Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 130)



Mr Drew

  120. I am going to be giving evidence to the Gloucestershire Waste Plan Inquiry in a few weeks' time. What do you think I can say about the Government's attitude towards incineration?  (Mr Meacher) That you wholeheartedly agreed with it.

  121. If you tell me what it is and I will have to make my mind up.  (Mr Meacher) I will very gladly tell you. The problem for this country in terms of waste is a very big one. At the moment we landfill between 80 and 85 per cent of household waste which is far and away the highest of any other EU Member State. We are required, even if it was not a good environmental idea, which it is, to shift away from landfill by the EU Landfill Directive to the point where by 2020 we landfill no more than 35 per cent of the 1995 level in this country. That is a colossal shift of millions of tonnes a year away from landfill to some other form of disposal. There are only three other alternatives. One is reuse, recovery and recycling, which is at the heart of the Government's strategy. The second is incineration. The third, although it gets very little attention, is probably the most important of all and it is waste minimisation, it is not generating the waste in the first place. One of the requirements which I am trying to firm up is how I can get either incentives or regulatory pressures in place to ensure that waste is minimised. You asked about incineration. Our aim is to maximise recycling, subject to waste minimisation. We have imposed a statutory target on all local authorities, a doubling of the level of recycling within the next three years, by 2003-04 and a trebling within five years, by 2005-06 of current levels. The average level, which we inherited in 1997, was about eight per cent, it is now 10-11 per cent. We aim to get 17 per cent by 2003-04 and around 25 per cent by 2005-06. Now, in the great majority of cases my view is that can be done without an incineration plant, however it would be wrong to suggest that all of the shift from landfill can be achieved without any increase in incineration. There are good reasons locally, for example the need for disposal of significant amounts of clinical waste, which do justify, perhaps, an incineration plant. Our view is so long as, firstly, it does not preempt recycling and so long as the recycling alternative has been fully explored, that is the first condition, secondly, that it should be small scale and, thirdly, that wherever possible it should be combined with local CHP, we would be prepared to consider that. That is the way in which it is regarded. Now may I just say, because the public view about incineration is now becoming very intense, that three of the greenest countries in Europe, which are Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands, have high levels of incineration as well as having high levels of recycling. It is not the case that incinerators are anti-green, there is a health issue. Let me make clear here that the Incineration Directive, which came into force, I think, in October or November 1996 has hugely improved and tightened the regulation of incinerators. The thing that most people fear is dioxins and dioxins are highly toxic. The level of dioxins which was laid down in 1996 is that they should form no more than one nanogram per cubic metre, that is one part in a billion, of what is expelled from the stack. That is actually being increased ten fold in the current Waste Incineration Directive so that by 2005 I think it is, it will be no more than 0.1 nanogram per cubic metre. It is very tightly controlled. Can I make just two other quick points. One is that the assumption is that dioxins come largely from incinerators, about four per cent of all industrial UK dioxin emissions to air come from incinerators, 56 per cent come from iron and steel and metal processing, 20 per cent from non ferrous metal industries and 15 per cent from coal fired power generation. Now that is not to be complacent about incinerators, I am not complacent. I have indicated that we want no more incinerators than are strictly necessary, and they have to get planning permission, but I think one can exaggerate the antipathy to incinerators and they are now hugely more regulated. In 1995 municipal waste incinerators generated 413 grams of dioxins, the latest figure available to me in this year is 1.3.

  122. A quick supplementary, Michael. I read the answers in Hansard about what has been happening in Essex. Now clearly that will have an important relationship to subsequent waste planning inquiries. What is your understanding of the Essex situation at the moment where, unless I have read it wrongly, the authority is trying to remove incineration as one of their ways by which they will get rid of waste and they are not being allowed to do that?  (Mr Meacher) Again, Chairman, I fear this is an area which could—I will not say will—ultimately end up with the Secretary of State and I cannot prejudice that position by commenting on a particular case. I recognise the point that is being made and how serious it is.

  David Taylor: Can I urge the Minister to give proper incentives to local authorities in relation to any recycling targets that are set because they are not being believed at the moment. In my own authority very close to the Derbyshire border, Mark Todd's seat, a recent, highly undesirable application was granted mainly I think on the grounds that the recycling targets that the Government have spelt out are just not believed by the planning authorities and the New Albion Site is—

  Mr Todd: This is for landfill.

David Taylor

  123. This is for landfill. We are looking at nearly a generation of communities along the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border affected largely because the recycling targets spelt out are not believed, not adequately resourced and I do not think are sufficiently coherent.  (Mr Meacher) I hope they are believed because they are statutory targets and we have the sanctions to ensure delivery and we will certainly exercise them. Secondly, they are resourced. We have increased the RSG for what is delicately called Environment and Cultural Services, which is a very odd combination in the RSG headings, but that is what it is called, to 1.127 billion by the end of the current three year period, which is a very substantial increase. In addition to that we have made available £140 million which is ring-fenced for waste management whereas, of course, the RSG is a matter for local authorities under our devolution proposals so that they decide how that money is used. To say that it is not resourced is wrong. In addition, there is £50 million going to community recycling networks, which often assist local authorities. There is a further £220 million available for PFI contracts for waste purposes. Lastly, we have set up the Waste Resources Action Programme which is designed to help local authorities find markets for recyclettes and we have funded that with £40 million. It is not the case that it is not resourced, they are clearly statutory targets and I believe that they are coherent. To say that they are not implies that we cannot do what other countries in the rest of Europe have been doing for a long time.

  124. Is your Department monitoring local waste management?  (Mr Meacher) It is.

  125. Does it report back to Parliament on its findings?  (Mr Meacher) We will. We have already started this.

  126. When?  (Mr Meacher) On an annual basis I will be looking for details of recycling levels as well as waste minimisation action taken, comparing that with the base line figures for last year, publishing that in Parliament and I hope that you, as well as I, will be on to the laggards and insisting that they are not taking sufficient action. We will provide them with the managerial expertise, we have provided them with the resources. If they fail, as we have done in the case of education, then we will put in a waste management authority which actually can deliver.

Mr Mitchell

  127. We have a local incinerator row in North East Lincolnshire and the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's Report has been cited as part of that row. Do I take it from what you have said about subject to the Directive and the subsequent reduction in dioxin emissions that where recycling is not feasible you will say unequivocally that a small modern incinerator installed under that Directive's requirements is safe?  (Mr Meacher) You can never say that any combustion process is safe. I would not be prepared to say that.

  128. Would you say there is no danger to the locals from dioxin emissions?  (Mr Meacher) I would say that the risks to the local population have been dramatically and hugely reduced as a result of the 1996 Directive which forced the closure of many incinerators in this country. I think there are only about 11 operating at the present time. Any new incinerators built will be subject to the most modern standards where the risk to the local population is judged to be absolutely minimal. It has to pass, of course a planning inquiry. All of the details about discharges would come out in that inquiry and judgments will be made on the environmental and health impacts, and that is a major consideration. It may well be, and indeed the industry fears, that those planning inquiries are going to be very stringent and that public consent, which at the moment in many cases is not forthcoming, will be demonstrated at those inquiries. It is for them to make the case. Government is allowing incinerators to be put forward as part of Local Authority Waste Management Plans subject to the rules that we have set down within our Waste Management Strategy.

  129. If there is a problem, as there is in North East Lincolnshire, with less and less room for landfill, in fact hardly any now, if you are checking that recycling is not feasible, why does the Government not come out and say "We are encouraging incinerators" in those circumstances?  (Mr Meacher) Because it is not the role for a Government to encourage or discourage.

  130. It is not a role for Government to let local authorities twist in the wind.  (Mr Meacher) They are not twisting in the wind. They can take their decisions. The Government's Waste Management Strategy is totally compatible with the local authority or the industry coming forward with an energy from waste or incineration plant, that is perfectly compatible. It has to meet the criteria that we have laid down, that can certainly be done, and it then has to pass a planning inquiry if one takes place. On that basis I would expect that there will be some increase in incineration over the next few years in this country.

  Chairman: Minister, you have done the best part of three hours, it has been a long stint, you have earned some credits. You have answered very fully and it has been an extremely long session. We are very grateful to you, thank you very much indeed, and we look forward to seeing you again.

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