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



Examination of witnesses (Questions 1198 - 1219)

THURSDAY 21 DECEMBER 2000

RT HON MICHAEL MEACHER, MRS SUE ELLIS and MR TONY ANDERSON

Chairman

  1198. Minister, can I welcome you back to complete the session on Delivering Sustainable Waste Management. I see you have changed your team. I wonder whether you could introduce them for the record.
  (Mr Meacher) Indeed, like those adverts where you go behind the tree and when you come out it is different. This is on my left Tony Anderson, who is Team Leader, Waste Strategy Division, and on my right Sue Ellis, Divisional Manager, Waste Policy Division.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1199. What is the difference between strategy and policy?
  (Mr Meacher) I knew someone would ask that and I had a very good idea it would be you, Mrs Dunwoody!

  1200. I am sorry! But I am not getting an answer.
  (Mr Meacher) I am trying to evade—

  1201. We did agree there would only be fair questions today. What is the difference between strategy and policy?
  (Mr Meacher) It is a very good question and I wonder if the Divisional Manager can tell us how she sees this distinction.
  (Mrs Ellis) The Waste Strategy Division is charged with delivering the Government's Waste Strategy 2000 which was published earlier in the year. My division deals with more general waste management issues.

  1202. I see, which have very little relationship to what the Government is doing. Thank you very much; so long as we know.
  (Mr Meacher) Thank you for your helpful interventions; I am learning about my Department. Clearly waste strategy is about the actual delivery on the ground of the targets and waste policy is looking at the wider issues of policy as regards waste.

Chairman

  1203. I wonder since this is a continuation of last week whether you wanted to say anything further about any of the questions we asked last week, whether "soon" is now sooner than it was?
  (Mr Meacher) "Soon" is indeed soon but not that soon! I have to say, Mr Chairman—

Mrs Dunwoody

  1204. Who decided that, strategy or policy?
  (Mr Meacher) I have considered whether in the last week there have been any changes that I could announce at this point; there are not, but, as you will recall, there were some items pending and I genuinely hope very early in the new year we will be able to make announcements.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Hilary Benn?

Mr Benn

  1205. Can you tell us why you decided not to include household and community composting within the statutory recycling targets?
  (Mr Meacher) We did think about this. Household composting, which is clearly an important part of dealing with the waste stream, has been excluded from the targets because there are no reliable ways of measuring either quantities or standards, that is basically the problem, although I have to say that community recycling does count and, of course, it is easier in terms of community recycling to have some control over quantities and standards. I think that is right in my view. We estimate that something like 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes is dealt with through household composting compared to the half million tonnes which is collected for disposal centrally and, of course—and maybe this is your next question—the EU Commission is trying to deal with this problem. The Waste Management Unit of the EU Commission is bringing forward draft proposals for promoting composting including the development of standards and we in general would support that.

Chairman

  1206. Can I just be clear, I thought community composting was excluded?
  (Mr Meacher) No, it is included.

Mr Benn

  1207. You mentioned the work the Commission is doing on a draft Directive. When one of your officials gave evidence earlier in the inquiry in answer to our question he did not seem to be very keen on the EU bringing forward a Directive on this issue. Do I take it from what you have just said that you feel more positive towards it now?
  (Mr Meacher) Our view is that we do need standards. My first answer clearly implies there is a lack of standards and therefore those who try to produce standards are engaged in a useful exercise. We do think that the way in which those standards is being approached at the EU level is a bit narrow. We think that "fitness for the purpose" of recycling or taking account of end use is just as important as the soil protection measure, and therefore we have a slightly different approach to it. But basically I think it is helpful. We obviously wait to see exactly what they produce, but we are not waiting for that, and WRAP and the Composting Association are aiming at producing standards for a composting programme themselves.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1208. How many other countries are doing anything like that, approximately?
  (Mr Meacher) About a third, I am told.
  (Mr Anderson) Of the EU members.

  1209. So when you talk about their aims being narrow, this is based on the gap between what we already do and what they are proposing?
  (Mr Meacher) It is based on what they have informed us as the basis on which they are preparing standards.

  1210. Instead of arguing today, could we have a little note not only on the general tenor but where the gaps lie because it seems to me that although you are saying we need standards, there also seems to be some doubt as to whether the Commission are coming at it from the same angle. The last thing we need is a set of standards that are rubbish. How appropriate!
  (Mr Meacher) We almost missed it! Of course we will provide you with a note. I do not think there is a great division.

  1211. Then it needs to be short note.
  (Mr Meacher) We can clarify where are the points of difference.

Chairman

  1212. It seems to me fairly fundamental as there is a lot of compost material being produced by some local authorities now which they are finding difficult to sell that there are some clear standards, although I am a bit sceptical about how you can have a standard for composting produced in January with a lot of Christmas trees in it compared to something in the summer with a lot of lawn cuttings.
  (Mr Meacher) A very good question.

  1213. I was hoping you were going to answer it for me.
  (Mr Meacher) That is indeed the kind of problem in trying to produce round-the-year standards which are applicable. Standards will relate to feedstock, is the note that is being passed to me, and clearly one does need to take account of the different products which form part of the composting in order to achieve the standards. Let us see what the EU comes up with.

Mr Benn

  1214. In the Waste Strategy you reported that you thought that the growth in municipal waste arisings had been about three per cent per year in the period to which you refer. Many of the witnesses who have come and given evidence have contested that and said that some of this is diversion particularly because of the Landfill Tax. Do you have a view of by what percentage you think municipal waste arisings are going to increase between now and the fundamental review of the Waste Strategy in 2010?
  (Mr Meacher) We are going to put in place measures to try and bring that three per cent down. I am well aware that it is a contested figure. I have raised this with the Department and my officials believe that that does represent the best evidence to date. It is approximately in line with the rate of economic growth but we have got to change that. We have fundamentally got to alter it. We have to decouple economic growth from waste production. I cannot make predictions because I do not know how far a waste minimisation policy, which is certainly part of the strategy, will succeed, but the intention is to reduce it to naught and preferably a minus figure.

  1215. Which of the instruments in the Waste Strategy will make the biggest contribution to achieving that aim?
  (Mr Meacher) In terms of waste minimisation there is a difference, of course, between industrial/commercial waste and domestic waste. In terms of industrial and commercial waste, there is the best practice programme, which I think is called Envirowise, there is the Landfill Tax, there is IPPC, which includes a requirement to minimise waste, there are producer responsibility obligations, the waste reporting guidelines which we are putting in place, and, of course, the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP). On the domestic sector it is much more difficult—

  1216. Indeed it is because a householder may say, "I have paid my council tax so whether I have one bag or 50 bags, it does not make any difference to me." Where is the incentive to change behaviour there?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a very good question to which I do not think we have yet a very convincing answer. We have looked at the question of variable charging. There are real difficulties with that and we are not at this moment minded to proceed with that until we can overcome those problems. There is, of course, awareness and one can pooh-pooh this as being rather small beer, but in the end it is making people aware that you cannot just chuck everything under the kitchen sink and it gets taken away and nobody pays any attention to it. There is the Going For Green programme of advertisements. There is the Are You Doing Your Bit? television advertising, which we put a lot of resources into. The latest research shows that nine out of ten people recognise the programme when they are asked about it and seven out of ten say, in answer to interviewers, that it has had sufficient impression on them to make them think that they need to do something about it in terms of their behaviour.

  Chairman: How many have actually done anything about it?

Mr Benn

  1217. To take a very practical question, what percentage of households currently have access to a separated doorstep collection scheme, roughly?
  (Mr Meacher) It is small. Certainly we can give you that answer. I cannot off the top of my head. I would have said it is less than 20 per cent.

  1218. Does the Waste Strategy have a target for that to increase? Is that one of the measures that you are going to use? I know there is encouragement to local authorities to develop separated domestic collection schemes but is there in the strategy a target?
  (Mr Meacher) The target is implicit because I think it is impossible to triple the level of recycling of household waste, and 25 per cent on average, by 2005 without kerbside collection schemes. You simply would not reach that level. There are also performance indicators on access to recycling facilities. The other point which I would draw attention to is there is a Waste Minimisation Act which has recently been put through which does allow local authorities to take any initiatives they feel would reduce waste, for example subsidising a nappy-washing service. I do not want to go into the details of whether that is the right way to dispose of nappies, but it is the sort of issue in regard to household waste collection which I know in some boroughs has caused a lot of problems.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1219. You are using the English language very precisely. You are saying that they have the right to subsidise it but you are not giving them a positive incentive in terms of cash. My local authority has recycling bins in all the obvious places but they do not go to the extent of having things sorted out, and unless you get the markets right I do not think they are going to. Do you give them positive incentives in terms or cash or do you just give them responsibilities?
  (Mr Meacher) The drivers are the recycling targets.


 
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