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

Examination of Witness (Questions 176 - 179)




  176. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this evidence session of our inquiry into the disposal of refrigerators. Can I, for the record, welcome Mr Peter Jones, the director, development and external relations, of Biffa Waste Services. Mr Jones, you look like a man eager to give evidence to the Committee and I gather that you have made some particular arrangements to be here today for which we are very grateful. Can I compliment and thank you on the written evidence that you were able to send to the Committee. It is always a great pleasure to look into people's private correspondence. There is a certain voyeurism about it. You certainly had some very interesting exchanges. I am sure colleagues will have noted what you had to say and draw on your evidence in terms of their questioning. I would like to start off with a general point in terms of your role. You are pretty big in the disposal of most things from that which I gather. Up until the present time, can you give us a flavour of what you have done up to now in terms of the overall disposal of refrigerators? I know that your correspondence gives us a hint as far back as September 2000 that you started to become aware of this problem, but it might be useful by way of background to tell us something about Biffa and fridges pre all of this exchange of correspondence and give us a flavour of how you became aware that trouble was brewing.

  (Mr Jones) Thank you for that welcome, Chairman. Not beating about the bush, our principal interest in the reclamation and processing of fridges is as a commercial business. We turn over at the moment about £500 million in the United Kingdom which represents about ten per cent of the total waste sector turnover. That is, industrial, commercial, solid and liquid wastes. Fridges, amongst all the other examples of products that are coming under EU legislation, like tyres, electronic goods, automotive goods even, for us represent an opportunity to consolidate our business, to bring in higher added value technologies, tighter management systems and, from our perspective, that means large, established companies with credible balance sheets and full traceability. Our first interest in fridges, as you comment, was in September 2000 when I raised matters with the DTI. It was then not in the context of domestic fridges. Something that did not come out in the earlier evidence from the retailers and the LGA, when I was present, was that it has been almost 15 months now that these regulations have applied to commercial fridges from the supermarket and retail chains. That seems to have escaped everybody's notice. We are in a flap about domestic fridges but in reality no commercial or industrial fridges should have been disposed of.

  177. You mentioned that you had been in touch with the DTI. Our focus has been very much on the role of environment as it was in the old Environment Department and now within DEFRA. Why did you get involved with the DTI?
  (Mr Jones) The DTI, I guess, broadly is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we think is wrong, about how we as a nation liaise with Europe over the development and transposition of the European regulations. Effectively, we understood that the DTI were the lead body in dialogue with Brussels regarding the transposition of this particular set of regulations. I am not sure how these responsibilities get allocated but one of the contributory factors we deduce in this whole saga has been the fact that the DTI failed to transfer the meaning of certain words in the Directive to DEFRA. DEFRA, within the purlieus of Great Britain plc, is the lead body for this particular area, but the negotiations at that time were being dealt with, with Brussels, by the DTI and our query related to the foams in particularly commercial fridges. It was to them that we addressed our question.

  178. The whole question of CFCs and the damage they can do to the environment is not new. Looking back at what has happened, have you been surprised at the furore that seems to have arisen in all this, given that working to minimise CFC releases to the atmosphere in all kinds of ways has been part of the fabric for the last few years?
  (Mr Jones) We have lost sight of the wood for the trees. The simplicity of this is that if you add up the total tonnage flows in this whole process, there are about 150,000-170,000 tonnes of fridges disposed of in the economy each year. If you look at the CFC content of those fridges, it is believed to be about 1,200 tonnes of the CFCs in the foams—that is, the R11 agents—and there are about, on our calculation, 300 tonnes of R12, which is the liquid used in the refrigerant proper. We are talking here about 1,300 tonnes. They have a different global warming potential but on a combined basis it is equivalent to about 7.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent global warming impact, which is about two per cent of the total production of CO2 into the global economy around the United Kingdom each year. That puts the whole thing in perspective. If you then link in the industrial and commercial fridges, there are different issues there because they are more tightly managed and they are disposed of far less regularly. They tend to get maintained and run on a zero emissions basis. Our company and I are very keen on emphasising starting from the macro and then working to the micro. At the moment, we are in the micro management of this problem and a few people have lost the plot in terms of the macro. In terms of the tonnages, if you have ever seen one of these large container ships coming up The Solent, the biggest of those container ships hold about 20,000 TEUs, these 20 foot containers. There was an FT article, which is why I am referring to it. These ships draw about 15 metres under water so you are talking about five times the height of this room under water. That is a ship that occupies the length of this building, past Big Ben, right down to the other side of the House of Lords. That is the rough volume of container capacity that is bringing fridges each month into the United Kingdom. That volume coming in is what is going out somewhere at the other end of the system. It should have been simply put that we have to contain this issue. There are three dimensions to this: how do we fund it? How do we regulate it and the third side of the triangle is what sort of technology should we use, three simple sides to a triangle. If we tackled that in a macro sense, we would not be in the mess that we are in now.

Patrick Hall

  179. What was the pre-EU regulation performance of your company with regard to this question? Before the regulation, what was the practice? How had it evolved in your company over the years?
  (Mr Jones) We have always collected fridges as part of our local authority waste collection contract requirements where we happen to have won a contract with that local authority. Most of our contracts relate to the removal of refuse. Occasionally, they ask us to do house to house collections as part of that contract. Sometimes, it might go to another independent operator. The number of fridges that we have handled are in the hundreds each year, minuscule basically, but we saw a significant business opportunity for us here to break into a whole new area which would enable us to utilise our information technology systems, management skills, licensing strengths and funding capability to effectively offer a much more rational and transparent method of collection. Thus far, we have done nothing about that at all. We handle only fewer than 100 fridges a month.

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