Packaging and Packaging Waste

[back to previous text]

Mr. Wilson: I agree that we must do a great deal more in respect of the domestic waste stream. That is why local authorities have a role not only to implement those schemes, but to involve citizens in a more enthusiastic way, educate them in their individual obligations and explain why that is so important for wider environmental objectives. The nature of the hon. Gentleman's question implies the difficulty involved in answering it. We are talking about a range of different waste streams and the margin would occur at a different point for each. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman giving examples of particular waste streams and where each point may be. It is something of a moving target, however, and I cannot help him further today.

Tony Cunningham: I shall try to be helpful. A scheme in Allerdale borough council in my constituency deals with fridges, freezers, microwaves and so forth. The local authority collects the items free and they are not scrapped unless they are in a terrible condition. They are taken away and repaired—they may need a new engine, door or whatever—and a shop sells them. Fewer fridges and freezers are scrapped, so there is less waste, and people are trained and employed to repair the goods. At the end of the day, relatively cheap fridges and freezers are available—for £30, £40 or £50.

That is an example of recycling that avoids waste, creates jobs and provides people with something useful. It is the sort of model that should be repeated in other local authorities.

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies, I remind hon. Members that we are discussing the packaging waste directive. Although the European Scrutiny Committee mentioned fridges tangentially, I would be grateful if hon. Members would stick to discussing the directive.

Mr. Wilson: I am grateful for that, Mr. Atkinson.

My hon. Friend makes a helpful point, which is related to one I made earlier about seeing everything as a problem or burden rather than an opportunity. Certainly, I see the increasing separation of domestic waste for recycling and the requirement to meet targets in the recycling of domestic waste as a really big opportunity, not a burden.

In answer to the previous point, DEFRA's advisory committee has published the figures that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) seeks, not on specific waste streams, with which I have already promised to help him, but on the amount of domestic waste that we would have to recycle in order to meet our target. The cost implications are in the regulatory impact assessment.

Column Number: 18

I am happy to supply any supplementary information that he requires.

To reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend, we cannot separate local authorities from other players in the field. It is important for local authorities and business to work closely together to maximise the opportunities that arise. The organisation CREATE is currently working with the Government to ensure that equipment continues to be reused. CREATE is a social economy organisation that offers training and sells on white goods, which is an imaginative illustration of what my hon. Friend mentioned. Interesting and creative ideas will result when one focuses more clearly on what can be done with domestic refuse and waste.

Mr. Jack: Will the Minister reassure me that the United Kingdom will not agree to enhanced targets until there is a clear breakdown of the proportion of waste that will have to be recycled by improved domestic arrangements and commercial waste management?

Mr. Wilson: That is exactly the sort of issue that is still under negotiation. Everything that I have said suggests that we do not want British businesses or consumers to be disadvantaged or to bear costs that are disproportionate to the benefits. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are being asked to approve not a done deal but our negotiating line. I hope that everything that I have said about the negotiating line and the criteria that I describe command the Committee's support.

Mr. Jack: On a point of order, Mr. Atkinson. I seek your guidance. You rightly asked us not to deviate too far into a single-minded debate on refrigerators, but in paragraph 2.6 of the 19threport of session 2001-02 of the European Scrutiny Committee, which was included in the papers provided, specific reference is made to the disposal of refrigerators. I presume that it is in order to discuss the contents of that paragraph subsequently.

The Chairman: Like me, the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have read the paragraph carefully. As I said, the matter is referred to tangentially. I was happy to tolerate a debate that involves the question of refrigeration, but we do not want the entire debate to focus on that issue. If hon. Members do so, they will be called to order. That brings us to the end of the time allocated for questions.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 15194/01, draft Directive amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste; welcomes it as a positive step towards achieving high levels of environmental and single market protection, whilst limiting the impact upon UK business; and supports the Government's negotiating line.—[Mr. Wilson.]

5.31 pm

Mr. Hammond: I confess that it is some time since I served on a European Standing Committee, although such Committees were one of the great joys of my

Column Number: 19

early years in this place. I had expected the Minister to speak again, and I looked forward to further elucidation, but that is obviously not to be.

The background to the debate is the existing directive, which I believe came in force in 1994. It was always envisaged that the targets would be reviewed, and, almost inevitably, I suppose, increased, after five years.

The Commission has been rather tardy in presenting its proposals, and some criticisms of its methodologies made by member states and other observers may explain why. Will the Minister comment on member states apparently tolerating the Commission's tardiness even though the Commission has not always been so tolerant of tardiness by member states when they are supposed to adhere to a timetable?

The proposals seem to do two things that are important to discuss. They impose higher targets for recovery—up to 60 to 75 per cent. for packaging materials—and for recycling, which is 55 to 70 per cent. They also impose material-specific targets, which I expected the Minister to say the Government are committed to resisting, but judging from his earlier remarks the Government may have conceded that point already, which many hon. Members will consider a serious development.

The extent of consensus on the issue has been referred to. I should like to believe that there is an underlying, cross-party consensus, as long as we eliminate the most extreme approaches at both ends of the spectrum. Regardless of political party, I suspect that most hon. Members want sensible recovery and recycling when the costs are not disproportionate to the benefits achieved.

I should also like to believe that in a frank and open debate, most hon. Members would regard the issue as involving the UK's interests and the approach that Britain takes to dealing with such problems as well as how we ensure that that approach receives a fair hearing in the wider European context. It sometimes seems that some of what is proposed there goes against the grain of how we would approach the problem here.

To some extent, there is a party political gloss on the issue. I sometimes get the impression when we discuss matters involving the European Union and the European Commission that Labour Members feel it necessary to defend the actions of those bodies. Equally, my hon. Friends sometimes attack them regardless of the substance of the issue. I suspect that much party political posturing on this issue is related to the parties' general approach to matters emanating from Brussels rather than the substance of the proposals before us.

Stephen Hesford: The hon. Gentleman speaks about extremes. Will he characterise the American stance on Kyoto, and is it at the extreme of the

Column Number: 20

spectrum? Does he agree with the US approach? It would argue that it is on all fours in protecting its interests.

The Chairman: Order. We are discussing a European directive.

Mr. Hammond: Although I shall not be drawn on the hon. Gentleman's question, he raises an important point. I have a reference to Kyoto in my notes, but I shall pass over it.

It is important that we carry public opinion with us on these matters. I am not an expert on American public opinion, but I am quite certain that it is behind the stance that the American Government have taken. We must be alert to the possibility that public opinion will turn against the recycling and recovery agenda if we seem to advocate approaches in which the costs are disproportionate to the benefits achieved. We must bear that in mind as we discuss the issues.

Several hon. Members, including the Minister, talked about the cost burden that the measures place on industry. He is familiar with my point of view, as he has heard it before: the cost burden is not on industry, but on consumers, and the question is how the burden passes via the intermediary of industry to the consumer. It is important that we are careful to take stock of the effectiveness of the legislation and regulations in place before we go further down the route of increasing targets and increasing recycling and recovery. The Minister has already agreed with me on that point.

I had hoped that the documents that members of the European Scrutiny Committee received would tell us more about the effectiveness of the existing directive and the mechanisms in place in the UK to allow us to study its ongoing effect. We would have known what has happened and what will happen when the targets come into effect, thereby providing us with a basis on which to deal with future reviews.

Initially, the proposed increased targets will affect some 14,000 obligated businesses in this country, although ultimately we will all be affected. We must consider the financial and, in particular, the marginal costs of raising targets. I asked the Minister a question about the changing shape of the cost curve as we seek to recover and recycle ever-higher percentages of material. The partial regulatory impact assessment indicates the anticipated costs of meeting certain specified recovery and recycling targets. I would have liked to see a more refined analysis showing how the costs would change as the percentage target moved, perhaps percentile by percentile, so that we could be sure that the UK sets appropriate targets. I hope that the Minister has one locked away in some private study.

It is unnecessary to enter a complex cost-benefit analysis discussion, because a quick look at the cost curve readily indicates the approximate range where we should set a target to ensure that we secure economically achievable environmental benefits

Column Number: 21

rather than move into an area where costs become disproportionate to benefits achieved, thereby risking the public opinion reaction to which the hon. Member for Wirral, West referred.

I am also alert to the feeling in industry that the current regime for dealing with producer responsibility obligations is bureaucratic and over-embellished. The Engineering Employers Federation has given me a briefing:

    "Compliance with the regulations in the UK requires setting up a sophisticated data tracking system . . . Companies have to record packaging types and weights associated with each product they make—and in many cases they can have thousands of product lines."

    They also have to account to the Environment Agency for

    "changing product mixes, company divestments and acquisitions, and constantly changing recycling costs and targets."


    "The Environment Agency compliance audits are detailed in the extreme, expecting to see calculations for individual products and calibration records for weighing equipment."

My experience of the EA, which I suspect is also that of other hon. Members, is that it is under-resourced for dealing with the real problems that face our constituents. Therefore, it is alarming that the EA has such large manpower resources to fuel that bureaucratic process.

We debated a different aspect of waste reprocessing last week, so I know that the Minister is, in general, anxious to ensure that we use methods that bolster and exploit existing market mechanisms, rather than overlaying tiers of bureaucracy in complex organisational structures, to promote recovery and recycling. I hope that he ensures that they involve a lighter touch as we modify the current regime to move forward to meet those higher targets.

I am anxious to ensure—as is the Minister, no doubt—that we genuinely achieve net environmental benefits when we impose targets such as those under discussion. I remember that not so many years ago it was the custom for boy scouts to knock on front doors and collect newspapers and magazines, which they sold for recycling. Judging by the facial expression of the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), perhaps that happened more than a few years ago.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared Wednesday 15 May 2002