Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Mr. Wilson: It is not my intention to say anything that could be caricatured. I want to set the record straight. I did not say that people will mosey on down to Dixons five years later to hand back their alarm clock. That is the sort of caricature that some people have a vested interest in applying to the directives. However, it would not be a bad thing if people did do that and perhaps a minority of them will. That would be one strand of a range of solutions. Dixons will not have such a responsibility, however, because it will be the responsibility of the producer. It may be in the interests of the retailer to offer such facilities. I am not saying that people will be expected to take such action and that alarm clock police will instruct them to take a note of where they buy the equipment, so that they can take it back five years later. That is not implied in the directives.

As soon as the equipment is taken to a central site, producer responsibility will kick in and the costs that have been incurred will have to be met. We must remember that local authorities already have such sites and collect barrel-loads of electrical equipment. The proposal is not new. It is not as though equipment is all tipped into landfill at present, and that a great revolution will occur. Under the directive, we will see a gradation and an increase in the amount of equipment that will be separated and recycled. The facility to deal with it in an intelligent way, to recover part of its value and to be environmentally friendly will increase incrementally. Any costs that local authorities incur from carrying out these responsibilities will fall to the DTI, if they are a direct result of our legislation. It is not intended that there should be such extra costs; there is no reason why they should not be met by producer responsibility within the kind of scheme that will be drawn up.

To return to the point about competitiveness, everybody else will also have these responsibilities. They will apply across the EU. Other countries will have to come up with their own schemes, so it will not be as if French alarm clocks will be immune whereas ours will have to be taken back to Dixons.

Dr. Ladyman: These costs are going to be a producer responsibility, but how will we enforce that responsibility on producers that are based outside the EU? Have there been any discussions at the World Trade Organisation about the fact that producers in, for example, the United States of America might say that it would be anti-competitive to impose that responsibility on them?

Mr. Wilson: That is a very good question. The answer to it is that the importers are considered to be the producers. I cannot say at present whether this matter has been discussed at the WTO. If my hon. Friend really wants to know about that, I will find out.

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Mr. Swire: The Minister says that this will be a producer responsibility. I wish that I could believe that. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) that, at the end of the day, a lot of the additional expense will fall to the local authorities. Let us say that a producer company goes bankrupt. How can it be encouraged to pay anything, if one is working on a deposit basis? In the case of an intestate estate or a house clearance, will the local authority—or whoever is responsible—take the trouble to return all electrical goods and so forth? I suspect not.

I think that some of the cost will accrue to the local authorities. When the Government come to agree what the additional funding to them should be, will they bear in mind how wide of the mark they were with regard to the funding that was provided to deal with the storage cost of fridges? DEFRA allocated £6 million, but Essex county council has estimated that the costs for it alone are £1.68 million, so there is a huge funding deficit. Will the Minister make a commitment that, if local authorities are to be compensated for these additional costs, compensation will be paid annually and will not be phased out after a while, thereby leaving the local taxpayer to pick up the difference once again?

Mr. Wilson: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. There should not be hypothetical costs that bear no relation to reality. There is a long history of local authorities suffering because of that. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not my intention to come up with a hypothetical figure. In the discussions with local authorities to which I have referred, that concern will be uppermost in their minds. Local authorities already carry a lot of burdens on behalf of central Government, and it would be unfair if we were to add to them without ensuring that they had the means to pay.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister said that local authority costs resulting from the regulations that will, I presume, flow from this directive would be borne by the DTI. If a local authority were to decide to establish a scheme for collecting separated electronic and electrical waste from households, would the DTI bear the additional costs to the local authority? That is an important point. Unless local authorities are prepared to remove separated out waste free of charge from the household disposal point, it is difficult to see how the directive will make any impact. The Minister told the Committee that we are already over-achieving on the weight targets, so no pressure will be caused by the need to comply with the directive. Producers will be responsible for the cost of disposing of items that are harvested, so they will have no incentive to try to increase the amount of material that is recovered. This does not appear to me to be intuitive. Unless local authorities give out separate bags and say, ''Please put your electronic and electrical waste in these and we will collect and process them,'' it does not seem that we will achieve anything substantial through the directive. I urge the Minister to consider giving financial incentives, such as the ability to recover costs from the DTI, to local authorities to operate such schemes.

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Mr. Wilson: Local authorities already have an incentive: they set their own recycling targets. Local authorities that are good and ambitious set recycling targets that are substantially higher than they presently achieve. Many will go at the problem with a will. They will not do it only because central Government or Brussels is driving them with a big stick. They will do it because it is a virtuous and good thing to do.

Local authorities will also have a financial incentive in the sense that, the more they separate and recycle and gain financial benefit from doing so, the less they will landfill. Landfill carries its own costs and burdens. That nobody will do anything about the problem unless it is made compulsory or exceptionally simple is an especially gloomy view of human behaviour. I agree that it may be desirable to make the task simpler than it is at present. However, we live in an era of increased awareness that recycling is good and socially responsible. I wish that I lived up to the ideal more consistently, but I always intend to.

I agree with the suggestion that, if we made things a bit easier, many others and I would do more. Far from being a burden, this type of directive is a useful prod towards doing things that we all know we should do. I classify local authorities as being in the same camp as the rest of us. With encouragement and fair coverage of costs, they will do more and encourage us to do more as individuals.

Mr. Swire: As far as I understand it, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is saying that people should be given incentive. In Devon, we have a superb record for recycling. I even recycle myself—I shall probably be recycled soon. Incentive should be given to the local authority and the householder. If both are given incentive and recycling is made easy for one to do and easy for the other to think about doing, we will get the results that we all want.

Mr. Wilson: What this debate tells us is that we all agree that recycling of electrical and electronic waste is a good and reasonable thing. Let us unite on that. I do not disagree with a word of what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister mentioned local authorities recycling and ''gaining financial benefit from doing so''. I wish to probe him on that. Is it the case that the producer's responsibility under the directive as drafted will begin when the goods arrive at a central collection point? Am I right in understanding that local authorities' collection costs will not be recoverable from producers? If so, it is not obvious how the local authority would gain financially from recycling except in the relatively limited cases in which products have a positive end of life value. Because of the nature of modern manufacturing, that would involve a relatively small number of products.

On a related point, will the Minister explain whether mandatory retailer take-back has been abandoned by all sides, or is there still an agenda in the Parliament or elsewhere advocating such a scheme? In the course of the debate, the Minister has implied

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that that would not be the principal mode of recollection.

Mr. Wilson: On that final point, retailers will have to offer to take back goods on a like-for-like basis, so they will have a role to play in take-back. However, it is not retailers but producers that will meet the cost.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, producers must pay from the time that the items reach the central point. However, under present thinking, they will have the option to pay beforehand. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge looks startled; I feel another question coming on.

I said that local authorities would have a financial benefit, but I think—we can check the record—that I said so specifically in the context of their savings on landfill. At the moment, they have to pay for landfill, but under the arrangements in the directive not only will there be less landfill, but the cost of the alternative to it would be met by producers. Therefore, there is a net financial benefit to local authorities.

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Prepared 17 July 2002