Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): May I tease a little more out of the Minister on local authorities' reactions to the directive? We all know the history of the problems over domestic refrigeration units: the £6 million that was allocated to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help local authorities was woefully inadequate, and the problems quickly became acute in my county of Devon. Given that the Minister does not wish to standardise, what incentives will he give to local authorities to encourage them to comply? How will encouraging domestic households to take on board more of the directive positively and negatively affect local authorities?

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Mr. Wilson: Local authorities will be free to determine how they respond to the directive. It does not directly impose requirements or costs on local authorities, but we are consulting with them: DEFRA and the DTI are involved with them in a discussion group that meets regularly to identify and to address their concerns. They establish how they could work together with retailers and producers to fulfil the collection requirement of the directive.

Local authorities are already obliged under the waste strategy to meet recycling targets, and the WEEE directive will be another incentive—or imperative—encouraging them to raise their levels of recycling. We understand local authorities' concerns about collection-site space and licensing constraints, for example, and we are working with them to try to resolve those issues. A constructive and realistic approach has been taken. The approach has been to co-ordinate a response, and to co-operate in addressing quite legitimate concerns and problems. However, local authorities have no objection to the principle of the directive, much of which they are already obliged to respond to.

I come back to my previous answer. I should also have said that we are talking about changes in consumer behaviour. An important point is that retailers will be obliged to take back equipment that they have sold. Once that becomes a familiar part of the scene and consumers are responding to it, retailers will be obliged either to take equipment back directly or to nominate a third party to whom it can be returned. If we are going to say to people: ''We don't want you to put your hairdryers, clocks or radios in the bin,'' we will have to tell them what else they can do with them—in the nicest possible way.

Dr. Ladyman: On the issue of making sure that funding is available for recovering items, in the documents, five options are given for how the money could be raised. They include collective financing by producers; a visible fee when goods are bought; individual financing by producers; tradeable permanents; and a deposit refund system. At some point, the Government will have to decide which of the options they prefer. Can the Minister say when that is likely to happen, and what sort of consultation we will have about it? Will he also give his feelings about which of the options the other members of the European Union prefer?

Mr. Wilson: On the time scale, we expect the collective provision to be established by autumn this year. It will be 18 months before it is implemented, so there is a lot of time in which to get down to the nitty-gritty of how the directive is to be implemented. We cannot tell how financing will work in the UK until we have the final text. The draft directive is complex and a plethora of amendments have been tabled to it. Most schemes in other member states are financed through collective systems. We will consider those systems alongside the alternatives.

Some member states use a visible fee system, whereby consumers pay a levy on the price of a new product to pay for recycling. There are drawbacks to that, too, not least because under that system it will be difficult to impose the differential costs that will

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eventually arise in relation to every piece of equipment. Deposit systems can encourage take-back, but—to reduce the argument to something with which many are familiar—how many people take back their lemonade bottles because of the deposit? How many would take back their radios, clocks or hairdryers because they paid a couple of quid extra a few years previously? That is a moot point. In any case, in a more inflationary period the value of the deposit would diminish in the lifetime of the product.

Those are all options and they are all being considered. Not one jumps out as being by far the best, simplest and most effective. My hon. Friend is right. All of us must find a way to proceed during the months ahead. All options, particularly as they apply to existing schemes, are being examined.

Mr. Swire: It is critical that we examine how costs will be passed on, particularly if they will be passed on to the consumer, because we are discussing some high-expenditure items. We know that products can be cheaper abroad: people take booze cruises to Calais to fill up cars and other vehicles with cheaper alcohol. If we pass the costs directly to the consumer, who is to say that people will not make fridge runs to Calais? Will the Minister reflect on one particular point? Irrespective of the way in which he thinks that we should pass costs on, we must not render our smaller retailers uncompetitive with their European counterparts.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes his own point, and I do not dissent. If we created a cost disadvantage, people might go elsewhere to buy the products. [Interruption.] I hear my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet refer to Ramsgate, but I am not sure about the context—perhaps he will deal with that in a moment. It is important to get things right and to ensure that British companies are not rendered uncompetitive or disadvantaged by the directive.

The cost mechanism that is determined and recommended will be subject to widespread consultation before it is finalised. The hon. Gentleman's point will remain at the forefront of our minds.

Mr. Hammond: May I answer the Minister's rhetorical question, ''Who takes back their hairdryer because they have paid a couple of quid more for it?'' Until Monday, I would have suggested that the Chancellor was such a person. I heard what he said on Monday afternoon and I am not sure whether he is quite as prudent as he used to be.

Before I pick up on the Minister's theme in response to questions on finance, I shall return to the issue of separate collection. The Minister rightly said that he would not like anybody to take the message from this debate that nothing will change for consumers. That is clearly not the intention behind the directive. Let us explore what will happen.

I think that the Minister said that consumers will have many small products around their homes, such as alarm clocks and small hand-held electronic games—people freely buy and dispose of such items these

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days—which will be marked with the sign of a wheelie bin with a cross though it. People will know that such items should not be included with ordinary household waste. Will the Minister confirm that putting such items into the waste will not be a criminal offence, and that the sign will be used for guidance rather than as a sanction?

It is not realistic to think that, if a responsible householder wanted to respond to the directive's spirit, he would look at his alarm clock to find out where it was made and from where he bought it, and get in his car on a Saturday morning to hand it in for proper recycling. Indeed, that action would probably be an environmental disaster, and we should not encourage it. A beneficial change in behaviour will occur only if local authorities start separate collections of electrical and electronic equipment waste that the householder separates voluntarily. Does the Minister envisage a blue bag scheme in which local authorities will be required to remove and to process separately the WEEE stream that householders choose to separate, but cannot, or will not, return personally to the producer for disposal due to practical considerations?

Mr. Wilson: Let me put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. There is no intention of creating an offence, and there is no intention to prescribe additional duties for local authorities. Obviously, we intend to improve behaviour and our recycling record, which is already above the target on which the directive is founded. Given that fact, any other action that we take will be extra, and that puts into perspective some of the wilder scare stories about the directive.

The hon. Gentleman is right. If I had bought an alarm clock in Glasgow, I would not travel from London to take it back to the shop. In fact, I may have to go to Glasgow anyway, so I could take it with me, so that was a bad example to cite. People will not necessarily return to the point of purchase. However, given that a high proportion of goods will be accounted for by retailers that operate on a multiple basis and are distributed throughout the country, some problems could be dealt with.

I agree that much recycling will take place through the provision of central sites by local authorities. They are undertaking a lot of work already and could do it more effectively in response to the directive, the costs of which can be contained within the scheme. I want to play down the significance of the proposal. It is important environmentally. It builds on much of what takes place at present. The directive starts from a healthy position because we already meet the targets, but it will be good universally if we can do better in a non-prescriptive, non-bureaucratic way, with no additional costs.

Dr. Murrison: I agree with all the sentiments expressed by the Minister, but it causes me concern that he is proposing to go forward with the directive without giving any real thought to how local authorities will cope with it. It will be up to local authorities to take such action. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) is right. Even if people remember which shop they bought their alarm clock from, it is ridiculous to suppose that they will mosey on down to

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Dixons five years after the purchase. Despite saying that we are already giving such messages to people, the Government need to give thought to how local authorities will cope with the directive. If the Minister is serious about improving our already good performance, he needs to consider who will pay for it.

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002