individual constituencies, it goes unrecognised.

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