HC Deb 22 November 1973 vol 864 cc1686-98

9.58 p.m.

Mr. Peter Trew (Dartford)

I welcome this opportunity of raising the subject of the recycling of waste materials. We are beset on all sides by a shortage of materials. The world's natural resources are limited and are gradually becoming depleted. There is, however, one resource which is not only growing but growing at an alarming rate. That resource is waste material, of all descriptions. Rubbish is the world's only growing resource. In this country each year we produce 20 million tons of municipal waste, and a great deal of what we throw away could be used.

I say immediately that a great deal of waste material is already recovered. The materials reclamation industry is in its own right a substantial industry, with a turnover of more than £1,000 million a year. But a great deal more could be done.

There are three good reasons why we should reclaim and recycle waste materials. First, they provide us with materials which are in short supply. Second—

It being Ten o'clock, the notion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jopling.]

Mr. Trew

Second, they result in a substantial saving in imports, because many of the materials that they replace we import from abroad. Third, they provide a partial solution to the disposal of refuse, which is potentially such a great blight of the environment.

There are two main groups of activities in recycling. The first comprises those well-established recycling activities—the collection and recovery of paper, glass, scrap metal and rubber—which have been going on for a long time on a large scale but which still have considerable scope for improvement. The second group is still at an experimental stage but has considerable potential—for example, the treatment of refuse to extract fuel oil, protein and certain types of sugar for conversion into industrial alcohol.

Waste paper is an important raw material for the paper and board industry. About two-thirds of our paper mills now use a high percentage of waste paper as a raw material, and their total requirement this year will be about 2 million tons, representing an import saving of £100 million. The need for waste paper is increasing. Indeed, unless we can solve the problem of recycling newsprint, we may well find it difficult to continue having newspapers of the size and volume that we enjoy today.

The greatest scope for new supplies of waste paper is municipal refuse, which includes each year about 6 million to 7 million tons of waste paper, of which at present we process only about 300,000 tons. Municipal waste provides only about one-fifth of the paper industry's requirements.

The shortage of bottles is something with which every housewife is familiar. We are being warned about the shortage of milk bottles and soft drink bottles. There are two problems here. First, people are not returning enough bottles; and second, too many manufacturers are changing over to non-returnable bottles. But if the problems of collection can be resolved, there is considerable scope for re-using waste bottles and glass.

I am told that one obstacle which will have to be overcome is the housewife's insistence on crystal-clear bottles for her milk. If she were prepared to accept cloudy bottles, I am told that waste glass of all sorts could be a valuable source of new bottles. There are other potential uses for waste glass—non-skid surfaces for floors and roads, aggregate in concrete and the manufacture of glass fibre.

Scrap metal is already a sophisticated industry. Over 50 per cent. of our requirements of iron and steel come from scrap, as well as a substantial proportion of lead, copper, aluminium and zinc. But a great deal more could be done in this respect too. The most promising sources are municipal refuse and the processing of industrial effluent to recover metals.

Rubber tyres account for 300,000 tons of waste each year. We could be making far more use of that. It is possible, I believe, to increase the proportion of reclaimed rubber in new tyres. Rubber when ground and mixed with bitumen can provide a useful road surface.

Those are the existing recycling activities, and there is a great deal that can be done to get more use out of them. I shall come shortly to what I believe the Government can do to assist the situation. Before I do so I wish to say something about the experimental activities.

First there is a process called pyrolysis, by which refuse is burnt in the absence of oxygen to yield a wide range of fuels from gas to solid combustibles. There is an American process which can yield up to a barrel of oil per ton of refuse. That will not solve the present oil crisis, but in future it could prove to be a small but significant source of oil fuel. Then there are the processes by which there can be extracted from organic waste proteins and certain types of sugar which can be converted into industrial alcohols. An important technique which is still at an experimental stage is solving the problem of what to do about plastics, which appears to be an intractable problem. One use to which plastics can be put is that they can be shredded and used instead of sand in paving stones. Those are the main activities. I realise that I have left out many activities which are all-important in their own way.

Having given a brief account of the problem, I should like to consider what the Government could do to encourage the use of waster material. There are four areas in which the Government can act. The first relates to research. The Government are already carrying out valuable technological research at the Warren Spring Laboratory, near Steven age. One welcomes that and would like to see more of it, but there is also a need for a great deal of statistical research. We need to know precisely how much refuse is being produced, where it is, what is its content, what is its potential for re-use and what is the demand for it by industrial users.

The Government can do a great deal in the way of publicity. For example, local authorities are potentially the most important collectors and processors of refuse. However, the Government cannot leave the matter to local authorities to decide what commercially they should do and how they should exploit refuse. The Government must go out and sell the idea to local authorities. The Government must make the public more aware of the need to recycle waste material and of the benefits to be gained. If local authorities are to be active in this matter, they will need to have the public's co-operation. The ordinary householder will have to separate out his refuse—put his newspapers on one side and his bottles on the other—if this process is to be economic.

The next thing the Government can do is to take power to control packaging and containers. I am delighted to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), who earlier this year introduced a Ten-Minute Bill on this subject. I understand that he hopes to have an opportunity to take part in this debate. It is important that the Government take powers to control packaging so that it is in a form that is easy to reprocess. For instance, paper coated with plastic is difficult to recycle. The Government must also take steps to reduce the use of non-returnable or one-trip bottles as they are called in recycling jargon.

Finally, the Government can take action by giving financial incentives. By this I do not mean subsidies. It is too easy to say that the Government should encourage recycling by giving subsidies. I am reluctant to suggest Government subsidies for anything. But what the Government can do is to consider whether local authorities which invest in recycling or reprocessing plant can qualify for investment grants. I should like to see these grants linked to a share of the profits when the processes become profitable.

The Government might also provide tax incentives to encourage the use of recycling materials. This might be done through the mechanism of value added tax.

This has been a very brief sketch of the potentialities of recycling and of what the Government can do. But I believe that the economic and efficient use of our waste materials is one of the great challenges of the next decade. It is one in which the Government have to become very much more involved.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) for allowing me the opportunity to say a few words and I congratulate him on his initiative in choosing this subject for an Adjournment debate. It is one of the most important subjects to which we can turn our attention. What is needed in this context more than anything else is a positive war on waste.

Wherever we turn we find an enormous amount of waste. I was recently in America where it is taken to extremes. The Americans talk about conservation and they lament shortages while they drive around in cars which go only nine miles to the gallon and they take Sunday newspapers containing 500 pages. This is to reduce things to absurdity. We have not yet reached that stage here.

There are three matters which cause me concern and which prompted me earlier this year to introduce a Bill which, though deficient in drafting, was, I hope, reasonable in its intentions. The first of my concerns is the superfluous packaging which my hon. Friend mentioned in his wide-ranging speech. For the housewife this inflates the cost of many articles that she buys. Packaging can account for 33 per cent. of the price of many articles. This is wasteful and contributes to inflation. On that level alone therefore, it deserves to be stemmed, and manufacturers should seek to stem it in enlightened self-interest alone.

Then there is the sheer waste of resources to which my hon. Friend also referred. Resources are being squandered on an increasingly prodigal scale, and it does not or should not need present critical circumstances to remind us that we cannot go on in this way and hope to leave a society and a country fit to live in for future generations.

My third concern is the pollution problem, and it is one which occasions a great deal of anxiety. Packages, trash cans, aerosol sprays and all the other items that one can think of are dumped in the countryside with no proper attempt at reclamation. How important it was that my hon. Friend should underline the need for a concerted attack upon this and for proper recycling for all the materials which go into packaging and which otherwise go straight into the dustbin—an enormous mouth which is daily fed at greater and greater cost and to less and less effect.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done. I endorse what he said, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able at least to indicate that the Government have been thinking deeply on these subjects and have some solutions to propose.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Cecil Parkinson (Enfield, West)

I wish to join my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) on his choice of subject.

My interest in the subject was first aroused when I was invited to lunch by a group called the Reclamation Industries Council. Like many other people in the country, I suspect, having received an invitation of that kind from a person whom I knew, I thought that I was going to meet a group of people engaged in an interesting but subsidiary activity. To my surprise, I found myself among representatives of an industry which currently turns over more than £2,000 million a year. It is a huge industry and one which is growing enormously.

My interest aroused, I began to look into the question of the world's resources and our rate of consumption. I use just one statistic which I found quite staggering when I began looking into the subject. It is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be 7,000 million people in the world compared with an approximate population at the moment of 3,700 million.

We have heard a great deal about growth over the last year or two. If the world were to aim for an economic growth rate of 3 per cent. and the population expanded as expected, within 25 years we would be consuming the world's resources at twice our present rate. When we consider how long it has taken to get to our present rate of consumption and realise that within 23 years that would be doubled, we must take a deep breath and begin to understand that the world might be careering headlong on a course which could lead to its own destruction. One thing which I have subsequently discovered which makes me feel easier is that it is possible for the world to continue to grow at that rate provided that it accepts that, instead of just using up resources, it might have to start reclaiming and recycling.

My hon. Friend mentioned aluminium. At the moment approximately 80 per cent. of the world's aluminium is produced from ore and 20 per cent. from reclaimed aluminium. Those percentages could quite easily be reversed. It requires a conscious decision on our part to stop consuming and to start reclaiming.

My hon. Friend, who is gaining a reputation for himself in this House, has hit on a most important subject. Reclamation and recycling sound trendy and unimportant. But if we are to continue to grow they will have to play an absolutely vital part in any Government's future planning.

10.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I join my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) and Enfield, West (Mr. Parkinson) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Trew) on his choice of topic and his succinct and eloquent disquisition in a House which deserves to be better attended.

My hon. Friend has indeed chosen to speak on an important topic. I am grateful for the contributions that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock rightly said that there could become a need for a war on waste. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, West evidently had a most interesting lunch. It would appear that during the first course he received one or two shocks but that all was well because, towards the end of this entertaining meal, he at least had returned to a measure of optimism about the world's future.

I should like to give two statistics at the outset which indicate the dimensions of the problem in this country. Each year we produce in household waste approximately 14 million tons. That is growing at a rate of about 1 per cent. in weight but at a greater speed in volume due to the increase of packaging every year. Therefore, in 10 years it will be approximately 50 per cent. greater. At the same time, discounting colliery and electricity power station ash, we have 20 million tons of industrial waste which is also rapidly increasing.

Because of the increase in the sheer volume, complexity and, in some instances, toxicity of waste we have made arrangements, in the Protection of the Environment Bill now before Parliament, which the rules of Adjournment debates prevent my discussing, for a radical reorganisation of the whole of the waste collection and disposal business in this country. I assure the House that within the arrangements it will certainly be possible and, I am sure, desirable that more attention is given to the recovery of materials for re-use, for recycling where it is economically sensible to do that, and for the use of waste for reclamation purposes of all kinds.

I think that we need to be quite sure about our terminology. Words such as "recycling", "reclamation" and "reuse" cover a very broad area and sometimes mean different things to different people. They can mean the use of waste as a source of heat or in land reclamation. They can mean the salvaging of material for use again in its existing form, as with bottles, or the extraction of material from waste for use as a secondary material as with mixed waste paper or mixed ferrous scrap. They can also cover conversion into some other material, as with compost made from house refuse or aggregates made from incinerator clinker.

It is not possible in 10 minutes to do justice to all these aspects so I shall concentrate, as my hon. Friends have done, on one or two aspects of the problem. May I first attempt to put into perspective the substantial amount of material of various sorts that is at present being reclaimed by industry. The reclamation industry embraces more than 1,000 firms, mainly of small and medium size. I am glad to say that there is a Reclamation Industries Council which was formally constituted in 1971 and is now discussing a number of the industry's problems with the Department of Trade and Industry. We welcome this council because it provides a focal point of contact between the Government and industry.

My Department has a twofold interest in recycling. It stems first from our concern for the local authorities which involves us indirectly in waste collection and dispersal. Secondly, we have within the Department a general responsibility for the control and reduction of pollution, including the treatment of wastes before disposal. My Department is committed to achieving faster progress in all these areas. It is worth recording some of the facts. The amount of ferrous scrap recycled by industry is worth about £120 million a year. Rather more than half the ferrous scrap consumed in steel furnaces is now derived from reclaimed and recycled material.

Non-ferrous metals recycled by the industry contribute about £230 million to £300 million a year to our balance of payments. This is a substantial amount. About 42 per cent. of our total consumption of copper is made up from secondary copper. The proportion of secondary lead has increased from 62 per cent. five years ago to over 64 per cent. today. The main source of secondary lead is storage batteries which have a limited life. In view of the growth in the number of motor vehicles, there can be little doubt that the proportion of recycled lead from this source will rapidly increase. The proportion of secondary tin his increased from about 10 per cent. in 1972 to about 18 per cent. today of our total refined tin production. The United Kingdom production of aluminium is about one-third of our total consumption.

Turning to other products, the amount of glass cullet—a technical term which will be familiar to my hon. Friends—that can be used in the manufacture of new glass is restricted by a number of technical considerations. I note what was said about "cloudy" glass, which is of some importance. The present figure of glass cullet is about 20 per cent. and this could be appreciably improved. The difficulty here is that uncontaminated cullet of the necessary quality is not easy to find.

The United Kingdom consumption of new rubber, natural and synthetic, is now running at about 450,000 tons a year, so there is no shortage of potential scrap. A large part of that will come from vehicle tyres. I have not been able to get any final figures, because the industry is fragmented, but I understand that about 70,000 tons of scrap are now used to produce about 25,000 tons of reclaim. It is plain that the industry is already recycling and reclaiming a great deal of material. We would all agree that we want to see more and I can assure the House that, through research and other ways of Government encouragement, we wish to see greater progress in this direction for the many good reasons my hon. Friend has given.

I now turn to the more difficult problem of the handling of local authority wastes. Here the central difficulty is segregation. Local authority wastes, almost by definition, consist of a large variety of putrescibles—tin, paper, ash, and so on—thrown together in a dustbin. The problem is difficult, but a great deal could be done if we could persuade the housewife to segregate her rubbish, or if councils could afford to pay their manual workers a proper price to separate the tins, bottles, plastic and paper. That involves a great deal of manual labour, and it is an unpleasant task in many respects. It is financially a formidable—indeed, daunting—proposition for any local council to take on.

Moreover, as our working party on refuse disposal said, however far we may progress with schemes of recovery, a considerable proportion of potentially reusable materials in our dustbins will always remain to be disposed of as refuse, because, while we are considering the merits of any reclamation proposal, we ought not to forget that salvaging material is not an end it in itself. The secondary materials that one salvages must be wanted, and they must be able to be produced at an economic price to those to whom they go.

In some cases manufacturers are reluctant to use reclaimed material because of the impurities which could prevent their products from achieving the required standard of performance or purity. In addition, there are other difficulties, such as the uncertainty of supplies which depend on someone else's output of wastes.

Then there is the question of costs. It is not always just a matter of providing money to subsidise a recycling process. The reclamation of a scarce material may in some cases require a greater use of other natural resources, such as energy, which are as scarce, and, in fact, are a positive drawback to what is sought to be achieved. The question whether reclamation should be carried out is a complex matter which needs to be assessed very carefully.

My hon. Friends will know of the various working parties on the disposal of plastics, glass, paper and tin boxes. If my hon. Friends have not had an opportunity to study the reports that are available in some cases—and others will be available shortly—I shall be glad to send them copies.

May I now try briefly to deal with some of the specific points which my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford recommended to the House. He wants to see a great deal more research. A lot of research is under way at both Government and industrial establishments. I was interested to hear what he said about the need for more statistical compilation. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I assure him that the new county councils, with their new responsibilities under the Local Government Act and with the new powers contained in the Bill for the protection of the environment, will be able to do a much better statistical job in the future than has been done in the past.

We have also almost completed a review of all tips in the country. It is a most extensive review, and it will provide the Government with a very much better statistical base on which to make our judgment. We shall make the information available to local authorities.

My hon. Friend spoke about publicity. I think that he has tonight contributed to that by launching this debate. He also spoke about financial incentives, but I was grateful for his moderation in not proposing additional expenditure. I assure my hon. Friend that my officials and I shall study what he said. He will understand that this is not an easy matter. In the end, ways of recycling must have a commercially viable purpose, and I believe that industry and the Government working together can do a much better job in the future than has been done in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.