Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1120 - 1139)

TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MR MARTIN HURST AND CATH SHAW

  1120. How many do you think?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not know. We have certainly made an issue of it in the Department. I would be very surprised if we were not doing so. We will provide you with the figures.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1121. We have asked before, Minister, so you cannot be entirely surprised to be asked that question.
  (Mr Meacher) It is a surprise to me, I have to say. I am sorry I have not come with the figures; but we will see that you get the figures.

Mr Benn

  1122. Is it not the case that probably for most departments the replacement of fluorescent tubes has been out-sourced to some maintenance company? Could it not be worked into the contract that departments have with various companies to ensure when they take the old one out they set it aside to send it to this factory you have opened?
  (Mr Meacher) I can see no reason why we should not do that, and I certainly think that is a good idea.

Mr Donohoe

  1123. Why has it not been done before?
  (Mr Meacher) That is also what was occurring to me. I am not specifically briefed on this. It is possible we do it, but I doubt it. It is certainly something we will find out.

Chairman

  1124. Why should we be worried about a fluorescent tube? An awful lot of people, particularly in a domestic situation, would take one out and just throw it in the bin, where it would crack into bits and go off to the landfill site, and it will not even fill up much of the landfill site. Why should we worry about it?
  (Mr Meacher) There is a mercury component which can leach from landfill, and because mercury is a highly toxic substance and potentially hazardous, particularly if it does leach and get into aquifers, it is worrying. We certainly should not be land-filling fluorescent tubes; and we certainly should be recycling. As a result of this Committee we will redouble our efforts.

  1125. If you would like to dig again there may be one or two other things left.
  (Mr Meacher) There is an envelope with a picture inside.

  1126. We could not really get the dumped car which was on a footpath. I did a walk last week of only about five miles and came across five dumped cars on public footpaths. I thought that was pretty appalling.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I entirely agree with you. The number of dumped cars is increasing and it is a serious environment disfigurement. We have been in discussion with the DVLA about this and with the Local Government Association, and we do need to come forward with new proposals as to how to deal with it. We are looking at it in the Department. Indeed, one of my officials who is here today, Sue Ellis, has particular responsibility on this question of dumped cars.

  1127. If that note tells us about the End Use Directive, in a sense the End Use Directive is going to make life worse, is it not, because that will not come in for another couple of years, which discourages anyone doing anything about it until the End Use Directive is in place?
  (Mr Meacher) You are right to refer to the End of Life Vehicles Directive; I think it became law in October of this year and in order to get transposition into national legislation and the whole European parliamentary process, it does unfortunately take about two years. I agree it is a very unfortunate hiatus within the EU system and I am not sure how we can short-circuit it. I repeat, we are looking in the meantime at ways of dealing with this problem. It is now becoming a serious problem.

  1128. Dig in the bag again.
  (Mr Meacher) A metal can and a plastic bottle.

  1129. What about having a returnable bottle system in this country with deposits?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I have always been in favour of a deposit/refund scheme. There is the bottle bank scheme which is operated in respect of pubs and clubs on that basis. I would certainly look favourably on a Private Members Bill which proposed that. If it is to be Government legislation of course we do need a next slot—we need a new Environment Bill, and I can tell you that I am certainly looking at that as well. I agree with you, that a deposit/refund scheme is, I think, obviously the right way for dealing with this. With steel cans, something like 25 per cent of the content is recycled at the moment, and I think it is much higher with regard to aluminium cans.[2]

  1130. As far as cans are concerned, as I understand on drinks cans, you get quite a reasonable return; but the ones for cat and dog food, which I am told are the largest number of cans in this country, the level of return is pretty low?
  (Mr Meacher) They are, as you say, contaminated. They are usually tins rather than cans.

  1131. But they will pull out with a magnet?
  (Mr Meacher) You can certainly extract them from a waste stream par excellence because they are highly magnetic.

  1132. Dig in for the last one. It should be a battery.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes. We are expecting an EU Directive on this to be published early in the new year, which will certainly propose recycling targets. The real problem with recycling of batteries is that it only becomes commercially viable if the mercury content can be reduced. I certainly think what we would want to encourage is more rechargeable and reusable batteries which are essentially nickel cadmium batteries.[3]

  1133. I did not want you to dig in because I left the shirt in the box—but have you got any comments on the level of wrapping in this. There is a plastic container, about seven or eight pins and other bits of plastic. Is it really necessary for items like that?
  (Mr Meacher) For a moment I thought this was a Christmas present!

  Chairman: No such luck!

  Mr Donohoe: Do you really want to wear a shirt like that!

Mrs Dunwoody

  1134. Do you really want to have a present from this Committee!
  (Mr Meacher) There are the Packaging Essential Requirements Regulations which are designed to reduce the amount of packaging—and of course Packaging Waste Regulations in general as well.

Chairman

  1135. But they are not working, are they?
  (Mr Meacher) I do not think we can say that. The 50 per cent target has to be achieved by all Member States in April of next year. We were I think at something of the order of 38 per cent last year—quite a big leap to get to 50; but I have actually raised the mandatory targets to a level of 56 per cent in order to ensure that we do hit that 50 per cent target—so I hope that we do. The only other point I would make about packaging is that it is not wholly bad: for example, in respect of food it does actually lead to less waste of the food which it contains if you put it in a container of an appropriate quality which is likely to lead to the householder using all the food rather than wasting it. I accept that there are many examples in the shops, particularly at this time of the year, of excessive wrapping. I hope that the increase in the targets under the Packaging Waste Regulation will begin to tighten on that problem in the next few years.

  Chairman: We will leave the rest of the rubbish that we might have been able to produce and go on to some general questions.

Mr Cummings

  1136. A number of witnesses have severely criticised the Waste Strategy for being too timid and for failing to aspire to the levels of achievement in waste management accomplished in other countries. Minister, how do you respond to that criticism that the Waste Strategy is lacking in ambition, especially compared with the aims and achievements in other countries?
  (Mr Meacher) I am astonished. We do start at a very low point. The recycling of household waste in 1992 was 2 per cent; in 1997 it was 6 per cent; and it is now about 9 per cent, but that is before we start with the new recycling targets. We are proposing, as I am sure you know, to double the level of recycling to about an average of 17 per cent in the next three years (which, given our past record, is a very big increase), and to triple it to around 25 per cent by 2005. That is still below the level of achievement of other countries—for example, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland outside the EU, and Germany. We can do better than that, and I would expect that once we have achieved that 25 per cent target we will set new and further ambitious targets. Given the low level at which we started, I think if we were more ambitious still it would begin to look vaguely incredible. I think we have to prove our capacity to hit these middle level targets first before we aim for the high targets. The fact is, some local authorities are already recycling in the upper 20 per cent level, and there is absolutely no reason why we cannot do that across the country. That is our firm aim but it is in a short timescale. I believe, rather than saying it is unambitious, it is pretty challenging.

  1137. Is there anything you can do with the tools available? The Waste Watch memorandum states, "If the targets in Waste Strategy 2000 were the equivalent of trying to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, then the tools available to date are the equivalent of fielding a team like Oldham Athletic . . ."!
  (Mr Meacher) I do take exception to the comparisons at the end of that! There are three requirements for a satisfactory recycling programme. First, are challenging statutory targets which I have just addressed; but I repeat, a tripling in five years is not the end of the story—it is a mid point in a more ambitious story. Secondly, there is the need for financing. We have provided, in the Spending Review, £140 million which is ring-fenced for recycling. We have also provided £1.1 billion under the slightly curious title in the SSAs of "Environmental and Cultural Services for Local Authorities"—a very odd combination, but I hope we will get a significant proportion of that, but that depends on local authorities. There is also a further £50 million under the New Opportunities Fund specifically for community recycling. Of course, one could provide more but that again is a very big increase on current levels of recycling. The third requirement is markets. We are all agreed that there is very little point in increasing recycling if you cannot find a market and you cannot find a productive use for it and it then in the end goes to landfill—that is a waste of everyone's time. The purpose of WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which we have set up (and you have just been speaking to Vic Cocker and other executives within that newly established body) is to develop new markets in conjunction with bodies like ReMaDe; to identify gaps in the supply and demand for recycling; and, of course, provide solutions; to provide research and information on technologies and engineering that are relevant; and encourage investment in reprocessing—for example, I have already referred to the second Aylesford plant.[4]

Chairman

  1138. Could you just clear up what is actually happening. Is the Treasury vetoing the money for it?
  (Mr Meacher) No, that is not the case.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1139. Heaven forefend that they should even think of such a thing!
  (Mr Meacher) I thoroughly agree, Mrs Dunwoody, that is absolutely my view. Your reproof to your Chairman is strongly supported. No, what has been proposed is a substantial level of support for government because of its impact in the improvement of newsprint recycling. We have been in discussion with the company over a considerable time. We have also been speaking to the two main shareholders who have been the bodies that believe they cannot justify this increase in investment without some government support. We are currently making further proposals on this. Hopefully, in the short future, we shall be able to publish, I hope, some solution to this problem.


2   Note by Witness: Any such proposals would, of course, have to be consistent with single market legislation, including the single market provisions of the packaging Directive. Back

3   Note by Witness: Nickel hydride would be a better example of a rechargeable battery. All rechargeable batteries have advantages in terms of waste reduction, but nickel cadmium batteries present potential problems due to the toxic nature of cadmium. Back

4   Note by Witness: We have also been in contact with the other recycled newsprint mills about the need to expand capacity. Any proposal for government support to achieve this aim will be considered on its merits. Back


 
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