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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 396)



  380. But if you did not have that?
  (Ms Weeks) We would have to use fossil fuel.

  381. And it would increase your costs?
  (Ms Weeks) Absolutely.

  382. So that is the argument?
  (Ms Weeks) Yes.

  383. Why cannot cement kilns fulfil the same role as high temperature incineration, in hazardous waste management, what is wrong with that?
  (Ms Weeks) You will be hearing evidence from them shortly, and I am sure they will give their point; but it is my understanding, certainly from the American experience, that there are certain waste streams which are not acceptable, because of affecting the quality of the cement. So, again this is the American experience, that high chlorine, high metal wastes eventually come through in the product and affect the quality of the cement; and there are certain water companies in the States who will not use cement types which have been manufactured from hazardous waste plants, because they are worried about the metals leaching in.

  384. So a better definition of what can go where?
  (Ms Weeks) Yes. If we accept that there is a rump of material which cannot be burned in cement kilns, and the next evidence may say differently, but if there is a rump of material, which we believe there is, which should never go to cement kilns, that is the malodorous, highly chlorinated, very reactive, the active pharmaceuticals, then we have to have facilities which can take that rump of material, otherwise, the only option for the UK is to export this waste to the rest of Europe to dispose of, and that is against all the European and international treaties. So if we want to keep the two plants that we have got then we have to make sure that we can actually operate and have the waste coming in.
  (Mr Hazell) Could I perhaps come back to a question that Mr Mitchell asked me, and turn it round on the cement industry. Obviously, the cement kilns are looking to get calorific value from the work that they do, they are trying to reduce the cost of their energy; so, in a sense, the burden of proof is more on them, with their existing infrastructure, than it is on our industry, to justify what they are doing. I think we would acknowledge that the cement industry, like any other responsible industry, is seeking to manage its risk, and the Battelle Report, which I am sure you will be asking the next witnesses about, does show that the cement industry, as does ours, has to balance a whole range of risks, like environmental risk and the quality of its product.

  Chairman: Right; before we get too far down the calorie-counting line, we will move to David Lepper.

Mr Lepper

  385. Can I just make sure I have followed something that you said earlier, when you were talking about the Waste Acceptance Criteria having changed, you said, I think, radically, or fundamentally?
  (Mr Hazell) Yes. Mr Meacher did not mention this, when he gave evidence yesterday, but, as a result of pressure from the Austrians last week, the Waste Acceptance Criteria were materially changed; and the relevance of that is that the Waste Acceptance Criteria effectively define what investment there will be in infrastructure. And perhaps it is best if Mrs Heasman specifies the way in which the criteria did change last week.
  (Ms Heasman) The discussions, for the last couple of years, have been on the basis of setting fixed criteria numbers that will be applicable to all sites throughout Europe, and that was indeed the basis on which risk assessment work was done, a lot of it funded by the UK, and research was carried out to derive these numbers, and that was the way in which it was moving forward. The draft decision document was issued last week, and in that draft decision document the statement at the beginning of the section on Acceptance Criteria states that they may be based on site-specific risk assessment to the satisfaction of the regulatory authorities, provided that the numbers did not change by more than a factor of three from the original numbers. Now that bears no relation whatsoever to the risk calculations that were carried out, these are numbers that are now plucked out of thin air, with no justification. I was not at the previous Technical Adaptation Committee meeting, but I understand this issue was not discussed at that meeting at all.

  386. Does what you have just said relate to another point, which I think Mr Hazell made, in his opening presentation, about DEFRA having failed to fully appreciate, I have written down here, the European dimension? I think you were suggesting that DEFRA had never quite come to terms with the way in which decisions are eventually arrived at?
  (Mr Hazell) Yes. My assertion has a number of components to it. Our impression, as a very, very rough rule of thumb, is that our engagement with DEFRA officials tends to have more the character of a last-minute panic on relatively small, specific issues, than of the longer-term strategic relationship that, as a key, essential service in this country, we would expect to have. And, as I used Europe by way of illustration, and I want to say, since the Secretary of State has come in and the new Department has been set up, there have been various outreach initiatives, but I do not think that there has been any attempt on Europe at all by DEFRA in terms of their engagement with ESA; frankly, they have not got the people in the waste side to do it anyway. But there has been no attempt to engage with us and to say, "Well, look, we are no longer entirely sovereign in this area, but the policy that drives our longer-term agenda is being formed at the Council of Ministers, where we can be outvoted, it is being formed in the European Parliament, where you have a voice, as much as we have a voice; why don't we come together and think about the sorts of things that we might together say, because that will then impact on the types of decisions that will be made here in years to come?" That type of relationship is totally absent, totally absent.

  387. So here was DEFRA saying, or, at least, implying, here were the draft Waste Acceptance Criteria, this is all the industry needs, in order to come to some decisions, in planning its investment for the future, and yet, if the industry had done that, it would now be adrift considerably, financially, possibly, and you are suggesting, are you, that a stronger or a more proactive engagement by DEFRA officials, Ministers, both with your industry and with your European counterparts, might have led to greater certainty at an earlier stage?
  (Mr Hazell) Frankly, it is astonishing how much uncertainty has prevailed in the UK for so long; and, again, Mrs Heasman can go through the detail of it much better than I can. But you know better than I do that the Landfill Regulations have come through Parliament a year late. The general scale of uncertainty facing an industry that wants to do the right thing, that is willing to invest, is almost beyond belief; it is actually quite hard, particularly for people who have worked in other sectors of the economy, to try to relate what is expected of the industry with the type of engagement that typically we have, and the quality of the information we are given.


  388. Could I just pursue you a little further on that, because I think it is very important that we get the right balance about where, if blame is the right word to apply, the blame lies for this uncertainty; because, interestingly, both in terms of his written and indeed evidence yesterday, the Minister said, and I quote from paragraph 43 of DEFRA's evidence to us: "The UK has been doing its best to drive the process forward," this was on the Waste Acceptance Criteria, "we have led and funded much of the modelling work that is informing the Criteria." Now the impression you have given is of an industry aware of what is coming down the track, crying out for detail; detail there is none. If we wind the clock back to when the Commission initiated this process, where does the blame lie, because this thing has been going on for a long time, in an area which is already subject to quite a lot of national and European regulation? What we are talking about is changes to the regime for dealing with hazardous waste, and if we are to understand, when we write our report and make some recommendations, where should we be pointing the finger, in your judgement, should it be at the Commission, for not having dealt with the detail at the beginning, or the United Kingdom Government for not having translated matters with the speed you would like, or is it everybody? Help us to understand where the blame chain should be?
  (Mr Hazell) I will preface what I am going to say by saying that I think the quality of interaction we have with officials of the European Commission is of a different order of magnitude from the quality of interaction that we have with DEFRA officials; so I preface it by saying that. Obviously, one can only have some sympathy with the Minister's comments yesterday; it is extraordinary for a Directive to be agreed by Member States without them really knowing what it actually means. But you then do have to cast doubt on the wisdom of those Governments which signed the Directive without being sure what it would mean and just signing it for the sake of getting an agreement. So I think the comments that were made in evidence to your Committee yesterday were right, that, as a general principle, one should understand that, certainly, in the tradition of this Parliament's law-making, to have a pretty good idea what laws mean before they are signed. So I think one can blame the European decision-making process for that, and one would hope, in an ideal world, that the European Convention might deal with that type of issue. And, again, on the Waste Acceptance Criteria, I certainly would not want to suggest that we blame the Government for the situation that we are in, because it would not be fair to say that we do; i.e. the Waste Acceptance Criteria, and Leslie can correct me if I am wrong, I think, have to be agreed by every Member State on the Committee. And the particular problem the British Government is now confronted with is that, at a very, very late stage, a stroppy and relatively small Member State, for reasons that are not totally clear to anybody else, has insisted on change to the Criteria. And that gives Mr Meacher a very, very difficult decision; do they go along with that change to the Waste Acceptance Criteria, again, for the sake of agreement, so that at least we can start to plan on the basis of something, or is a decision deferred, yet again, until we try to get something closer to the risk-based agreement that Mrs Heasman was alluding to. All I can say is that it is not entirely the Government's fault. But, as an industry, we took a delegation of the industry's leading chief executives to see Mr Meacher, in January of last year, and that was certainly not the first time that we drew the attention of the Government to the importance of the Waste Acceptance Criteria, we have been going on about it consistently for years. And, basically, what we were told at that meeting was, not to worry our little heads about it, it would all be sorted by July, that was July last year. And the great difficulty is that, even if everything is sorted out tomorrow, you are not really going to see anything showing in investment for years to come, because the planning system is not helpful, and these things take time. So, certainly, we do not blame the Government for everything that is wrong, and the Waste Acceptance Criteria is a good illustration, I think, of broadly where the balance of blame does lie; there are certainly lessons for the future.

  389. I just want to pick up on one point of detail, before just asking you to comment on the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, and the implications for this. Ms Heasman, I got the impression, almost, from what you were saying, that you thought that the existing UK landfill arrangements, where you would have biological processes which could help to stabilise and process waste, might have been a better solution to have stuck with than the European agreement, now, of this separation out of hazardous wastes and ultimate disposal under certain defined conditions. And there appear to be two schools of thought; one that says, "Yes, that seems to be okay," there are others that say, "Well, if you put them in a landfill site you can't quite be certain what's happening to them, we don't know, for example, how long the life of a liner is," to give one example, "it's better, so we can see where they are, to put them into defined circumstances." You were not trying to run yesterday's battle when you made that, or was it a technical observation that you still feel quite strongly about?
  (Ms Heasman) It is a technical observation that I feel extremely strongly about. I recognise that the Landfill Directive is here, we have to make the Landfill Directive work. In looking back at the lessons that we learn, I think, as UK plc, we did not lobby and explain the benefits of the system that we use, which is very different from the system used elsewhere in Europe, we did not explain the controls that were in place; everybody that becomes aware of how co-disposal is managed is extremely surprised, it is very different from the vision they had of co-disposal. I am not trying to rerun that battle. I live in hope that when the Directive is reviewed in 13 years' time some of the benefits may be recognised; but I recognise the Directive exists. In terms of the way in which the Directive progressed through the different stages, in Europe, it is interesting to note that at the very beginning the Directive had Waste Acceptance Criteria as part of the Directive; that was then removed, because that was a very difficult bit to agree to, so the numbers were taken out, it was put in the `too difficult' box. And, to my mind, it is bizarre for people to sign up to legislation where some of the most significant implications of that legislation is unknown, and that was put to one side, to the Technical Adaptation Committee to resolve and agree, to a timetable, which then had to tie into an implementation timetable within the Directive. There appears to be no sanction, where that timetable is not met, and no consequent amendment of the dates within the Directive itself, as a result of that failure to meet the target. So, as an issue, in terms of law-making, I think that is one that should be borne in mind in future.

Mr Mitchell

  390. So are you saying then that the game was changed after it had started?
  (Ms Heasman) Yes. The Landfill Directive, the draft has been about for ten, 12 years, whatever; the very early draft had numbers in it, those numbers were taken out because they could not be agreed, in order to move it forward.

  391. And just in terms of the question the Chairman asked, it has been put to me that we are overdependent on landfill, in this country, and we have depended on it too heavily for too long. You are saying you have got an attachment to that system, but surely the effects of what happens to hazardous waste are totally unpredictable, and it depends on the mixture and all sorts of variable factors, you cannot make a generalisation that this is still an effective way of disposing of it?
  (Ms Heasman) There are huge amounts of research, this is perhaps not the topic of this inquiry, that have been carried out, there is a lot of data available, the loading rates of the particular components of hazardous waste relative to the biodegradable waste are fixed, based on research, they are controlled on a site-specific basis, they are monitored on a site-specific basis. I do not disagree that the types of waste that are suitable for co-disposal are limited, and there should be very strict controls over what is acceptable for co-disposal and what is not acceptable for co-disposal, and there has been some blurring of those boundaries, and they should be more strictly set. But, in terms of discussing and agreeing the Acceptance Criteria, co-disposal is gone, there is no point hankering after it, it no longer is acceptable under European, and now UK, legislation. The initial approach of DEFRA was different from the approach of the Environment Agency, in terms of what those Acceptance Criteria should be; the Environment Agency approach, which the industry supported, was for single numbers that would be consistent across the country, that every site, regardless of the environmental situation of that site. DEFRA's approach was that they should be set on a risk-based, site-specific basis, so there would be different Acceptance Criteria for each landfill, based on the situation in which that landfill was environmentally. So at the beginning there was a difference of approach; that, I am sure, must have delayed the lobbying process within Europe. At the end of the day, it was quite clear that, given the approach in most of the other Member States, we were going to end up with a single number anyway; whether that process could have been pushed further, I do not understand enough about the European Technical Adaptation Committee's procedure to know how that could have been made faster.


  392. Let us just have a look, briefly, in our last few moments, at one or two other issues that are out there. Last week it was tyres, and the Tyre Manufacturers Association seemed to be confident that they could deal with the mountain of tyres, both the ones that are already accumulated and the ones that were going to come along, and yet it is not entirely clear to me, once we get to, I think it is, 2004, and even shredded tyres cannot go to landfill, quite what is going to happen to them. There is even greater uncertainty, as we have heard during the course of our inquiries, about the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive, that is all sort of shrouded in mist, and there are going to be further hazardous wastes which will now be extracted from our humble automobiles, we are not quite clear who is going to be responsible for all that lot. And then there is the electrical equipment side, and Mr Mitchell has alluded to his own personal sort of lamp mountain, which he wants to find some way of getting rid of, his neon tubes are all waiting to be disposed of. It is quite difficult, when you have got this sort of tidal wave of problems coming at us, to sort of see the wood from the trees; but what are your views, in just a few moments, on some of the issues which have got to be addressed, arising out of what I have just been talking about?
  (Mr Hazell) In the broadest terms, I would suggest that the European driver towards increased producer responsibility, fully building in the total cost, including the environmental costs, of a product, is the right approach to go, although, probably, and I am not a technical expert on this, but I think the Commission recognise this, the life-cycle analysis and the way all that is calculated is a rather crude science, at the moment, and needs to be significantly developed; the Commission does seem to be going away from a product-specific approach to a more generic approach to producer responsibility. All one can do is make a number of fairly general observations. The car that I have got is a Honda that is made in Swindon, it already anticipates producer responsibility, the whole of the dashboard—

  393. Your car is talking to you, is it?
  (Mr Hazell) It is made from the same plastic, the whole of the dashboard, so it is actually constructed, the difficult part of the car is often the dashboard, it is already made in a way with recycling criteria very much in mind. There are uses for tyres. It is just a question again, all this comes back, if the Government says what it wants to achieve, our industry can help them to do it.

  394. Let us just ask, finally, the Government have established, almost now quite quietly in the background, the Performance and Innovation Unit, who are supposed to be conducting some vast, forward-looking inquiry into all waste matters; let us just focus for a second on hazardous waste. Have you, for example, been asked by the PIU for any information about hazardous waste problems, in general or in the specific, and have you, as an Association, any hopes or anticipations of what you think the PIU might be able to contribute to addressing many of the problems that you have outlined for us this morning?
  (Mr Hazell) I will disclose an interest, in the limited extent, that I am on the Secretary of State's Advisory Board, in connection with the PIU. They have not directly addressed hazardous waste with us. The primary remit of the PIU was to address municipal waste, in England. So the core focus was a different focus. But what we have done, as a trade association, and I understand that Mr Averill made allusion to this, in his oral evidence, is that we have enabled the PIU to visit a number of treatment plants in Belgium, operated by SITA, and further plants operated in The Netherlands by Shanks. So we have given the PIU some insight into the types of facility that are being operated in northern Europe, and in very broad terms the regulatory framework that makes that possible. Obviously, our hopes for the PIU are high, but they are, principally, because that is really the main chance that we are going to get in this Parliament, to sort out waste as an issue, but these hopes really have to be focused, I think, more on municipal waste than on hazardous waste. If, incidentally, the PIU come up with helpful statements on planning, and, again, we live in hope, we are an optimistic industry, that would be of direct relevance to the remit of this Committee, because—

  395. So are you suggesting that the current planning process does not help to deliver the facilities that your industry needs?
  (Mr Hazell) That would be an extremely polite understatement.

  396. You are very polite people.
  (Mr Hazell) I mentioned earlier, the Green Paper on Planning does not address the concerns of this industry, and, again, it is an industry that wants to do the right thing by this country, it wants to invest in new infrastructure. And, again, I think it is fair to say, I do not want to overstate the point, but as regulation, in practice, tends to push waste treatment down the waste hierarchy, so does the planning system, and it certainly is not easier to get planning permission for a recycling or composting facility than it is for a new landfill.

  Chairman: Mr Hazell, may I thank you, Ms Weeks and Ms Heasman for some very interesting and informative evidence. We are grateful to you for coming. You very kindly said you will send us one or two further pieces of information, if I might ask you to do that at your earliest convenience, because we are hoping to get our report out as quickly as we can, and that information will be helpful. And thank you very much for coming to see us this morning; and, just finally, if there is anything else that you felt you wanted to draw our attention to within the timescale I have outlined, please do not hesitate to do it. Thank you for coming.

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