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Waste Reduction (Science and Technology Committee Report)

Copy of the report

Motion to Take Note

11.36 am

Moved By Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I start by thanking my colleagues for giving me the opportunity of chairing this most interesting and useful study. As one who spent the past 10 years of my time in the other place chairing a Select Committee, it was quite illuminating to compare and contrast the experience of one House against the other. However, I realise that time is the thing that I must not waste today, so I will not carry on in that vein any longer.

It would be inappropriate of me not to thank our special adviser, Professor Evans, and the Clerk, Sarah Jones, for the way in which they enabled us to conduct our business and the manner in which the report was produced. Any criticisms that people may have of what is said here today should not reflect on anything that appeared as a result of their efforts because we are most grateful to both of them.

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From the outset, the committee was quite clear about what it wanted to concern itself with. We did not want to concern ourselves with questions relating to domestic waste mainly because we would have drifted into cul-de-sacs out of which we would never have escaped. Equally, the fact is that domestic waste, although it takes up an inordinate amount of people’s attention, accounts for only 10 or 11 per cent of the total waste of the UK. It was also more important that we got across that we were more concerned with the better utilisation of scarce raw materials and, when appropriate, the recycling of those materials, and the reuse of components through better and more thoughtful design. In due course, that should lead to a reduction in the needless discarding of so much of the equipment we use at present.

We took as our starting point the inverted pyramid which we have in our report showing the waste hierarchy. Those five points need to be stressed at the beginning: prevention, reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal. The last option should be disposal. We wanted to ensure that the last four were given an enhanced profile. Our approach was to look at waste in context, the quality of nationally gathered statistics, waste-related legislation, mainly emanating from Brussels. We went on to consider issues relating to design, innovation and technology. We examined the application of those areas in manufacturing, construction and the wider economy. We sought to establish the consumer perspective because we were conscious that, as a society, we were drifting towards disposability being the first option rather than the last.

We also wanted to see to what extent business could use waste reduction as an opportunity for enhanced activity rather than a burden. Finally, we wanted to see what the Government could do to give a lead in these matters. Obviously, so much of what we are talking about is within the framework of legislation, albeit legislation over which we do not necessarily have much control as it is European in character. However, it is the Government’s responsibility to present that legislation and enable us to send out clear messages to the consumer, producers, business and the community at large.

I shall look at each of these briefly, because I know that colleagues will want to specialise in particular areas. My starting point is the definition of sustainability that we adopted in the report, as coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, which said that sustainable development,

As I used to learn at Sunday school: that is the text for today. We were quickly exposed to concepts such as the “zero-waste society”, which is rather a zingy title but, when set against reality, is rather more than just an aspiration. We do not need to be too concerned about that.

We have seen in recent years that we are vulnerable as an economy, as a country and as a planet to dramatic surges in economic activity. We have seen in the past decade the Indian and Chinese economies consuming far more of the world’s resources, and sometimes doing so in a profligate manner of which

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we would be well advised to be careful. However, it is not for us, who have been squandering resources since at least the start of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, to lecture other countries, but to try to set examples.

In this report, we have tried to see what best practice exists internationally, how legislation and regulations can impact on that and where our aspirations can lead us. To do so, we need evidence-driven information and to make recommendations based on high quality data. One of our first disappointments was that the quality of the data left a lot to be desired, and will probably leave even more to be desired in the near future in so far as we see the budgets for data collection being cut. We are not happy with the nature of the response to that, which I shall address again in a minute or two.

We were concerned not only that we get good information, but that we are able to design equipment to make use of materials in such a way that we can take advantage of what is happening elsewhere, or what our own research facilities are offering. We were impressed by De Montfort University’s resource-efficient design initiative, which covered a number of areas. We were able to see, for example, “Design for Disassembly”, which sounds a bit like an oxymoron but basically means that we design a motor car in such a way that it can be dismantled very easily and quickly. The components can then be made available for recycling where appropriate, or can be disposed of quite efficiently. When we visited the Toyota European headquarters and saw a film of them dismantling a Toyota car, I, as the owner of another Toyota, was a wee bit disturbed by the ease with which it seemed our trusty cars could be taken to bits.

The point is clear. When we are talking about design for disassembly, we are talking about making it that much easier to take it apart. Equally, product light-weighting—we have to use terrible jargon, because that is the language in which these people speak—takes account of the need to reduce packaging. It is fair to say that the committee was not convinced that enough was being done, for example, to reduce the packaging on chocolate Easter eggs. You get hobby horses in all committees, but that was an issue that some of us identified.

Seriously, we were also impressed by the retailers who made the point that some food packaging could extend shelf life, particularly that of fruit and vegetables. However, we were not satisfied by some of the arguments put forward about sell-by dating procedures employed by retailers, which seemed to be as much about sustaining cash flow as food safety.

We also found that the glass and aluminium industries were concerned about weight-related matters. Aluminium suffers because it is in some ways too light. It is less attractive as a result, and more difficult to separate from other metals. It was estimated that something like 90,000 tons per annum that could be recycled were lost. The point about aluminium recycling is that it operates at 100 per cent: you get out what you put in, less the energy cost involved. However, there is currently a sizeable loss. Equally, with glass, we consumers put our green bottles into one box and our brown bottles into another. These boxes are collected by a company that puts everything back together again, in the interests of convenience. We lose the prospect of quite a lot of recycling there.

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We were impressed by the approach of many companies, in a diverse range of activities, to meeting the challenge of sustainable design. However, far higher priority must be given to education and training in design. Within the curriculum there must be a design component taking account of the ambitions for sustainability. Equally, so much of the waste reduction is driven by legislation that we must get a component in design courses drawing students’ attention to the regulatory framework in which they will work when they graduate. I am not a lawyer. Any courses that I did at university with a legal component bored the pants off me. However, people are now working in the kind of regulatory frameworks where this is essential. We get the impression that there is quite a lot going on in academia, and there are some good examples, but there are also twilight zones where far more needs to be done.

We were also impressed by what was happening with knowledge transfer, but were concerned that the Government should be doing more to support sustainable design components. We were not assured by their reply to this point. We did not get the feeling that they properly appreciated the need for ring-fencing of the funding of a number of these areas. Things could be fudged and moved. Ultimately, technology transfer will only really be tested by the influence it has on the wider economy. Certainly, the impact is still fairly limited. However, the adoption of waste reduction techniques is made harder by the lack of accounting methodologies to enable businesses to measure their effectiveness. We recognise that ISO 14001 is a useful benchmark of sustainable practices, but we were not convinced that there was much of an incentive for businesses to continue to improve their performance once they achieved that level. The Government responded that they had stressed the need for continuous improvement. However, we felt that another route could be taken to promote continuous improvement; namely, through the development of a publicly available specification (PAS 2050). We would appreciate receiving a clearer statement from the Government on the methodologies referred to in their reply to our Recommendation 6 on this matter.

We are also conscious of a number of barriers to waste reduction in the shape of downstream factors. Local authorities are often the whipping boys in this respect, but they must once again take a wee bit of punishment here. They have a mixed record. Some are constrained by size, being too small to have the capital to purchase equipment. Many of them join consortia to achieve economies of scale. However, a lot still needs to be done in that regard. They are allowed too much freedom to define objectives in their own idiosyncratic ways rather than having a national standard to which they could aspire. There are problems around weight-based definitions. If they go for weight, they do not necessarily go for quality. One thinks of Stalinist steel production figures in connection with waste reduction. Greater attention should be given to the plight of local authorities but they also need more guidance.

Some of the questions of definition are being addressed by the waste framework directive, but there are problems even there as regards when waste ceases to be waste.

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The construction industry is subject to a lot of criticism as regards the “waste” definition of materials leaving a site. Insufficient attention is paid to the recyclability of components after demolition has taken place; for example, fancy fireplaces or stone that could be reused. As regards extended producer responsibility regulations—that is, whether you should have a national or an international industry standard or whether individual companies should assume responsibility for the standards—we should note that the end-of-life vehicles directive has been a success. The industry set up ISO 22628 to assess the ability to recycle or to recover elements of vehicles. A lot of work has been done in that regard. Unfortunately, the DVLA has let everybody down by having a half-baked destruction certification system, which means that not all cars have to be submitted for the relevant process. If they are abandoned, or nobody knows who owns the car—as subterfuge has been adopted—and who is to blame for it being abandoned, it is not necessarily subject to dismantling. Therefore, this measure has been partly successful. Some cynics might say that it was going to happen anyway and that it was in companies’ interest to adopt it, but certainly the car industry can derive a degree of satisfaction from the measure. Giving responsibility for the measure to an individual company as opposed to an industry has been tried in Japan. The Japanese adopted a different approach. It has been successful but that is because the Japanese retailing system and organisation are rather different from our own.

I am conscious that my allotted time is almost up but I do not want to leave out landfill tax. This is the real curate’s egg. Some argue that it should be increased; others say that it is too high. That suggests that it is probably about right. It is interesting to note the European experience. In Europe, countries with a high landfill tax tend to have relatively low levels of landfill and high levels of incineration. The UK rarely takes up the incineration option due to local opposition. We should like to see a far clearer definition of landfill tax. The decision to abandon hypothecation is dangerous. It will deny resources to a number of areas where we would have hoped that the good practice which has been established would have been maintained. The Government’s view is that good practice has been established, they have shown the way, and they will now cut back on the budget and get the thing done more cheaply. That is very shortsighted. It is also fair to say that organisations such as Envirowise, the Market Transformation Programme, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme and WRAP all deserve continuing support. We are disappointed at Defra’s response. We understand that it has had burdens imposed on it due to other difficulties, but I do not think that the waste handling industry or the objectives of trying to secure better treatment of waste should necessarily be the casualty of past foot and mouth foul-ups. We shall want to talk to officials about some of our recommendations to which they have not given satisfactory answers.

This was a useful exercise. We are very pleased that we were able to address an issue which in many respects has not been looked at before. We were relieved that some of the people to whom we spoke were pleased

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that we were doing this because there is nothing worse than conducting a Select Committee inquiry when people are moaning because you are doing it. We had a good response. The committee worked well. We have come up with a realistic set of objectives. I say “realistic” in the sense that we are not in any way trying to wish for the moon and the stars. Therefore, it is sometimes all the more disappointing that the Government have not been quite as constructive in their response as we would have wished. However, we continue to hope.

The test of a Select Committee’s recommendations is not three months after the report is produced, but 30 months afterwards. I am always reminded of the words of George Bernard Shaw, who said of his father that at the age of 18 he was probably the most ignorant man he had ever met but that by the time he was 21 he was surprised how much he had learnt. Sometimes Governments go through that process as well.

11.59 am

The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, for the very skilful way in which he chaired our inquiry and, indeed, for the way in which he presented this timely report today. He is absolutely right to say that we were very well served by our specialist adviser, Professor Evans, and our Clerk, Miss Sarah Jones. I join in paying tribute to them both.

As the noble Lord reminded us, when we look at waste we tend to give far too much attention to domestic waste, which represents only about 10 per cent of waste. We can make an impact as regards demolition and construction waste, which represents about a third of waste, or mining and quarrying waste, which represents about another 30 per cent, or industrial waste at 13 per cent of the total.

In the demolition and construction industry, two clear initiatives are needed, with leadership and co-ordination from government and from the industry. First, on design, we should look at the amount of materials that are taken on to a building site and the amount of waste that emanates from those materials because of a lack of co-ordination between the trades. It is particularly reprehensible to have waste simply because the bureaucracy created by myriad legal rulings and the waste framework directive, which has now been revised, means that waste has to be handled through a lot of permits and the like. We heard what was a perfectly fair whinge from any number of people, who said that they could make much better use of raw materials, if only the definitions were more user-friendly, both for the producer and the consumer.

I was very impressed when we visited Belgium, particularly Flanders, which has done something that we do not seem able to do; that is, effectively to co-ordinate the handling of domestic and industrial waste. Perhaps by accident, we have locked ourselves in to local authorities each choosing their own contractors to handle waste, very often with completely different contractors alongside each other. They lack critical mass. It is very difficult for, say, a national designer of a product to be able to ensure that this is handled consistently throughout the country, when there are

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completely different objectives from the local authorities, and the local authorities are working separately from the industrial waste contractors. Co-ordination is needed, and leadership is clearly the role of government.

The incentive of the waste management companies is all on weight, which is to the detriment of light, valuable materials such as aluminium, to which the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, drew our attention. It is a great confession of failure that we use twice as much new aluminium as old aluminium. We are just not recycling efficiently. Local authorities have no incentive to co-ordinate with the industrial sector. The moment that they take responsibility for waste, they are subject to the landfill allowance trading scheme, known as LATS. Once they then fail to achieve their landfill allowance trading scheme targets, they are penalised. Inevitably, there is a disincentive to handle that waste; exactly what is not required. Yet the government response to our report says that the LATS is “working well” and that it is,

I accept that the LATS may be crucial, but it is not working well. In other parts of mainland Europe, the LATS apply to the industrial sector as well as to local authorities. Surely the first and most obvious thing to be resolved is how local authorities can be encouraged, not disincentivised, to produce a co-ordinated approach to waste handling through all waste streams, particularly industrial, building and construction waste, which is, after all, the main part of the problem.

We call for joint waste authorities, but they must be more than authorities concerned with the co-ordinated collection, treatment and disposal of waste. We are talking about raw materials which are the by-products of the source of material for relevant industries. They are providers of raw materials for a wide range of industries. Here, we come back to the problem of the definition of waste, which has been a highly contentious issue since 1975. When the waste framework directive was originally drafted, it was absolutely clear that it was extremely tightly drawn, and legal case after legal case has tried to interpret what is meant by “waste”. There is a great reluctance now for agencies such as the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom, or other regulators, to go through a lot of attrition to at least establish what is meant by “waste” and what permits are required, upsetting these legal rulings. It has been trying to make sense of an extremely expensive and wasteful misuse of these raw materials coming out of the waste stream.

At least now we have some definition of “end-of-waste” in the revised directive. Previously, the waste directive was silent on that issue. Some 30 years after the framework directive was originally formulated, the Environment Agency is producing protocols to help industry to determine how to handle materials that can be reused by business without the need for waste management controls. It would be churlish not to say that these protocols, after all these years, are helpful, regarding products such as cooking oil, compost and the like. There are also some manuals of regulatory position statements on products such as wood.

Clearly, this is extremely important and helpful. It gives some guidance to industry on how to get through this plethora of regulation. I am simply mystified why

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it has taken 30 years to give this guidance. I would go further. I agree with Professor Grimes, who is quoted in paragraph 4.42 of our report. She suggested that,

and that,

The revisions agreed to the framework directive by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers are a modest start. At least we now know when waste ceases to be waste, when it can be reused, and the status of some by-products. We wait still for the Joint Research Centre in Seville to undertake what is described as “preparatory work” for new criteria for the waste stream. I groan when I read that, because it is clearly going to be some more years until final elucidation is given on these matters.

As the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, reported, we went to see Toyota in Belgium, which is one of the most impressive companies in Europe in how it handles waste and how it encourages its suppliers to put in place protocols for reducing waste. It would say that, of the obstacles that it finds the most challenging, it is the question of legal definitions of waste and differing legislation between countries. I clearly favour a harmonised EU waste directive, but I fear that we have some way to go before the revised directive is fit for purpose.

12.08 pm

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I, too, very much welcome the report, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord O’Neill and the committee on producing it, and particularly on the systemic approach that it took to the waste stream, taking it back to the design stage.

I shall focus on four points; first, government policy of various sorts, and, secondly, the whole issue of waste streams, particularly the point that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, just referred to, on how we can change waste into raw materials and into feedstock, both in legal and definitional terms and in process management. Thirdly, I shall touch on consumer behaviour in this area and, fourthly, on recycling markets, both domestic and international.

I declare two interests; I am the chair of Consumer Focus, and I am a member of the Environment Agency board. I am, therefore, personally deeply conflicted regarding the differing demands of the consumer interest and of sustainability in this field. We strive to reconcile those as regards government and consumer representation.

On government policy, I know that there has been some hesitation about the effectiveness of the targets and the landfill tax in relation to the leverage that the Government have already used. The report is certainly correct to say that huge attention has been given to municipal waste, mainly household waste, and relatively little attention given to industrial and commercial waste, which is far greater in quantity and more difficult to dispose of and use effectively. We need more broadly to use the leverage that we have already developed in the municipal waste area upstream by looking at waste reduction, re-use, recycling and disposal targets, and we need also to move on from municipal to commercial and industrial waste.

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