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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 63 - 79)




  63. Welcome to the second part of questioning. I wonder if you would give us a brief summary of Shanks to put you into context.

  (Mr Averill) First of all, thank you for the opportunity to present our evidence to you. Shanks is the second largest independent waste management company in Europe. We do not do anything else other than waste management. Our activities are broadly split 50-50 between the UK and outside the UK on continental Europe. We employ some 4,500 people. We have revenues of just over £500 million per annum and profits around £45 million per annum. Within the waste disposal arena we do most things. It is probably easier to describe to the Committee the waste sustainable technologies we do not employ. We do not do very much in the medical arena and we only do very limited quantities of radioactive waste, related principally to medical isotopes, not to things like power generation, let alone weapons-grade. Otherwise, we do possess nearly all of the waste management technologies to handle the full range of municipal and household waste as well as industrial and commercial waste.

  64. Having been brought up in Yorkshire, there was a wonderful phrase, "Where there's muck, there's brass." You are the personification of that. I was grateful for the fact that your evidence had a three-point executive summary, and I would like to start with the first part, where you say, "There is a clear need for a new national framework for the management of hazardous waste." Why?
  (Mr Averill) Because we have a real disconnect at the moment, as I say elsewhere in the evidence. The regulatory framework has been very good at ensuring that high-quality hazardous waste disposal facilities are to the requisite standard, but lamentable, sadly, at getting them used. Waste processing really has no natural market. The market accrues solely from regulation and its enforcement. History has proven and continues to prove in many countries of the world that while waste can be treated indiscriminately, that is exactly what happens to it. So there is no point in just enforcing high standards on the waste processor; you also have to have high standards imposed on the waste producer to make sure that these high-quality facilities are actually used.

  65. You will probably have gathered that we are feeling our way into this subject. We have a plethora of regulations, directives, national legislation and rules which seem to currently define how waste should be treated. Some areas are going to be improved in terms of better implementation of the waste directive. We have an enormous cascade of further refinement in terms of the way the Landfill Directive operates. That to humble legislators suggest that there are an awful lot of rules, but if I have your drift correctly, what you are saying is rules are one thing, but there is a difference in the quality of the way that disposal takes place. Maybe I misunderstood, but I was getting a message that there is a cheap way of disposing of waste under the rules and a more expensive way of doing it. Would you like to enlighten us about the interaction between the quality of the exercise of disposal and the regulatory framework which surrounds it.
  (Mr Averill) This may perhaps be a roundabout answer to your question, but I will try and be brief. In European legislation, if you are dealing with a single market, you have common legislation. So if this plastic cup I have here is saleable in the UK, it is saleable in every other member state, because regulations are common. In environmental legislation it is not so; what you have is minimum standards, beyond which member states can go to follow their own environmental agenda. So you never have this famous or infamous level playing field with respect to environmental legislation. To give you an example with which most people can identify, that is why, say, in Denmark you have bottles with deposits on them in the old-fashioned way. This is an area where they have gone beyond the minimum to follow their own environmental agenda. It is widely recognised, and I believe generally accepted, that incineration, say, for a wide range of hazardous waste is a better technology than landfill, but in this country we still allow a very wide range of waste to landfill which would not be allowed to landfill 22 miles across the English Channel in France, where they have, say, six or seven times more incineration capacity than we have in the UK, and it is all used, whereas we are closing incineration capacity because none of the regulatory framework pushes any waste towards it.

  66. Do you think there are too many different pieces of legislation affecting this area?
  (Mr Averill) I think you can almost inevitably conclude that. There is a huge plethora of different rules and regulations and laws which surround the industry, and I have a great deal of sympathy with my colleagues from the CIA, who were talking earlier about some of the perverse things which can happen at the margin when some of these rules are enforced in perhaps a way that defeats what most people would regard as common sense.

  67. You would not advocate a general principle of good standards of disposal as opposed to the almost waste by waste analysis which seems to be pervading this legislation, defining how for different types of waste you will have a different disposal technique, etc?
  (Mr Averill) No. I think you can classify waste into broad categories, and these are quite helpful.

  The Committee suspended from 5.55 pm to 6.07 pm for a Division in the House.

  68. I want to move on to paragraph 3.6 of your recommendations, where you say, "There must be a national hazardous waste plan which prohibits inappropriate treatment for hazardous wastes." Why? Who would draw it up? Would it give the unification of approach throughout the industry which you perhaps feel there ought to be in terms of imposing best practice?
  (Mr Averill) To answer your question why, simply to protect the environment. There are many examples of who and why. It has been done many times in continental Europe, where standards for waste disposal, particularly for hazardous waste, are higher. Here, as we heard from the CIA, we rely on landfill, and this is a key point of our evidence. At the moment we have this practice called co-disposal within a landfill, where you co-dispose hazardous and non-hazardous waste. There is then a bio-reactor, which over a long period of time, say a generation, reduces these wastes to an environmentally benign state. The more common practice in Europe, especially in the northern Europe states, is to say, "We don't like this practice. What we would rather do is reduce the waste to an environmentally benign state before we even put it in the landfill." In that way you are more certain, and you do not rely on this practice over time, which is difficult to monitor, to give you the result that you desire. The position that we have here in the UK is the one which, frankly, frightens us most, that in 2004 we have the end of the practice of co-disposal, but between 2004-08 we are in no-man's land and we do not know what the criteria are, and we hope and expect that in 2008 we will be required to treat waste to this Final Storage Quality, this environmentally benign state, before it goes into the landfill. But between 2004-08 you risk putting hazardous waste into a hazardous waste landfill, with no means of reducing it to an environmentally benign state. Co-disposal will be outlawed, but you will not necessarily require it to be benign before you even deposit it into the ground.

  69. Who is to blame for that situation?
  (Mr Averill) Again, as referred to by our colleagues from the CIA, the Technical Adaptation Committee, which is the committee in the Commission associated with the Landfill Directive, which should be opining on these waste acceptance criteria, have yet to do their work, even though they are well over a year late.

  70. Have you had any direct contact with them?
  (Mr Averill) Yes, I have.

  71. What would your analysis be of the fact that they are unable to deliver what they should do on time?
  (Mr Averill) I do not think it is acceptable that the delay has been allowed to endure for so long.

  72. Have you come to a conclusion as to why they have been taking so long if you have had direct contact? What do they say to you when you say, "What is going to happen? Are we going to get any clear guidance?" Do they say, "We are working very hard on it?"
  (Mr Averill) It is a frustration that even the Minister, Michael Meacher, has alluded to on a number of occasions, saying that it is very difficult to get the result that we all know we need such that we can plan properly. This is the bit that really bothers us most: that we risk having an unsustainable period environmentally between 2004-08.

  73. To go back to what the Chemical Industries Association were saying earlier, what you have just referred to, the real rub for us is this question of our dependency on landfill as opposed to other forms of disposal.
  (Mr Averill) Yes, I think they have a strong point there, but I personally am not quite as frightened as they are. We are a waste disposal company. As I indicated in my introduction, we have facilities on the Continent where we are operating in this regime already, where the minimum landfill is allowed for hazardous waste. We in our own company—and we are by no means exclusive in this—have many technologies to apply to these wastes once the regulatory framework is clear.

  74. The Government have got the Performance and Innovation Unit, as you heard earlier, hard at work in this area. Do you think they are actually going to contribute anything to the type of problems you have been highlighting?
  (Mr Averill) We shall have to wait and see, but I know that they have been examining in some detail both technical and economic arguments put forward by our industry. They have actually been looking at first hand at some of the facilities that may be required in this arena post the Landfill Directive beginning to bite.

  75. I gather you are on the list of people who will provide outside expertise. Are you busy providing that at the moment?
  (Mr Averill) I have facilitated a series of visits to these technologies so that they can see at first hand exactly what would be required to be done in the event that we accept these requirements to reduce hazardous waste to an environmentally benign state before it is deposited in landfill.

  76. Just to be clear, in terms, you are providing a window on the practical world of disposal as far as the PIU is concerned. What do you think they ought to do in terms of work in this area? Are there certain things you think they really ought to be looking at? You have given us the medium-term scenario of, question mark, 2004-08, but are there other issues which the PIU ought to be looking at, in your judgement?
  (Mr Averill) Of course, the PIU's study is very wide-ranging, and it is certainly not limited to the issue of hazardous waste. In fact, as I understand it, they are far more concerned about the issue of municipal solid waste for the balance of this decade. I would not say hazardous waste was a side issue, but it is one that is of lesser concern to them, and obviously, there are many issues to study with respect to the non-hazardous waste, particularly municipal solid waste, including economic arguments such as what should happen to the landfill tax.

Paddy Tipping

  77. You told us that the crunch period was 2004-08, when there is no co-disposal, but in a sense the clock is ticking a bit more quickly than that because in July you as an operator have to say which sites are for hazardous waste and which are not, so that is one driver. A second driver that has more immediate import is the DEFRA consultation at the moment upon the Special Waste Regulations. What is going to be the consequence of those new regulations? They will bring more hazardous waste into disposal, will they not?
  (Mr Averill) First of all, with respect to the deadline next month to classify sites as hazardous or non-hazardous, I have an expert here, and I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong, but whatever decisions we make, we can then revisit for the July 2004 deadline. So the July 2004 deadline is the real crunch, although you can only revisit it one way.
  (Mr Pointer) It is not quite as simple as that. July 16 this year we will classify the sites either as inert hazardous, which is an interim classification, or non-hazardous. That decision is really based around if we classify it as a hazardous site, we stop accepting liquid wastes and we can carry on accepting a limited range of hazardous wastes. Some hazardous wastes will be prevented from going into landfill, full stop, such as flammables, explosives, oxidisers. With regard to explosives, fortunately the industry does not accept explosives into landfills and never has. There is a limited amount of corrosive waste going in and there are more flammable wastes. So each one of those is being displaced this year in a month's time, but co-disposal continues then until 2004. We are then faced in 2004 with those sites that have been classified as interim hazardous we either continue as a hazardous classification and stop taking non-hazardous waste or we stop taking the hazardous waste and change the classification to a non-hazardous site. We also then have the option of developing a separate area within those sites which can take stabilised hazardous wastes, and it is only very recently that we have been able to get what we now believe is going to be the acceptance criteria out of the TAC to allow us to start making decisions about how we will have to treat those wastes to meet those acceptance criteria.

  78. That seems an awful lot of work for individual companies. Mr Averill was saying we need a strategy on this, because you want a framework that works across the country. The market is operating here driven by regulation, and one is not quite sure how things are going to fall out at the end of the day.
  (Mr Pointer) That is correct.

  79. So what are you saying about that to DEFRA?
  (Mr Averill) What we have consistently said is that, in common with many other countries, what we want to do, instead of trying to prescribe what should happen, is to proscribe the unacceptable alternatives, and you can quite easily classify wastes into different groups and say, "For this group of wastes landfill is no longer required." They do not say what you must do; that is up to the market to decide, and I personally do not believe that you should have too prescriptive a regime, because if you do, you stifle innovation. This is what you have to do with it, and if somebody comes up with a better idea, it simply is not allowed. It is far better just to outlaw the unacceptable and let the market develop the best techniques and technologies to take care of the wastes that can no longer go to landfill.

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