HC Deb 05 April 1974 vol 871 cc1663-90

2.30 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I beg to move, That this House notes the importance of conserving both imported and indigenous materials by means of a co-ordinated policy to reduce waste and to encourage economic recycling, rather than disposal into the environment. I am most grateful for the opportunity to turn to the second motion on the Order Paper. It might have been thought by Labour Members that the whole day was about waste, but the waste to which we are to turn our attention now is, I trust, of a rather more defined character and a rather more precise problem, and one which I hope will commend itself to the attention of all hon. Members. It has, I think, not passed our notice that, the reclamation of waste matter has attracted the highest possible interest from the Government, and no doubt we shall be hearing more of that in due course.

The motion is designed especially to emphasise that this is not a divisive subject. This is not in any sense a party matter. It is—and I think we all recognise this—a national problem. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to have this motion debated by the House at this time. It is a particular delight to me personally, having been so recently elected to the House, because this is a subject in which I have a certain interest, and I hope to learn substantially more from the contributions that hon. Members may make during the debate.

I am aware that this is by no means a new subject for discussion by the House. Indeed, there have been Questions from hon. Members of various parties to Ministers in various Governments, and from time to time there have been motions that have touched upon the problems of industrial waste, of disposal, of reclamation and of recycling.

I am equally aware that as recently as 24th January there was an Adjournment debate on the subject of recycling, and also that just before the Dissolution of the previous Parliament the environment Bill that was going through the other place involved a lot of discussion of the problems of waste and reclamation. The Government of the day took the view that they would, in due process of time, table amendments to that Bill that would take into account some of the major questions raised on the reclamation and recycling of waste. It could well be that time will be found by the present Government to look again at that Bill and to bring forward to the House certain positive measures that could be taken on this vitally important subject.

I offer no apology to the House for tabling the motion in this way, and I remind hon. Members of its terms: That this House notes the importance of conserving both imported and indigenous materials by means of a co-ordinated policy to reduce waste and to encourage economic recycling, rather than disposal into the environment. I should like to stress some aspects of the motion and leave it, I hope, to others in their own individual contributions to deal with certain other aspects of it.

The first point that I should like to make strongly to the House is that this is a very appropriate time for raising this matter. We have a unique opportunity for taking action in this area, for certain specific reasons. The first reason why I consider this to be a unique opportunity is that we are now very well aware of the continued and rapid growth in raw material prices; raw materials whether they are imported—which is critical to our balance of payments—or whether they are indigenous.

Industrial costs in consequence are rising week by week. In many instances, if not in most, the problems that beset industry in using imported raw materials are those of a long-term shortage aggravated, but not caused by, short-term speculation. The real problem that we face in conserving materials is one of the long-term shortage, and that has now become obvious to all. That is the first reason why this debate is most timely.

Secondly, there is plenty of evidence to show that during the three-day week industries of various kinds were able to overcome shortages of materials to a real degree. I heard an interesting talk recently by Dr. Finniston, the Chairman of the British Steel Corporation, who emphasised that during the restrictions on fuel supplies the corporation was able to save as much as 12 per cent. of its supplies in producing a comparable amount of output. That was a significant achievement, and it was matched by many firms, and certainly by some of those in the industrial West Riding constituency which I am proud to represent.

Companies, both large and small, through inventiveness and through a magnificent degree of co-operation between management and shop floor of a kind that for so long we have lacked in British industry were able to achieve significant savings in industrial materials. In my view this momentum to reduce the consumption of materials must be maintained.

The third reason why this is a unique opportunity for a new look at this subject is that now that there are in being the new and larger local authorities on which so much will depend for the handling, reclamation and recycling of waste I assume that they will draw up strategic plans on how they will tackle some of the major problems within their areas. I should like to think that collection, separation, recycling or reclamation of waste will be high on the strategic list of objectives of all the major new authorities, and particularly those districts operating within the metropolitan areas.

It was estimated recently by the Department of the Environment that by 1980 in England alone 17 million tons of household refuse will have to be collected and disposed of every year. As hon. Members are no doubt aware, at present about 85 per cent. of municipal refuse is tipped. That is the magnitude of the problem facing these new authorities, but, equally, it is the measure of the opportunity before us.

The fourth reason why this is an opportune time to raise this subject is that the public at large are now surely ready to co-operate in any schemes which may lead to a reduction in costs, to keeping prices down or to keeping rates down. I am sure that they are ready to co-operate, provided they are given an adequate lead, and that is the job of Government.

I know that the Department of the Environment over many years has done its best to educate the public on many aspects of waste control, but it is a long and uphill struggle and I am not certain that it is being carried out with the degree of effort and resources necessary for the fulfilment of the Department's task. For example, in the campaign to keep Britain tidy a voluntary group is backed by the Government on a pound for pound basis for its subscription income, but it is having to fight virtually single-handed the enormous problem of litter. When it can spend out of its total income barely £200,000 a year on advertising the problems of litter control, the Government can hardly claim that they are doing enough in that regard.

The campaign the Government should now be mounting is a massive effort to reduce waste and save money. It is a question not of keeping Britain tidy but of keeping Britain solvent. That is why I consider the debate is most timely.

I do not intend to go through every aspect of the problem. I shall try to be brief, so that other hon. Members may contribute to the debate. The problem is vast, and the debate could cover a massive range of varying difficulties in connection with waste disposal and recycling. I want to stress certain areas which call for special attention.

The first is energy, the most essential matter at present, where a major conservation policy is required. Through the nationalised industries, the Government have a direct responsibility and an opportunity. It is well known that electricity generation from coal involves significant loss of heat. As much as 40 per cent. is dissipated into the atmosphere. I can express that loss of thermal energy in another way by saying that for every 1 million tons of coal burnt about 400,000 tons just go to waste in producing warm air and steam which go into the environment.

The Government should examine the matter closely. As my researches in HANSARD show, most Ministers have satisfied themselves when questioned in the past by saying that the Central Electricity Generating Board is responsible, and discharges its responsibility, for the efficient generation of electricity, or that it has adequate research funds to try to develop new techniques for more efficient generation of electricity.

But is it not practical to do something with the waste thermal energy produced? Is it not practical to pipe off and distribute some of the heat for domestic or industrial use? In certain cities, such as Nottingham, use is made of rubbish-burning for domestic heating. The generating stations offer an opportunity to do that on a wider scale than is now practised. We cannot afford to waste thermal energy.

The second area calling for special investigation is the use of raw materials in industry. Many basic raw materials are in increasingly short supply. In a recent lecture in the United States, Sir Kingsley Dunham said that at present levels of demand there were only 22 years' supply of silver left, only 16 years' supply of mercury, 17 years' supply of lead, and 20 years' supply of zinc.

All industries using those and other metals are already under great pressure to recover waste and reduce their consumption, and, if possible, to find alternative materials. Cost alone forces careful husbandry. The cost of zinc increased by about 500 per cent. between 1961 and the end of 1973, and the cost of copper increased by 350 per cent. over the same period.

Governments have traditionally left the problems of reducing consumption or seeking improved methods of manufacture to individual industries, largely through their trade associations. To varying degrees, they have done major work in trying to recover metals by improving processes and by reclamation. Certainly reclamation has achieved very good results with ferrous metals. It is estimated that about 55 per cent. of lead consumption is recovered, as is about 40 per cent. of copper and about 33 per cent. of aluminium.

The glass industry has achieved a high reclamation and recycling rate. Glass cullet is a vital ingredient in finished glass, but it is still at the level of only about 19 per cent. of total volume. There is still a great deal to be done in trying to increase that figure. Many experiments are being undertaken to try to reduce the problems of contamination of glass.

There are problems for trade associations in grappling with this matter. One is that individual companies are competing with each other, and there are limits to how far discussion on, for example, joint specification can be undertaken within trade associations without perhaps running counter to the Restrictive Trade Practice Act. It is difficult to agree on standardised containers or on a standardised formulation when there is a desire to offer a wide variety to the users of containers and when there is plenty of competition within the market.

Perhaps more could be done by the Government to encourage the use of different specifications, where they have direct responsibility. Is it possible, for example, that the transportation and distribution of milk in bottles of a slightly different calibre of glass might lead to a greater use of waste materials? Must it be the pure flint and clear glass now used? Are we satisfied that in the National Health Service the tinted glass requirements are essential and should be adopted throughout, or could there be changes which might allow more glass to be recycled?

I appreciate that there are problems in the reclamation of materials concerning contaminated metals or other contaminants. The steel industry requires large quantities of scrap. Dr. Finniston, in the speech to which I have already referred, expressed grave doubts about the forecast quantities of scrap available for continued processing into steel. The availability of scrap was much more difficult to forecast than that of many other ingredients used in this industry.

Let me not try to decry what has already been achieved. It is estimated that in 1973 materials to the value of £1,500 million were recycled within industry, of which about £800 million-worth were metals. Surely more can be done, if the will exists, if there are consultations, and if there is the right policy? The trade associations are largely voluntary bodies. In many instances they are non-profit making. They suffer perhaps from shortage of funds. They are varied in their management. Some are very good—for example, the Glass Federation, the Waste Reclamation Industries Council and the National Materials Recovery Association. There are others that are weaker and less good. With voluntary associations it is not surprising that there should be a variable quality. I suggest that Government could do more to help in this general area.

I make three specific suggestions. First, perhaps the Government could do more by way of grants to cover the cost in industry of the researches and value analysis investigations that are made to seek to reduce the usage of raw materials. The payment of outside consultants, who are often the only people who can take a fresh look at industrial processes, is an expensive factor. It might be helpful if Government were to look at giving grants in aid to that kind of case just as they are well prepared to give grants to new machinery being introduced.

My second suggestion is that Government might consider allowing a major part, if not the whole, of the improvement in cost which results from value analysis and from the reduction in material usage achieved by the company or industry concerned as an increase to its profit margin and as an improvement to its profit reference level for Price Commission purposes. That would surely be a major encouragement to companies to seek to reduce waste if by that means they recognised that they were making a significant contribution to their operating profits. I suggest that the Government could do more through regional offices of the Department of Trade to provide more information and guidance and to put one factory in contact with another. It seems that there is lack of knowledge of the opportunities available where waste disposal can be arranged. I suspect that it might be said that one factory's waste in John o'Groats may be another factory's raw material at Land's End.

I turn briefly to paper and packaging. I am aware that that is an area which has occasioned much debate in the House. The packaging industry has often been accused—in my view very unfairly—of over-packaging and of over-protecting products. I know from my experience of no greater pressure than the pressure of cost when it comes to judge what should be the right amount of packaging to be offered for any product. That pressure is now increasing day by day.

It must be recognised that today's consumer has become used to high standards of presentation. Merchandise on mass display can now be readily handled, and consumers can select and move the merchandise about in a manner which would not be possible unless it was well protected. Today sensitive products can be packed at speed mechanically and transported without deterioration over great distances by various methods of transport. I consider that modern packaging methods are a direct result in origin of low material costs and high labour rates. What is different today is that we now suffer from high material costs and high, if not higher, labour rates.

I am well aware that the Government and the consumer groups demand examination of packaging and the reduction of packaging. All that I wish to establish is that every manufacturer using packaging materials is under real pressure to seek to use the minimum amount of packaging. The Government must be equally sensitive to the problem. If they continue to require manufacturers to carry out specified tasks such as label requirements and weight and price declarations, the Government will have to play their part. The more these requirements are placed upon manufacturers the more obvious it is that they will lead to wastage, as rapid cost increases cause changes in the price marked material to be used.

Over 7½ million tons of paper are used in the United Kingdom annually, of which well under half is recovered at present. The House must accept that more can and should be done. Only 5 per cent. of the waste paper collected by municipal authorities is processed for re-use. Naturally, local authorities are extremely cautious about spending ratepayers' money on procedures of reclamation and recycling. It seems that this is a rôle for the Government to play. Naturally, authorities hope to find profitable markets. They hope to find a rising demand for the product which they have recycled.

But is that the right attitude today? Is it not now a matter for the Government to say that the problems of reclamation and recycling waste paper or other materials that local authorities handle are so great on a national level that they should be encouraged by grant to invest in plant which is capable of the job of reclamation and recycling. In the long term, given the world situation and the supply position of certain products, there will surely be a market—if not within the country, then outside it—for the products of a reclamation industry set up through the new authorities. That would involve different processes in terms of waste collection. Authorities are largely using vehicles which combine all the rubbish put together and make it almost certainly contaminated and difficult to reclaim. A reclamation industry would require separation of different forms of rubbish. That must be taken into account if we are to make a significant reduction in the usage of materials and at the same time provide for authorities a market for reclaimed goods which will reduce industrial costs. The Government will have the duty to ensure that they play their part in providing funds to enable authorities to play their part.

The raw materials situation is one which demands a long-term view. Subsidies should be found to reduce capital costs. What about the contribution of the public at large? As ratepayers they must surely recognise that they have a chance to co-operate with their local authorities by separating domestic refuse into different categories, which would reduce the costs of the local authorities and the burden on the rates. I am sure that the public would wish to co-operate.

The public are sick and tired of seeing the costs go up of everything that they buy. There is the chance that they can contribute to reducing those costs. I commend to the House the suggestion that the public should now respond to any effort that Government might make through the local authorities and to give a positive lead. That effort will have to be considerable. The effort will have to be a major campaign. It will have to be one which is well designed to bring the maximum degree of awareness to the public of the rôle that they can play.

I suspect that that will take a long time, but the opportunity is here. That is why I have tabled this motion. We have real and basic problems regarding raw materials. We have a frightening balance of payments situation. We can, and we must, do more within industry, within the local authorities and within the public to try to reduce waste and to try to reclaim much more of the materials that we presently use. I believe that hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved on our trade balance if we were prepared to take firm action now, while industry, the local authorities and the public at large are in a receptive frame of mind. We must declare war on waste in the national interest.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I shall endeavour to be brief because spokesmen on both Front Benches wish to speak. I give heartfelt thanks to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), who hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but who, in accordance with the normal Friday traditions—to which I am glad we have returned—has enabled me to speak now. It is one of the most attractive features of the House that on Fridays we normally shelve party differences, and although we might debate controversial subjects we do so across the Floor constructively. I am sorry that we do not have longer to discuss this subject today.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) both for choosing this extremely important topic and also for the lucid way he has dealt with it. He made a comprehensive and thoughtful speech, which was very provocative in the most correct sense. He has not left a great deal to be said. But I have had an interest in this subject for a considerable time. Over a year ago I introduced my Container and Packaging Control Bill, and it was again before the House when the last Parliament was dissolved in February.

I introduced that Bill because I was constantly being reminded by a rather irate wife of excess packaging. She was bringing things home which seemed to be inefficiently or inappropriately packed, and she complained more than once that this added unnecessarily to the cost. It is true that there are many examples of such packaging to be found. Without wishing to bore the House with details with which every hon. Member is familiar, one can refer in passing to such things as aerosols, which are useful for certain commodities but are often used for commodities which would be much better contained in other things, aerosols costing 8p or 10p a time and vastly increasing the cost of the materials they contain.

Another thing which has frequently annoyed me and others is the non-return- able bottle nonsense and the tendency towards the plastic bottle with its consequential litter problem. At the beginning I approached the subject with a rather narrow view, a concern about inflation, about inefficient and wasteful packaging, and also about the consequential litter problem in excess packaging, making the dustbin the most expensive mouth to feed, and its litter polluting our countryside and our towns.

I became aware, however, that the problem was even more complex and far-reaching than that. This is why I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey referred to the wider issue of waste of resources and the need for recycling and reclamation. It might be appropriate to say a word or two about the difference between these two terms. Some containers can be re-used, and the returnable bottle is the best example of them. It is taken away, cleansed and used again. But many packaging materials can never be re-used as they are but can be adequately and properly recycled so that our resources are not squandered.

We have become far too prodigal with our resources, and if the events of the last few months, highlighted by the energy crisis and the oil problem, have concentrated our minds upon the need to cease taking for granted and to cease squandering, they have achieved a great deal. It is often said that out of evil comes good, and I hope that out of the problems of deprivation and economic stringency Parliament will give more sensible and purposeful attention to the conservation and proper use of our resources.

Since concentrating on this problem, I have become aware of its complexity. It is all very well to talk about re-using and recycling and the desirability of those processes, but recycling aluminium is a very different proposition from recycling paper. Each has its own attendant difficulties. The plant needed to recycle aluminium at the moment makes it uneconomic to do so. The sorts of ink used on certain papers make it impossible to recycle them unless there is a degree of separation, which in itself demands such a fantastic expenditure of resources that it becomes impracticable. I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding assent, because this is one of the issues about which is it is easy to be glib. It is easy to excite popular feeling and indignation, but not so easy to provide sensible and proper solutions.

It is also easy to neglect the important, deep and detailed work that has been done over a period by the many working parties connected with the various industries concerned—paper and board, glass, the metal box industry, and so on—in all of which there has been a great deal of work. One of the things that I have been trying to do over the past few months is to bring together the people who have experience and expertise in this subject in order to get a co-ordinated and united front.

That is why on Monday, in a Committee Room upstairs, I shall be gathering together a group of people representing some of the most important names in British industry and including representatives of the Friends of the Earth, the Keep Britain Tidy Group, the Consumers Association and some of the leading retail outlets, whose names I shall not mention for fear of embarrassing at least one of my colleagues on this side of the House. They are gathering together to make a co-ordinated effort because what we need most is some sort of council or association that can share experience and meet in a common endeavour and be able to talk to the Government at both local and national levels.

I stress local government in this context because all the efforts at achieving economical packaging and all the efforts to make sure that materials that are used are capable of being re-used or recycled will come to naught unless there is total co-operation by the local authorities responsible for collecting and dealing with refuse. Unless we have local authorities and national government, industry and commerce, amenity and consumer groups working together, we shall continue to pontificate about these problems without being able to produce solutions.

In a halting and not very efficient way, that is what I have been trying to do over the past few months. I hope that in the months ahead the Government—and not only the Government, but the Opposition, for the conservation of resources is one of the great issues of the day and transcends the polemics of party politics —will give increasing attention to this problem. It requires co-operation, and I refer again to the hon. Member for Hartlepool as having shown what true cooperation may achieve.

I hope that we shall hear contributions from the two Front Benches indicating a truly united determination to deal with the problem, to grasp many of the difficulties so lucidly enunciated by my hon. Friend, so that, whatever the vicissitudes of political life over the months and years ahead, in a couple of years people will be able to say that true progress has been made and may be able to look to the brief debate this afternoon as one of the landmarks in a proper advance towards true achievement and progress.

3.9 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepools)

We have nevertheless inevitably arrived at the situation in which we are able to pose the problem but are unable to provide the solution. Next week, next month or next year we may be saying very much the same things. We may again put our notes in the wastepaper basket, to go on their inevitable journey not to recycling but to disposal.

It is time that the House of Commons stated clearly that the enormity of the problem is not the real concern. The real cause for concern is the inability and often the unwillingness of industry, local authorities and the Government to deal with the matter satisfactorily. There is evidence, disgraceful in itself, of industry after industry disposing of waste in a way which is socially undesirable but which is economic to those industries because the cost of research and development to find other ways of dealing with the matter are short-term expenses which the industries are not prepared to meet.

There is also evidence that local authorities, with statutory powers to deal with wrongful and environmentally damaging disposal of materials, are not using those powers because to do so would be an embarrassment.

An example of that lies in instances of oil pollution. Often it is at first purported that the oil has come from ships at sea but upon closer inquiry it is sometimes found that drainage systems have been polluted and that the oil has come from a land source. A Member of Parliament will raise the matter, make a speech and write to a Minister and the local authority, but the only thing which is consistent in all this is the answers he receives, which all seem to be the same. The identity of the culprit is practically held sacrosanct, and industry, instead of paying for the damage it does, is given protection and the ratepayer is asked to pay.

We must find a way to deal with the problem. It is easy to talk about Government grants. These are often put forward as being the entire solution. Even the present Government believe that if they provided money through subsidies, the problem would go away. I say to the present Government, however, as I said to the previous Government, that problems do not go away because of temporary measures of that kind. We must provide the necessary legislation and enforcement provisions to put into effect the expertise and knowledge we already have.

Why not, for instance, take action on a regional basis? I have raised this point previously, leading from my experience as a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. There could be regional councils with strong science and technology committees and research and development committees, with which there could be harmonised a strong committee concerned with conservation and recycling of materials. Such organisations could be charged with the responsibility of evolving policy and activating attitudes in such a way that the resources we already have could produce better results that at present.

One of the tragedies of the United Kingdom is that, like Mr. Micawber, we are always talking about something turning up. The oil boom is supposed to help us with our balance of payments. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) said that if only we could get hold of this waste material it would help our economic position. That is not the way to look at it. If that were the case it would have been done long ago. We have to get over the hump of attitudes and practices and of an in-built protective system which hides the identity of the culprits from the public gaze. We must seek as a matter of national importance to use the resources of our country. That is the nub of the problem.

We are never to be found using our total resources properly. Unless Ministers are prepared to give us specific undertakings about a pertinent policy of enforcement along the lines I have outlined, there is not much point in their coming here and giving us assurances about this and that. We all know that there are working parties. We are all used to expressions of concern. As an example, not so long ago people were saying "Let's attack pollution". The misuse of anything is a kind of pollutant. It was suggested that pollution should be attacked on a European scale. So I went to Europe, to that monolithic building the Common Market headquarters in Brussels. There I talked to the man who was supposed to be in charge of dealing with the pollution problem. He had the title of Assistant Director-General as if it were some kind of military operation.

He had just flown in from America and was about to rush out to fly off to Australia. In between, he told us what he would do about pollution. At the end of it I said "Tell me, how many people are on your staff?". He said "About 10." "What do they do?" "About half a dozen are typists and so on", he replied. "How many are actually doing something?" "Myself and my deputy", he answered. "What happens if the Rhine is polluted?" "We will talk to the industry concerned." I asked "What if it says' I do not want anything to do with it.'?" "Then we will go to the International Court." "What can the Court do?" "It will refer the problem to the member country concerned", he said. "What if the member country says We will not do anything.'?" "We cannot do much" was his reply. So it goes on, a cycle of concern and inaction—promises, and more promises.

But after only four weeks in office it is not right to expect Ministers to come here with well-drafted policy statements. Therefore, following this debate the problem should be placed in its proper perspective. There should be set out at least a year's work, devising the instruments whereby we can use our total resources so that materials can be recycled rather than disposed of, bringing economic advantage to industry and improvement to the environment. We must get rid once and for all of that slackness and indifference which heightens the problem, causing anger and frustration. The country is tired of talk. We require action.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)

I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), not only on his good fortune in drawing a high place in the Ballot but on his sound judgment in selecting for debate such an important subject as the recycling and reclamation of waste and, if I may say so without sounding patronising, on the able way in which he introduced the subject and the thoughtful and interesting proposals he made.

I also welcome the initiative shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) in the Bill he introduced last year and in convening the impressive assembly which will gather next Monday in the House to consider, with outside interests, this fundamental problem.

This is a subject which, with one or two very notable exceptions, has been greatly neglected by Parliament but of which there has been increasing public awareness, which is understandable because our generation of mankind is appreciating with growing concern that as our technology advances and population expands the natural resources of our planet are being consumed at an ever-accelerating rate. Those resources are not finite and mankind will not be able to exploit them for time without end. If we simply tear out from the earth the materials which we need and scatter the resulting wastes about its surface and discharge them into the atmosphere and into our rivers and seas in ever-increasing quantities, future generations will live to curse us for the desolation we shall leave behind us.

But the considerations of this subject are not all in the long term. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said, there are sound logical economic reasons for giving immediate attention to this problem. We live in a country largely dependent upon the import of raw materials for our industry. Not only does the volume of this import increase as we seek greater industrial expansion but the unit cost of these materials has increased tremendously as a result of world price inflation. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey quoted some figures on this matter, and I do not intend to go into it in detail because of the shortness of time, but between 1971 and 1973 the average values of our imports of such items as copper, zinc, wool, lead, wood and oil increased by between 150 and 400 per cent., imposing massive strains on our balance of payments, our currency and the cost and standard of living of our people.

The present Government are rightly preoccupied by the need to control inflation and strengthen our economy. What better time than now, therefore, to take energetic steps to garner those basic materials from our waste and to process and re-use them? In doing so we would not only be combating the growing evils of pollution but helping our economy.

However, I must confess that I am disappointed by the unimaginative and even negative attitude which the Government have adopted to this problem, even making allowances for the fact that these are the early days of their administration. On Wednesday 3rd April I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he would circularise local authorities as a matter of urgency requesting them to procure the maximum salvage of wastepaper possible in view of the lowness of stocks, which is endangering the production of British paper mills".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April 1974; Vol 871, c. 366–7.] I did this because I had read two interesting pieces in the business section of the Sunday Times of 17th and 24th March written by Diane Fisher and Roland Adburgham which made the following points.

First, we are one of the largest importers of paper and pulp in the world, at great cost to our balance of payments. Secondly, less than one-tenth of the 80,000 tons of waste paper thrown away every week is salvaged. Thirdly, the Thames Board Mills is paying over £16 per ton plus a bonus to local authorities for unsorted waste paper. Fourthly, only one in three local authorities has any kind of separate paper collection. Fifthly, our mills have stocks below the two-week danger level and are having to buy extra waste from the United States.

What a challenge this is for the Government to take immediate steps in co-operation with the local authorities to collect waste paper and supply it to our mills. What answer do I get—not from the Secretary of State for the Environment but from the Minister with responsibility for sport? I am told that the Government are reviewing the situation and In the meantime I am sure that local authorities are aware of industry's need or additional supplies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April 1974; Vol. 871, c. 367.] How dull and uninmaginative can a Government become? Local authorities are concerned with the disposal of waste as efficiently and as economically as they can for their ratepayers. They do this by collecting as quickly as they can in unsorted bulk rubbish in refuse bins and bags which they crush and then burn or bury.

Local authorities are not concerned directly with the problems of the balance of payments, import supplies, import costs or stocks in paper mills. These are matters for the Government. These are questions which the Government should be assessing. They should be enlisting the aid of local authorities to try to combat these economic difficulties.

The Government must encourage local authorities by circularising them and asking them to salvage paper. They must help local authorities with the storage of that salvage. They must help local authorities by links with industry to find outlets for the salvage that they collect. There is a great deal that the Government can do. But what do they do? They tell me that they are reviewing the situation and that the local authorities know about this already and do not need encouragement. Yet the articles in the Sunday Times make it clear that only one in three local authorities is taking advantage of the high prices available for waste paper.

Others do not show this lack of imagination to which the articles refers. The articles show how the problem is being tackled in places as far apart as Illinois in the USA and in Switzerland. Here at home, the Friends of the Earth have displayed an initiative not shown by the Government or by most London boroughs by organising a central waste collection centre on the South Bank from 30th March. Why should it be left to private individuals to show this initiative?

Waste paper is only one of many materials which can be salvaged and re-used. I invite hon. Members to read the interesting unofficial report commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment recently published a paperback under the title "Only One Earth—The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet", under the authorship of Barbara Ward and René Dubois. There it is shown that aluminium companies in America recently set up their own centres for the collection of aluminium cans. They pay half a cent per can, and in 1970 collected 115 million cans. There is talk now of extending that principle to bottles. In Kansas several miles of inter-State highway have been built by using glass waste as an aggregate. In Dusseldorf a new incinerator disposes of the waste material of 700,000 people and makes a profit of about £1.50 per ton of waste from the sale of steam for space heating, scrap iron recovered from its furnaces and ash for land filling or for making blocks. Osaka has gone a stage further, with an incinerator which burns sewage sludge within strict air pollution standards and generates electricity.

But, not to minimise our own efforts, the former Department of Trade and Industry had laboratories—the Minister's Department will continue those laboratories—at Warren Springs. They were developing a process of pyrolysis, which is burning waste in the absence of air and producing gasses which, by distillation, result in usable fuels. But this is still in the experimental stage, and the Government can give great impetus to it.

I have said enough to indicate that the range of possibilities is infinite and exciting, given the necessary imagination and the necessary political will. Above all, what is required is the political will. That was not demonstrated by the answer that I received this week and upon which I have just commented. It has been demonstrated to the House that that will is singularly lacking at present in the Government.

The Minister may feel that I am being unreasonably hard on him—perhaps I am —because he has had his present responsibilities for only four weeks. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) has commented that there has been a great deal of talk on this subject in the past, and possibly even today. But what comes of that kind of talk? Therefore, as this is a matter of prime national importance which should be approached in a bipartisan way, I should like to give the Minister the benefit of the six short weeks that I enjoyed at the Department of the Environment before being removed by the General Election.

In an Adjournment debate which I answered in January I gave a great deal of detail of the achievements of this country already in the reclamation of waste. I indicated that there was a turnover of about £1,500 million. That is a formidable figure indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has indicated the extent to which certain basic materials are already being reclaimed. Therefore, I shall not go over that ground again. I address myself to the problems.

We must recognise that there are difficulties in trying to increase the proportion of waste that is recycled. Problems of collection, transportation and storage of waste materials can be prohibitive. I take one example. Our distributive network of supermarkets and chain stores is not geared to deal with returnable bottles, jars or cans. Another, the cost of sorting, cleaning, and preparation of the lower grades of waste paper is comparatively high, while de-inking, still in its very early stages, is an expensive process. Even then, the quality of paper produced is low and suitable for limited purposes.

When I had these responsibilities, all these problems indicated to me that we need a proper economic analysis of the costs and benefits involved in recycling and that technological research is required into the possibilities of reclamation and recycling. Only then will industry and local authorities which are responsible for the reclamation of household waste have the necessary facts upon which to base their decisions. In the past two years major studies have been undertaken by working parties from industry. These studies were initiated by the previous Government. The working parties examined questions of the design, use and recovery for disposal of metal containers, glass and plastics. I have the reports here. They were published in November and December last year. Yet there is a singular unanimity of conclusion in these three separate areas: first, an agreement on the great potential that there is in reclamation and recycling; secondly, the need for further research and study; and, thirdly, the further valuable part, again given the political will, that the Government can play in promoting these matters.

I am conscious that time is progressing, but this is an important subject. Warren Springs is working closely not only with industry on research into solving many of these problems, but with the DTI—the Department of Industry, as it now is—and the Department of the Environment on the recovery of valuable materials from domestic refuse collected by local authorities.

The reorganisation of local authorities brought about by the last Government means that the new authorities will have greater resources and possibilities for reclamation and recycling. Also, with a mind to all this, the Protection of the Environment Bill, which fell because of the General Election, proposed to require authorities to produce waste disposal plans which would take account of these possibilities. I have already asked the Secretary of State for the Environment—I re-emphasise this plea—to reintroduce the Protection of the Environment Bill as quickly as possible because of the non-partisan but essential measures that it contains.

Taking into account the direction in which we were moving and the problems that I saw in the six weeks when I exercised my mind over them, I came to the conclusion that the Government should set up as quickly as possible a Waste and Recycling Advisory Council which would advise the Government and local authorities. It would be constituted and would operate in much the same way as the Clean Air Council or the Noise Abatement Council, involving not only Government and local authority officials, but people in industry and members of the general public concerned with these matters so that we could have a pool of knowledge and intelligence to help find solutions to these many problems and to help formulate Government policy. This is a matter that I would have seen introduced to this House had the General Election not gone the way that it did.

Approaching the matter in the bipartisan manner that we are today, I offer that thought to the hon. Gentleman and encourage him to make the best use of it that he can. I feel that it would be a major step forward in dealing with these problems if he could urge his colleagues to set up such an advisory council with the appropriate powers, funds and ability to promote the necessary research.

There are too many fragmentary interests and people working in isolation. It is necessary to co-ordinate all these activities and give a central direction. The potential is tremendous and the need is enormous, and these must be equalled by the size and determination of the political will.

3.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) on his choice of subject for this motion and, as others have done, on the manner of his introduction of it. The hon. Gentleman made a thoughtful, lucid and valuable speech, and I shall endeavour to respond to it as constructively as I can.

Recycling, which is becoming an increasingly important topic, covers a wide range of materials, organisations and industries. Departmental responsibilities reflect this pattern, and in view of the remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the House today I think it might be useful to say a few words about that at the outset.

It is not possible to draw an exact line between the responsibilities of the two main Departments involved—the Department of Industry and the Department of the Environment—in the reclamation and recycling of materials, and many of the comments made today should more properly be directed to the Department of the Environment. Each Department has the major interest in certain areas but there is inevitably a good degree of overlap.

The Department of Industry is primarily concerned with the supply of materials for industry, while the Department of the Environment is concerned with recycling as a means of refuse collection and disposal in the context of the protection of the environment, which is a rather different dimension.

There are also several other Departments that have interests in this matter. The Department of Energy is concerned with industry and with energy saving, and comments that were made this afternoon about thermal insulation will, I know, be noted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is concerned with agricultural waste, which again was mentioned today, and with conditions of trade practices relating to food and drink containers. This is an important issue that has been raised many times. There is also the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, which is concerned with consumer interests.

To complete that organisational picture, my Department is in close contact not only with manufacturing industry as a whole—both the makers and the users of waste—but with the various trade associations and organisations representing the trade engaged in scrap and waste reclamation. An official from my Department attends as an observer at meetings of the Reclamation Industries Council, a body that was established a few years ago to co-ordinate the work of the many interests involved in the reclamation of materials.

I have already said that recycling is important—indeed, the hon. Member for Pudsey made that clear—and I do not think that it would be an exaggeration to say that recycling is vital in the context of the security of raw materials supplies and the balance of payments. The Government recognise that. They recognise too that the reclamation industry provides one of the most valuable indigenous sources of raw materials for industry. But recycling is not new. It has been going on for a long time, and what must not be forgotten in the context of this debate is that Britain is already well up with the leaders. I stress that.

I should like to quote one or two examples to indicate what I have just said. First, the amount of ferrous scrap recycled by the recycling industry is worth about £120 million a year, and rather more than half of all the steel consumed in this country is derived from reclaimed and recycled materials. Non-ferrous metals recycled by the industry are estimated to have contributed about £230 million or £300 million a year towards the balance of payments, and that is a substantial contribution.

That shows that the rate of recovery is already high, and it amounts to more than 40 per cent. of our overall requirements of non-ferrous materials. I say that not to indicate any sense of complacency but to set the facts in context, which needs to be done. The equivalent figure for paper and board, the tonnage of waste paper recycled as a proportion of the industry's total fibre intake, is 44 per cent., a very high proportion. The saving in imports of wood pulp approaches £100 million a year, but the true saving is substantially higher, as without waste paper the cheaper grades of paper and packaging would have to be imported. That is a good record.

The hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) mentioned the Friends of the Earth paper campaign. I have seen a copy of the campaign manual, "The Great Paper Chase", and welcome the interest which the Friends of the Earth have shown in waste paper recycling. As I am sure they realise, the United Kingdom record in this field is already very good. Last year the paper and board industry used over 2 million tonnes of waste paper and this represented over 40 per cent. of its total fibre intake. This proportion, the usage rate, is believed to be one of the highest in the world.

It must also be borne in mind that there are technical limitations—to which the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) drew attention in his constructive speech—on the proportion of waste paper that can be incorporated in the manufacture of many grades of paper, and consequently one cannot expect to see a massive increase in waste paper usage overnight. Nevertheless, the Government are concerned to ensure that the greatest possible economic use is made of this valuable indigenous raw material.

Mr. Rossi

The hon. Gentleman has given impressive figures, which were also given in the speech I made as Under-Secretary in January. Nevertheless, in the main those figures represent what industry is collecting. I was emphasising just now the local authority contribution, which the hon. Gentleman will find is only 15 per cent. of the total reclaimed. Therefore, there is a great deal for local authorities still to do. That was the burden of my argument this afternoon.

Mr. Meacher

I am coming to that. I was referring to the industrial side or the combined achievements of industry and local authorities, because they are relevant to the hon. Gentleman's point. That he made these remarks himself before is an indication that the problem has not changed. That comment also applies to some of the hon. Gentleman's less approving remarks.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is also considering the Friends of the Earth findings. Some local authorities have suffered in the past from cyclical variations in demand for the waste paper they have collected. It is only natural, therefore, that they are concerned to ensure that they have a continuing market for their existing supplies before they set up new collection systems. The Friends of the Earth views will, however, be considered by the Department's Standing Committee on Refuse, and local authority experts will then have an opportunity to examine the Friends of the Earth conclusions.

Nevertheless, I readily take the hon. Gentleman's point that current shortages of energy and materials and higher prices have meant that we must now take a fresh look at the reclamation and recycling of waste to see what more can be done. There is certainly scope for improvement throughout the field. I emphasise, however, that there is little substance in the popularly-held view that vast quantities of scarce valuable materials are being wasted.

Valuable but marginal contributions can be made to our raw material supplies, but there are problems which cannot be ignored of markets, the economics of the operation and of technology which need to be overcome. I commend to the House the remarks of the hon. Member for Pudsey in indicating that we cannot be glib about how difficult it is to overcome many of the problems. In fact, we are a long way from doing so. I do not wish to give any impression of complacency but it would be no exaggeration to say that most of the material that can be economically reclaimed is now being reclaimed.

There is one sector that might be able to make a more significant contribution —namely, the domestic and commercial refuse that is controlled by local authorities. The authorities' primary objective is to provide an effective and hygienic system to protect public health. That is a quite different objective from the interest of my Department. The reclamation of waste materials must be considered in the light of the local authorities' objective.

I express a strong hope that the new local authorities which came into operation on 1st April will find better opportunities for reclamation through the organisation of their operations on a larger scale. I think that the economies of scale can be expected to make a significant contribution to the problem.

I turn now to the ill-directed remarks which I regret were made by the hon. Member for Hornsey. I do not wish to spoil the hon. Gentleman's bipartisan approach in what is not a politically contentious issue. I think, however, that his remarks were unreasonable. I have already said that the local authorities are subject to a cyclical trade and that they cannot be expected to extend their operations unless they are assured of a market where they can put their collective supplies. Despite the figures which the hon. Gentleman quoted, which I should like to examine more closely before commenting upon them, I must point out that we estimate that 400 local authorities are engaged in work of this kind. That is a considerable number.

The hon. Member for Hornsey drew attention particularly to local authorities. It is the joint achievement of local authorities and industries which matters. Waste paper is collected through two main channels. As well as local authorities there are commercial waste paper merchants. It is the achievement of the two channels that over 2 million tonnes of waste paper was recycled in 1973. That is a tonnage which results from a usage rate which is one of the highest in the world.

We are planning a feasibility study on plant for dealing with domestic, industrial and commercial waste. It is a study which is concerned with the possibility of a wider general local authority operation. A further pilot study will be required if a feasibility study indicates that such an operation is practicably operable. That shows that action is being taken, albeit in the short time of four weeks, which can be expected to make a major achievement possible within the foreseeable future.

There is a reference in the motion to disposal into the environment. I stress that the disposal of waste need not necessarily be to the detriment of the environment provided that proper methods are employed and that suitable sites and facilities are used. Recent changes have been made and proposals put forward which have been developed on the concept that waste disposal should be carried out to the highest possible standards. That is perhaps a reasonable comment to make in terms of the wording of the motion.

I spoke at the beginning of my speech about the spread of interests among the Departments. These organisational arrangements have served reasonably well in the past when reclamation was encouraged by the Government but was left largely to the interplay of market forces. It has now become clear, and here I can respond positively to the promptings of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), that a greater degree of co-ordination between Departments is essential. An official interdepartmental working group has been established for this purpose in the short lifetime of the present Government.

The Government are giving urgent consideration to the definite possibility of setting up an advisory council on waste management, bringing together in one body all the interests concerned with the production, collection, disposal and recovery of waste materials of all kinds. I accept the strong recommendations of the hon. Member for Hornsey in this respect. I cannot in any way anticipate the topics which will be regarded as being within the purview of the council but I think it reasonable to expect that they will be looking at such measures as those designed to discourage the use of non-returnable bottles, to enforce standardisation of packaging, to require that design should have regard to recycling and to require the use of a proportion of reclaimed materials in the production of such products as paper.

I come now to research. A great deal of research is taking place throughout the world. In Britain, in Government and industry research establishments and at universities this work is going on. My Department's Warren Spring Laboratory is working closely with industry on research directed towards solving speci- fic problems associated with reclamation and the recycling of complex materials and residues, including the possibility of recovering valuable materials from slags produced by metal processing, from the residues of electro-plating and from effluent treatment plants. The laboratory is also collaborating with the Department of the Environment on work dealing with the possibility of recovering valuable materials from domestic refuse collected by local authorities. I am sure that there will be collaboration with local authorities on this.

My Department has also recently approved and funded the establishment of a waste recovery service at Warren Spring Laboratory. One of its functions will be to provide a consultancy and information service for both producers and processors of scrap. I hope that industry will take full advantage of this facility because it is designed chiefly for it.

My Department is also sponsoring research into other areas such as pulp, waste paper and rubber. That is in addition to the industry-led working parties to which attention has been drawn dealing with topics such as glass and plastic containers. General support has been given to work by research associations in a number of specialist areas.

Hon. Members have spoken about a reduction of waste. A reduction in the quantity of waste might be achieved by the increased re-use of such things as glass and plastic containers or by reducing the amount of packaging material used. While this is true, it is important to get it into perspective. For example, all milk bottles and a high proportion of beer and cider bottles are returnable. Even about one-quarter of soft drinks are in returnable bottles.

Nevertheless, as a result of the recent shortage of glass bottles I am glad to be able to say that the wines and spirits industry is studying the possibility of setting up a system for getting back bottles that are at present not returnable. To the layman packaging often appears to be excessive. It must be remembered that packaging is essentially a convenience for the benefit of trader and consumer. Much packaging which may appear unnecessary aids the handling and distribution of the contents—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.