Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment

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Mr. Hammond: Just for clarification, the Minister said that producers would have an option to pay. I assume that he meant that member states would have the option to impose on producers an obligation to pay for collection, as well as reprocessing and disposal. Will he confirm that?

Mr. Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Mr. Hammond: May I move on to the question of the small and medium enterprises exemption? I should like to establish the Government's position regarding that proposed exemption under the conciliation process. Will the Minister say whether the Government are arguing for a 30-month or a five-year derogation? Will he also confirm that the Government will implement the maximum possible derogation allowed under the directive?

Mr. Wilson: The common position text includes a derogation that was fought for by the UK, and which the hon. Gentleman therefore expects us to support. The derogation exempts manufacturers with fewer than 10 employees, or with a turnover of less than 2 million euros a year, from the financing obligations of producer responsibility for 30 months, starting from the publication of the directive. That is a reflection of our position. The derogation is time-limited to an additional two and a half years. That will allow for SME education, familiarisation and general catch-up.

The European Parliament is pressing for that derogation to be removed, but we believe that it is essential, as SMEs are often cash-constrained and work with a limited knowledge base, and do not always have access to the resources of larger firms. For all those reasons, we stand by the derogation that we successfully pressed to be included.

Mr. Hammond: Can the Minister explain why Greece and Ireland have a special derogation, and will he say whether the UK objected to that?

Mr. Wilson: I am sorry, but I shall have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister say something on the concerns about the possibility that waste electrical

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and electronic equipment will, in some cases, be classed as hazardous waste? That would impose special requirements on those handling, storing and processing it, and could have significant effects on the procedures that we have been talking about. I hope that he will say something about what is happening on that front, because several industry representative bodies raised that concern.

Mr. Wilson: I think that we are now discussing the ROHS directive, as well as the WEEE directive. The Government's vision is for the next 20 years, and we are determined to reduce waste and increase recycling, as is self-evident. Our recycling programme and waste and resources action programme initiatives will develop new markets and technologies to help to ensure that outlets are available for WEEE when recycled. The strategy sets recycling and composting targets for household waste of 25 per cent. by 2005, 30 per cent. by 2010, and 32 per cent. by 2015.

On hazardous waste, the collection and transport of most WEEE items does not fall under the Special Waste Regulations 1996, which cover hazardous waste. Most WEEE will not be classified as hazardous for those purposes until DEFRA has amended the regulations. That is in hand, and DEFRA will consult on the matter later this year.

From 16 July—yesterday—some WEEE items may be disposed of only at a hazardous waste landfill site, as they count as hazardous for the purposes of the landfill directive. The waste management industry informs us that the hazardous waste landfill capacity is likely to be sufficient. Disposal costs may increase slightly, but the cost depends on the availability of disposal capacity, and if there is plenty of capacity, as we expect, costs will stay roughly the same. Reclassification is necessary to bring those items under the hazardous waste regulations, and that process is in hand.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That this Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 9923/01, amended draft Directive on waste from electrical and electronic equipment, the unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum from the Department of Trade and Industry of 15th March on the Common Position of the Council on that draft Directive, No. 10143/01, amended draft Directive on restricting the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, and the unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum from the Department of Trade and Industry of 15th March on the Common Position of the Council on that draft Directive; notes the Government's current negotiating line; and supports the Government's actions.—[Mr. Wilson.]

11.31 am

Mr. Hammond: So far, we have had a constructive exchange of views and questions. I have many questions that I have not been able to ask, and at the risk of seeming rather inelegant, I intend to conduct the debate by posing a series of further questions that I hope that the Minister can answer.

We support the principle of recycling as part of an effort to reduce landfill and incineration requirements, especially of substances that may be hazardous. I say that with some feeling, as in my constituency, which is close to the River Thames and is in an area that has for many years been subject to substantial amounts of gravel extraction, there is a significant amount of

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landfill activity, which gives rise to serious local concern.

My constituency contains an old landfill site, the result of what was known as the Egham experiment, when a brilliant Government scientist decided that it would be interesting to find out what would happen if we operated an uncontained landfill with no clay liner and tipped everything into it—industrial, commercial, hazardous and household waste—put the earth back on top and let nature do its work. We are now 40 years down the line and nature is still doing its work, leaching the contents of that pit into the gardens and past the homes of my constituents.

I am very much aware of the long-term potential dangers of landfilling and that what might seem good practice today might, 30, 40 or 50 years down the line, seem the most cavalier and dangerous practice. Looking back, the Egham experiment pit now seems an extremely bad idea. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Thanet makes a party political point. He may know my constituency and that most—indeed, the overwhelming majority—of my local councillors are Conservative, but Egham and Thorpe, the two areas that are particularly affected by landfill, are almost uniquely not represented by Conservative councillors.

Three overarching questions sprang to mind when I considered the draft directives, the first of which was subsidiarity. The hazardous substances directive must be dealt with on a pan-European basis. It is a single market issue. There cannot be different rules about what can and cannot be included in products in different parts of the European Union. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Government will be robust in insisting that there is a separate legal base for the two directives: that the hazardous substances directive is based firmly in, I think, article 75, the single market article, and the electrical and electronic equipment directive is based in the environmental article. Although the Minister said that it was important to create a level playing field, it is not obvious to me that it is necessary to have a European directive on disposal practice. Can he explain in a little more detail what led him to conclude that it was necessary to have such a measure?

The second question concerns the practicality of the directive. We have explored some matters this morning and I am reassured by what the Minister said. I do not think that, in reality, we shall see a significant change in household practice in respect of small electrical waste equipment, unless local authorities become proactively involved. If they offer households separate bags to store waste electrical and electronic equipment, I am sure that many will make use of them. If local authorities install systems and the equipment separately to process the waste streams, we may see some differences. However, I do not imagine that significant numbers of people will take their waste electronic and electrical equipment to central disposal points. As for the disposal smaller items, that will depend on whether doorstep collection can be organised by local authorities.

Thirdly, let us consider proportionality. It would be a massive own goal if people made special car

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journeys. We have all seen people pulling up in their cars on street corners and hurling a couple of wine bottles into the recycling bins, then going home, to open another bottle no doubt, feeling comfortable that they have done their bit for the environment—having made a round trip of three or four miles in their 12 miles to the gallon car. Overall, almost all glass recycling that is delivered by car has an environmentally negative effect. It is important that we take into account the overall environmental costs and benefits of such measures. It is not immediately clear to me, nor was it to the European Scrutiny Committee, that the benefits will outweigh the costs or that work has been done properly to establish the costs and benefits. The presentation of the likely costs and benefits to the United Kingdom was a crude disaggregation of the European Union costs and benefits, which, in turn, were produced in a not particularly rigorous way.

Given the debate in Brussels about environmental issues, we sometimes get the impression that there is a significant element there who think that any measure delivering environmental benefit is good, full stop, and that cost-benefit analysis need not be carried out rigorously. I am glad to say that the UK approach—this is not a party political issue—is more rigorous in demanding that we do only those things that produce clear net benefit in environmental terms.

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Prepared 17 July 2002