Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Dr. Ladyman: Article 6 of the document includes several percentages for the amount of material to be recovered. Those are percentages by weight of that which is being disposed of. The percentages are quite specific, and targets have to be hit within 46 months of the directive coming into force. How were those percentages arrived at? Were they just plucked out of the air? Are they aspirations, or has some research been done to show that they are practical?

Mr. Wilson: I hope that my hon. Friend's question is rhetorical. The suggestion that the figures may have been plucked out of the air is not plausible. Obviously, there are different components and different levels of components in every device and gadget. Learned persons assessing the content of each have come up with the figures. We are opposed to the Parliament's suggestion that we should have an across the board increase—a 10 per cent. increase, for example. That sounds like trying to take the moral high ground. Whatever figure is set, whether by plucking one out of the air or by careful calculation, the Parliament would add 10 per cent.

The figures are based on the experience of other member states and on what is achievable. We are

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negotiating to ensure that there is a proper balance between costs and benefits.

Mr. Hammond: To return to my previous question to the Minister, I accept that it is probably unreasonable to ask him to predict how people will behave in terms of voting, but can he tell the Committee how they have behaved in the past? In relation to the four areas that he mentioned, what happened when the Parliament amended the text in a way that the Government did not support? That is important because the Government are saying that a United Kingdom interest is at stake. They are representing their position as being the proper one to take to defend that interest.

No doubt Labour Members of the European Parliament would also say that they are representing and defending legitimate interests. It is important for the Committee to know whether the two groups—the Government and Labour Members of the European Parliament—are aligned on the particular amendments to which the Minister referred, or at loggerheads.

Mr. Wilson: On the last point, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not at loggerheads with anyone—as far as I am aware. I do not wish to be pedantic about the matter, but I am here to represent the Government rather than a party political position. I made the point that we would look for the party's support—we would look for the support of all parties in the European Parliament. I will not, however, get into a debate about how specific Members voted or what positions they took. We must ensure that our views prevail as far as possible through the conciliation committee. The hon. Gentleman made a perfectly legitimate debating point, but it is not one that I will be drawn into.

Dr. Ladyman: May I press my hon. Friend a little more on the issue of recovery? I am concerned that we do some positive good for the environment, should we go down the route described. The figures in article 6 are around 75 per cent. or 80 per cent. by weight of the material that is disposed. However, when the waste includes a computer, the percentages could be achieved by recovering the power supply in the case. All the inside gubbins—the bits that we really want to be recycled—could go into landfill sites and the target would still be met simply because they are lighter than other components. I press the Minister to see how we are working on the percentages and whether we intend to refine the guidelines to ensure that we recover the components that should be recycled.

Mr. Wilson: The aims are more specific than that; it is not simply an across the board measurement by waste. The type of device that that my hon. Friend describes would be a way of circumventing the intention of the directive. That would simply not be available. It will be clear which components within each piece of equipment will have to be recycled. The imperative to recycle is not new and does not come from this directive. Computers are a good example of that. The bits inside computers to which my hon. Friend referred are by and large recovered anyway

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because they have an intrinsic value. Targets must be simple, but common sense in addition to targets and vested interests in recovering valuable components from equipment will counter his concern.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): Given that the Liberal Democrats have not turned up, the rest of us are forced to be pedantic. On that note, may I draw the Minister's attention to annex IV of the directive, in which there is a picture of a wheelie bin? Is the wheelie bin sign nation-specific? My experience is that wheelie bins are not ubiquitous in Europe, and I would hate our businesses to be placed at a competitive disadvantage because we were warned against disposing equipment in wheelie bins while other countries were not.

Mr. Wilson: Even taking account of the fact that the hon. Gentleman was compensating for the absence of Liberal Democrat Members, that was a poor effort. I was worried that there might not be a civil servant who is specifically committed to the subject of wheelie bins, but my concern has been relieved because I have received a message. The wheelie bin symbol will be used throughout the European Union. There might be a pan-European name other than wheelie bin, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman if I receive further intelligence on that.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister said that one of the parts of the current common position text to which the Government object is the mandatory separation of waste at the household disposal point. May I probe the Minister on that, bearing in mind the question asked by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)? If the Government resist the mandatory imposition of separation at the household disposal point, will they be able to achieve the recovered weight per household that is required by the directive by addressing only streams of waste that are already separated from normal household waste? A large proportion of electrical and electronic equipment in the UK is disposed by specific collection or by being taken to civic amenity points, rather than put in the wheelie bin. Do the Government believe that as long as the directive does not impose mandatory separation, the UK will hit its targets without addressing the waste stream that goes into the wheelie bin?

Mr. Wilson: In a way, the surprising thing is that we do relatively well on waste separation already. That is a personal observation because I do not think that we are particularly good at separating waste, so I am surprised that we already exceed the target. The target is 4 kg per head of separation, and we already collect 8 kg per head. Meeting targets is not a problem.

The difficulty of enforced separation is that it increases costs significantly. The intention is not to impose a huge financial burden on local authorities or the taxpayer and, therefore, we do not think that enforced separation is desirable. However, separation is desirable, and we should use carrots as opposed to sticks to increase environmental awareness and people's interest in separating rubbish. We do not want to go down the road of using the directive as a device for enforcing separation, particularly given our relatively successful record on this matter.

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Mr. Hammond: Is the Minister saying that, provided that the Government are successful in arguing against mandatory separation, the imposition of the directive will make no difference to the behaviour that the UK consumer has to undertake, so that the waste that they habitually put into their wheelie bins will still get taken away, and the required targets will be met by virtue of the other collection arrangements, which typically relate to larger household electrical goods?

Is the Minister aware that local authority practice varies considerably in relation to the collection of waste electrical and electronic equipment? At one end of the spectrum, there are local authorities that collect without charge and on demand. At the other, there are local authorities that do not collect at all. In between, there are local authorities that operate a range of charging regimes. Does the Minister have any plans—as a direct result of this directive, or otherwise—to achieve any kind of standardisation of collection practice by local authorities?

Mr. Wilson: Standardisation is not the appropriate word, but we should encourage local authorities to encourage best practice, in this as in everything else. It would be in keeping with the spirit of the directive if there were arrangements in place to collect the kind of equipment that we are discussing.

To hon. Gentleman also asked whether anything will change. In a purely technical sense, nothing will change. However, the whole point of the directive would be lost if nothing changed in practice. Writing laws is not the only way of achieving better behaviour from us. I hope that the mere existence of a directive of this kind—and the interest that it attracts and the messages that it sends out—will lead to changes in behaviour. It is not a good idea for people to throw their hairdryers, or old clocks with batteries in them, into the bin, freely or otherwise, and I hope that that behaviour will change, but I do not want to write a law that says that it must change. That is not inherent in the directive.

However, I do not want to send out the message that we do not expect anything to change. It is desirable on environmental grounds that some of our behaviour should change. The point of having a directive of this kind is to enforce a minimum standard. Fortunately, we already meet the standard that this directive sets, and we do not want to interfere with individuals' behaviour to the extent that it becomes oppressive or expensive.

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Prepared 17 July 2002