HC Deb 30 April 1993 vol 223 cc1328-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House.—[Mr. David Davis.]

.32 pm

Mr. Paul Marland Gloucestershire, West)

The Government have put recycling high on the environmental agenda. A duty of care and several studies have been undertaken to create the framework for that to be delivered. Last July, a draft directive on packaging and the packaging of waste was published by the European Commission which set some demanding targets. Those developments show how seriously the issue of recycling is now taken, because it is an important way in which we can conserve our environment.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is to reply to the debate, because he has always taken a positive interest in this issue. I remember when he and I served on the Standing Committee on the initial Environmental Protection Bill when we moved several amendments designed to help the metal recycling industry.

Now the agenda is being set to increase our recycling rates in the United Kingdom so we must consider practical ways of achieving that end. I shall focus on that objective by referring directly to the experiences of one of the champions of recycling in the United Kingdom—the steel industry, and its associated metals reclamation industry. Although political attention to the subject is fairly recent, it is important to remember that the metals industry has been recycling huge quantities of steel and other metals for many years. Indeed, recycling is a routine part of the steel-making process. Steel is truly the most recycled metal in the world, and the scale is impressive. About 300 million tonnes of steel are recycled every year —40 per cent. of world production. That represents a saving of 90 million tonnes of coal and 200 million tonnes of iron ore. That colossal contribution to preserving the environment is a great credit to the scrap metal industry, which is rarely set alongside the sandals and safari jackets of the television environmentalists, but its contribution to saving the environment is much greater. I have always believed that farmers and scrap metal dealers were the original environmentalists.

In this country, as much as 82 per cent. of the steel available for recycling is recycled into new products, using electronic arc furnaces, whose feedstock is nearly 100 per cent. recycled metal. A rapidly increasing proportion of the recycled steel is made up of steel cans. At present, three out of four cans are steel, and each one of us uses on average about 200 steel cans every year. They include drinks cans, paint cans, food cans, pet food cans, sardine tins, shoe polish cans and aerosol cans. British Steel Tinplate has successfully driven forward steel can recycling in the United Kingdom, together with an independent company, AMG Resources, which has gained a reputation as a world leader in the operation of the technology that not only recovers the steel from the can, but separates and recaptures the tin coating.

Last year, steel can recycling broke all records, and 1. billion cans were recycled. I mention that positive achievement by the steel industry because I am disturbed by the misconceptions that people have about recycling and their prejudices about the environmental impact of different packaging materials. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that fact in future policy formulation and execution.

People rightly exercise their consumer choice in supermarkets and grocery stores to select what they perceive to be green products and packages. However, studies within the steel industry show that consumers know very little about the real environmental profile of packaging materials. The steel industry welcomes political developments. The proposed European Community directive on packaging and packaging waste should induce dramatic increases in recycling rates and raise the steel industry's profile in relation to its well-established reclamation facilities and excellent recycling record.

The steel industry has made great strides in that sphere. Since 1968, the standard soft drinks can has become 55 per cent. lighter. An energy saving of 39 per cent. has been achieved on the amount of energy used to make a standard steel soft drinks can since 1977. If all the cans in the United Kingdom market were made from steel, the energy saving would be the equivalent of the electric lighting needs of every United Kingdom household for a fortnight—an incredible statistic. The resource-saving process has culminated in the development project, "The Ultimate Steel Can". Its objective is to reduce the weight, energy and materials consumption of the construction of steel cans by a further 30 per cent., and should be encouraged.

A misconception that seems to prevail is that returnable packages are always better for the environment than recycling. Return trippage rates need to be high to represent an environmental benefit, and often such rates are not achieved.

Secondly, returnable containers use greater quantities of energy and materials to meet the demands of strength required for repeat journeys, for cleaning, sterilisation and resealing. This is wasteful, complicated and time consuming. Returnable packages are bulky, and sometimes heavy and costly to transport.

The teeth of the EC directive are in its targets for recovery and recycling. Within 10 years from adoption of the directive, 90 per cent. of packaging output should be removed from the waste stream for recovery, 60 per cent. of it from recycling. Alternative methods of recuperation are allowed to make up the remaining 30 per cent. If we transpose the objectives to individual packaging materials, some difficulties emerge. Incineration for energy recovery, composting or chemical breakdown are the alternative recovery methods, none of which is applicable to steel. It seems that the target for steel can recycling is 90 per cent. by the year 2005 for the United Kingdom, so this eminently recyclable material, whose industry is making essential qualitative improvements, could be given the toughest targets. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that recycling targets are logical and appropriately distributed among the material sectors.

The directive does not help by assessing recovery methods and their relative merits. An important assumption, however, is that packaging waste is recovered for recycling direct from the consumer, presumably by means of bottle and can banks or kerb-side collection schemes.

Steel, of course, is attractive to magnets, and there is a range of systems that use simple magnetism to pluck out steel cans in immense numbers, with great ease, directly from the waste stream. In the United Kingdom, 27 enlightened local authorities operate magnetic extraction facilities, recovering as much as 80 per cent. of the steel cans from local domestic refuse—about 5 million steel cans every working day.

Steel cans recovered by magnetic extraction generate a revenue for the operator. One local authority in the north of England has saved as much as £150,000 on its waste disposal costs using magnetic extraction facilities and selling the cans recovered.

If we want to meet the recycling targets, it is essential that we use the most efficient, reliable and economical methods to recover recyclable material. That principle should be expressed in the directive and should be at the forefront of Ministers' minds in the execution of policy in the United Kingdom. The rapporteur of the EC environment committee has proposed this to the drafters in the form of an amendment to the directive. I stress that it is important that the Government consider this new development and support it.

A key advantage of magnetic extraction is its compatability with other forms of recycling—energy recovery, refuse-derived fuel and composting facilities. The association of materials recovery plant, such as magnetic extraction works, with other recuperation plant can dramatically increase potential recovery—we could call it double recycling. I ask my hon. Friend to assess this, with the objective of meeting the highest possible targets with the maximum possible economy, efficiency and environmental care.

Not surprisingly, the Government have seen the woolly areas in the directive and have identified a role to "provide a framework" for a national integrated waste management policy. Some economic initiatives have already been introduced. Supplementary credit approvals have been made available to local authorities, but these do not look as attractive for efficient bulk recovery facilities, which demand high initial outlay, as cheap, inefficient and low-yielding collection schemes, which may prove costly to operate in the long run.

Similarly, that a local authority should be obliged to allocate to itself a recycling credit for operating a magnetic extractor is not good sense. But ensuring that local authorities feed the revenue from recovered steel back into the expansion of recycling facilities is a sound proposition. Furthermore, recycling credits are very much at the discretion of local authorities. If a national recovery scheme, such as Save-a-Can, is truly to help by diverting recyclables from landfill, recycling credits need to be available systematically, consistently, reliably and equitably.

Despite the important role of the scrap industry and the real environmental achievements of the steel reclamation industry, they are faced with a multitude of regulations. Despite the good intentions behind them, these regulations could lead to the closing of many properly operated scrap recovery businesses and, ironically, that would have a seriously harmful effect on the environment.

The Government have understood the difficulties of the duty of care and its associated regulations, and they are to be congratulated on holding back the tide, since 1 April 1982, so as properly to review the practical detail of the proposals.

I shall quickly describe three of the many problems that the steel reclamation industry could face when the new regulations come into force. It is presently intended to introduce subsistence charges for waste management licences that are required for all metal reclamation operations. It is estimated that fewer than 30 per cent. of potential licensees will be licensed by the time the regulations are introduced.

Successful applicants will face high charges of between £850 and £2,500 per annum for licences and those not yet licensed could have to wait up to five years to have their applications fully processed. In present trading conditions, those who are licensed can ill afford to give their competitors such a start. Scrapyards have been given an extension of the period of grace beyond 1 June this year, and that is widely appreciated.

Those who have not applied for licences by the time that they are introduced will technically be in breach of the law, as will their suppliers. The regulations make it an offence for organisations to send controlled waste, which is how the law ludicrously describes ferrous and non-ferrous scrap, to unlicensed operations. It will not be possible to enforce that law without bringing many reclamation and recycling businesses to a halt or even diverting recyclable materials to landfill sites.

The duty of care could have a negative effect on the nationwide consumer can bank scheme operated by British Steel. That scheme of consumer collection banks has expanded from 200 such banks to nearly 1,000 Save-a-Can banks in two and a half years. That is not only an important contribution to the number of steel cans that can be recycled, but an important point of contact between the recycling industry and the consumer.

It is still unclear whether every can bank site and every agent who helps to service them will be faced with similar obstacles of excessive bureaucracy. Furthermore, the administration of the intricate detail of recording the returns of every can bank, some of which are no bigger than a postbox, may be a serious distraction for Save-a-Can from its primary objective of providing facilities throughout the United Kingdom.

As the Minister knows, the scrap metal industry is not averse to licensing in itself, but it should be introduced in a controlled fashion, and I recommend that he should recognise and highlight the difference between reclamation, recycling and waste disposal.

The steel reclamation and recycling industry employs about 20,000 people in the United Kingdom and is a leading example of resourcefulness and personal endeavour. The industry is a foundation of our industrial base. We continue to produce high-tech steels for worldwide markets. It is essential that the true strengths —strategic, economic and environmental—be upheld in the face of imported and other materials, which displace work in the United Kingdom and which, on analysis, have been shown not to be as environmentally friendly as steel.

While the steel reclamation and recycling industry approves of the principle of the environmental regulations, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to introduce them sensibly and logically, as I believe he is trying to do, so that the industry can continue to recover recyclable material and to meet environmental objectives in a healthy, commercial environment.

The decision of the Department of the Environment to scrap the idea of a register of contaminated land was widely appreciated, because it would have had a devastating effect not only on the waste and recycling industries but on a wide spectrum of business throughout the United Kingdom. By that action, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and his Department have demonstrated that they not only listen to industry but also hear what it has to say—and there is a tremendous difference between the two. That is a clear demonstration of my right hon. and learned Friend's attitude. He is there to help and not to hinder, and for that I applaud him.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire)

I welcome this chance to return to a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) and I spent many happy hours during the passage of the Bill that led to the Environmental Protection Act 1990. My hon. Friend has long experience of these issues, and has built up a formidable reputation on the subject. I echo his praise for the steel industry's record on recycling. I also support what our scrap metal industry is doing to help relieve the pressures on our natural resources. As my hon. Friend said, scrap merchants were sorting and reusing metals long before most of us had given much thought to recycling.

The importance of industry's role cannot be overstated. Many people are now calling for more emphasis to be placed on recycling. But it is only because industry has developed the technology to use recycled materials that their views can be put into practice. All companies, whether or not they are part of the "recycling industry", have a part to play. They should be considering whether their goods are recyclable or could be made more easily so. And they should be exploring the scope for using more recycled products as raw materials on the production line. That is essential if there are to be growing markets for the materials that people take to can and bottle banks or put out for separate collection. It also makes good commercial sense because environmental issues increasingly influence what people buy.

The Government have launched funds for industries that are developing new processes or technology to make recycling easier. We have had a considerable number of recycling-related applications for those funds. The Government have also set up an Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment, which consists of chairmen and senior directors of British industries. The committee has a working group on recycling, which has been examining measures that both industry and the Government can take to achieve increased recycling.

Of course, as my hon. Friend has said, recycling should not be viewed in isolation. He rightly pointed to the value of saving resources in the production process. Moreover, recycling is not always the best environmental or economic option. For instance, it is usually better to avoid waste in the first place than to recycle it once it has been produced. And, although I understand my hon. Friend's apprehensions about the value of returnable containers in some cases, reusing a product can sometimes make sense—carrier bags and milk bottles are obvious examples.

I am pleased that the steel industry has welcomed the recent political developments in the EC and in the United Kingdom. The proposed EC packaging directive, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is still at the early stages and we therefore welcome comments on the proposals from all interested parties. Perhaps I should set out our domestic policies on packaging and explain the background to the proposed directive and our preliminary view of it.

We are committed to reducing the environmental impact of packaging. Our policy on packaging waste is part of an overall approach to solid waste—minimise waste wherever practicable; reuse or recycle it where it is generated; and dispose of the remaining waste safely. The recycling of packaging waste will be an important element in meeting our target of recycling 25 per cent. of household waste by the end of the decade. We are discussing with the packaging industry how it might take on its share of responsibility for packaging waste.

The proposal for a directive arises in part from concern that the unilateral measures being taken by various member states may restrict trade or distort competition, and in part from a desire to establish high environmental standards in the management of packaging waste. The proposal would require all such waste to be collected with a view to recovery. In this context, "recovery" means materials recycling, composting and energy recovery. My hon. Friend referred to the targets being proposed—90 per cent. of all packaging waste to be recovered and 60 per cent. of each material to be recycled. All packaging would have to meet certain essential requirements, including constraints on the presence of heavy metals, and marked in order to make recovery and recycling easier. A wide range of data would be collected to monitor the achievement of the objectives of the directive and to provide the basis for further initiatives.

We have welcomed the proposal for a harmonised approach to reducing the impact of packaging waste. Negotiation of the proposed directive has recently begun and it will be essential to ensure that potential problems for trade and competition are resolved in the context of realistic and achievable targets. The targets and other policy measures must be established with due regard to the scientific evidence and without losing sight of the potential economic impact. The data requirements, in particular, may impose a burden and must therefore be proportionate to the need to ensure compliance with the directive.

Officials have been in touch with a large number of interested organisations and we shall continue to consult on the proposal. We welcome views on the proposal and suggestions for improvement, which we will take into account, along with the results of work that we have commissioned on the targets and the cost of compliance.

Local authorities have a key role to play in achieving the Government's recycling target, because they have responsibility for collecting and disposing of household waste. That is why the Government placed a requirement on waste collection authorities to draw up recycling plans, under section 49 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Government also accept that local authorities need financial assistance in working towards the target.

This year, we allocated £15 million for supplementary credit approvals to support 307 recycling schemes being planned by 161 authorities. Supplementary credit approvals allow local authorities to borrow for specific types of capital investment, beyond the limit set by their basic credit level. The £15 million is in addition to the £25 million we allocated in 1991–92 and 1992–93. This year's allocations cover a wide range of proposals from home composting projects to mini recycling centres.

Local authorities are now more involved in recycling than ever before. This £15 million continues our programme of support which is very important in helping authorities to implement their recycling strategies.

Now that the majority of waste collection authorities have prepared their recycling plans, many are keen to start implementing them. Many waste disposal authorities are also eager to do more. So it is no surprise that the demand for supplementary credit approvals for recycling is higher than ever. Under the environmental partnership scheme, the aim is to maximise investment in recycling by combining SCAs with authorities' own capital receipts and private sector contributions.

My hon. Friend expressed some disappointment that there is no duty for local authorities to pay recycling credits to recycling industries. We have some sympathy with that point of view. When we introduced the recycling credits legislation, we hoped to place such a duty on authorities, but we discovered that there were practical difficulties about doing so. For instance, a local authority might, quite reasonably, not wish to pay credits on a recycling collection scheme that was directly competing for material with another scheme already established in the area. So we accepted that there should be a power rather than a duty.

However, we took a power in the Environmental Protection Act to change that power into a duty. If we could be satisfied that the practical problems could be overcome, we would be prepared to use that power. However, this may be academic in a few years' time because of our review of local government organisation. Where there are unitary local authorities, recycling credits are considerably less significant. Recycling credits are designed to put local authorities in a position to assess the costs of disposing of waste and the costs of recycling it and choose the less expensive option. Unitary authorities are already in that position. I can assure my hon. Friend that, as disposal costs rise, recycling credits will also rise. That is because the recycling credit is set at a level equivalent to the avoided disposal costs due to the recycling.

I have a lot of sympathy with the industry's concern that it should not be hampered by excessive regulation. The Government are no friends of regulation for the sake of it. Any new regulation on the environment has to justify itself to Ministers, and we are also launching a deregulatory review of existing controls, including those on waste. We are more than happy to consider cases that do not need to be toughly regulated.

My hon. Friend has led delegations to Ministers, and officials have held quite long and careful discussions about the regulation of the metal recovery industries with the British Secondary Metals Association and the British Scrap Federation. I hope that he will concede that the Government have been patient listeners to the scrap industry, even if we do not always give the industry everything for which it asks.

The scrap metal industry has, I know, two quite distinct complaints: first, that a recyclable material should not be defined in law as "waste" and, secondly, that the handling of such materials should not be subject to the same legal controls as wastes.

The first question is not the important one. We can all argue about the proper meaning of words. What matters is the effect of our interpretation on how the law is applied. The real issue is how the activities of the industry should be regulated. I believe that there is a need to regulate the movement and treatment of scrap. In the interests of the industry itself, we want to ensure that scrap that is capable of being recycled and which is claimed to be going to recycling, really does go for recycling, that it goes to properly run recycling enterprises and that the operations are conducted in a sound environmental manner. Whether we call it waste or not, scrap includes some substances that can cause nasty problems if they are dumped or wrongly dealt with. It is in the interests of the scrap industry to ensure that they are not. The simple mention of the word "recycling" cannot automatically justify the removal of all controls. That is why many scrap operations are subject to waste licensing, why scrap has to be carried by registered waste carriers and why scrap will be subject to the duty of care.

My hon. Friend mentioned the industry's specific concerns about the new waste management licensing system under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. As he will be aware, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside announced yesterday a further delay in the introduction of waste management licensing. We very much regret the delay, which is caused by the complex interaction between domestic and EC legislation on waste, something we are determined to sort out properly before introducing the new system, but which is taking longer than we expected to resolve.

As it happens, that postponement is not the result of representations by the scrap or any other industry. Nevertheless, it gives the scrap metal industry a further breathing space in which to prepare for the new licensing system.

We are well aware of the issues that were mentioned by my hon. Friend, who highlighted three in particular: the new system of charging for licences, the position of unlicensed operators, and the effect on save-a-can schemes.

The new system of charges is part of the Government's polluter-pays principle. If we are to have any environmental laws, someone must run them, and someone must meet the administrative costs of running them. In the Government's view, it is the operator who should meet those costs, not the taxpayer. That is all the charging scheme is—a cost-recovery charge for a local authority's costs in issuing licences, inspecting sites and so on. Those charges will be set by the Secretary of State at what we judge to be a fair level and approved by the Treasury as being no more and no less than based on recovery cost.

I doubt whether many scrap operators do not now know that they need a waste licence—it has been a legal requirement for a number of years. They really should have applied for a licence by now, even if their local authority has not yet reached a decision on their application. We have held back the application of the duty of care to scrap metal for more than a year to give people time to apply for a licence. The whole point of the duty of care is to make it illegal to consign waste to an unauthorised person. It would be unfair on those respectable operators who have applied for licences to wait any longer.

I shall write to my hon. Friend about can banks.

Everyone has a part to play in meeting the Government's target of recycling 25 per cent. of household waste by the year 2000. The Government are undertaking a wide programme of measures to promote recycling, where it would appear to be a realistic option, and I am sure that all interested parties will continue to respond to the challenge.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock.