HL Deb 13 November 1989 vol 512 cc1193-210

5.29 p.m.

Lord Ezra rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the progress being made with the reclamation and recycling of waste materials.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have tabled this Question on the subject of recycling tonight because I believe it is of crucial importance in the whole area of environmental improvement to which so much thought and effort is now being devoted. I believe that the timing of the debate is appropriate because we expect that in the Queen's Speech there will be an indication of a Green Bill to be put before us before long. Therefore this debate provides us with an opportunity for making some suggestions about what the Bill might contain regarding the important subject of recycling.

I have a personal involvement in this matter. I am president of the UK Reclamation Council which is a body that aims to stimulate interest in the reclamation and recycling of waste materials. It has representation from appropriate trade associations, local authorities, and national bodies. It also works very closely with the Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Undoubtedly there has been much progress over the years in the area of recycling. That is particularly true at the production end. In most production systems care is taken to recycle waste materials as they arise in the process. I have been very used to it myself in the coalmining industry where we tried to recycle as much as we could. We did so to the point that some of our customers from time to time felt that we recycled too much.

This has also been particularly true of the metal industry. The amount of scrap used in the production of iron and steel is considerable. That is equally so in the production of non-ferrous metals. The glass and paper industries have also achieved notable levels of recycling. In the plastics industry, on the other hand, a start has only just been made. It is much more difficult in that industry because of the nature of plastics.

There is a great deal more to be done in two areas. First, compared with what happens on the Continent, our performance in recycling in the various sectors to which I have referred is, generally speaking, relatively low. Secondly, the proportion of recycling from domestic waste is relatively small. We have this in common with our continental friends. Certainly, in this country the proportion is smaller than in almost any other. No less than 90 per cent. of the 20 million tonnes of domestic waste produced every year goes into landfill. One problem with landfilling is that it will become more and more expensive. Secondly, it has environmental disadvantages, such as leaching and the escape of methane. Thirdly, the movement of vast quantities of waste over longer and longer distances is a nuisance. Other methods will undoubtedly have to be devised. More domestic waste has tended to be reclaimed on the Continent because landfilling has been more expensive. But sooner or later we shall be in that position ourselves.

A certain proportion of domestic refuse is incinerated. In more forward-looking councils such as Sheffield, Nottingham and Edmonton, the process of incineration is connnected with the use of waste heat. I am involved in a project in Sheffield where most of the city's refuse is incinerated. We have recently set up a district heating system whereby the heat which was previously wasted to atmosphere is now used to heat neighbouring blocks of flats, and that facility is being moved to the city centre. Relatively small quantities —not much more than 5 per cent. —of the domestic refuse generated in this country is recycled.

The Secretary of State for the Environment stated at the Conservative Party conference: We should aim to recycle half our household waste within the next 10 years". That is a desirable objective, but it will require an enormous amount of effort. In no country at the moment is that proportion of domestic waste recycled. It would be a great plus for us if we could achieve anything like that. Before considering the actions required to achieve it, let us consider the priorities in the treatment of waste. In the first instance, it should obviously be minimised at the production end. The less waste that is generated to begin with, the better off we shall be. Secondly, if it has to be produced in the manufacturing process, it should be done in such a way that it is possible to recycle. In other words, there has to be a planning or designing for recyclability.

A number of forward-looking enterprises are taking this into account. Only the other day I was at a presentation on this subject. General Motors (Europe) indicated what it is doing regarding the parts that it puts into its cars. It is making sure that as much as possible of what goes into the manufacture and assembly of cars is recyclable. This is one of the most important areas that we can look to in industry. We should design for recyclability, but we should also have the ability to recycle the resultant products. In the paper industry, for example, there have often been drives to collect waste paper. But the waste could not be used because demand was exceeded. The demand and supply of waste materials must go together.

There have been many studies on designing for recyclability. I should like to draw the attention of the House to one study by Dr. Michael Henstock on behalf of the Institute of Metals. It examines this area in some detail and shows how much can be done in the industrial approach to designing for recyclability. What cannot be recovered for recycling should be efficiently and safely disposed of; but let us hope that as a result of all these efforts the proportion will reduce over the years.

Many initiatives to deal with the problem have been launched in recent years. In particular, I should like to pay tribute to the Department of Trade and Industry for its efforts in tackling the problem on a sectoral basis. It recently set up a recycling strategy group and kindly invited me to participate in its deliberations. It is reviewing the whole position and considering where further action should be taken. Quite rightly the DTI has proclaimed through its Ministers that waste recovery must be approached on a cradle to the grave basis. One must start at the beginning in order to make sure that as much of the resultant waste as possible is efficiently recycled and re-used.

There is no doubt that there is a growing awareness of this problem, from government downward. But we must also consider the steps that are needed to convert the recognition of the problem and the growing attention paid to it into practical reality. What is certain is that there can be no single simple way of dealing with it. There must be co-ordination of actions at government and industrial level. Voluntary organisations and local authorities have their part to play, as do individuals. We all have a role to play. I should like to suggest what specifically each of those bodies should do in order to convert the intention stated by the Secretary of State for the Environment into reality.

I start with government. The Government have taken many initiatives. They have convened conferences and carried out studies. However, a point that worries those who deal with the problem is that responsibility for recycling is divided between two departments—the Department of the Environment and the Department of Trade and Industry. It would simplify matters if one department could take responsibility on board. The next thing the Government should do is to make sure that adequate advice and information is circulated. A good start has been made and I hope that it will be maintained.

We also need to remove obstacles. What are the obstacles in the way of the development of recycling? One is emerging from the Brussels directives. A definition of waste emerging in the directives from Brussels is likely to act as an impediment to the stimulation of recycling. Under the broader definition of waste which is proposed, those who collect scrap for recycling could well be denominated as handling waste and have to be specially licensed for the purpose. That would introduce new impediments. My council, the UKRC, has been in communication with the DTI on the subject. I am glad to say that we have received a positive response. Perhaps the noble Lord will be able to tell us a little more about how we can get this definition of waste modified in such a way so as not to inhibit the recycling process.

I move on from the removal of obstacles and turn to incentives. In my view it is the role of government in major issues of policy to provide incentives from time to time. A successful incentive which the Government recently introduced is one which directs motorists towards using unleaded petrol. I should like to suggest that they look very seriously at the recycling objective to see whether an appropriate fiscal measure, or series of fiscal measures, could be introduced to stimulate recycling.

My next point concerns technology. Here again, while much of the technology will no doubt evolve from industrial efforts, the Government have a role to play to stimulate developing technology in recycling. The contribution of the Warren Spring Laboratory in this whole area is considerable. It is now organised on an agency basis. I suggest that the Government consider intensifying the number of projects which they put to Warren Spring which could lead to the technological development of recycling.

I turn now to industry. I have already mentioned that I believe the first action industry should take is to minimise its waste and then design for recycling. I am glad to say that there is evidence of a growing awareness on the part of industry in this subject. Only the other day, on 6th November, 19 leading European industrial companies, including some from Britain, joined together in a recycling initiative. They are prepared to make quite substantial funds available to ensure that recycling, and reclamation of recyclable materials, is developed in various European countries. The chemical industry, likewise, has now also become very conscious of this fact.

Therefore there is not the slightest doubt that there is a growing awareness on the part of industry in the matter. However, what is necessary is to stimulate its interest in the subject to ensure that this design for recyclability is widened throughout the production sector and to make sure that there is the capacity to deal with the reclaimed materials. In this respect I instance the case of the paper industry. I am glad to note that there is new capacity now coming on stream which should be in operation by 1993 and which will enable a substantially greater amount of wastepaper to be reclaimed and utilised.

In the whole area voluntary organisations play a crucial role. The subject is one which appeals to people. The voluntary organisations which have played a noticeable part in this are Friends of the Earth and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. I have read with great care the documents which they have produced. They are well researched and based upon careful statistical studies. The benefit of the voluntary organisations is that they reach out into the communities. They have stimulated a great deal of response. Therefore I think that they should be encouraged to continue with their efforts and to work closely with government initiatives.

Finally, I turn to local authorities and to such bodies as the London Waste Regulation Authority. If we are talking about domestic waste, it is here that the whole process starts: in the whole business of the segregation of waste and its collection. Successful efforts have been made in certain other countries. I should mention Ontario in particular where they have what is known as the blue box system. Householders are asked to put their reclaimable waste, which is clearly defined, into the blue box. They must be clean waste materials, such as tin cans, bottles, plastics, newsprint, and so on. There is a separate collection each week for such materials from the blue boxes. I am glad to say that this system will be tried out in Sheffield, which has set itself up as a recycling city of the future. The city is to try out many of these different methods. There have been other centres which have also tried out the scheme; for example, Richmond is one of them. If we are to break the back of this question of reclamation and recycling of domestic waste, it is essential that separation should start at the household. Any other system is extremely costly. However, in order to do that it must be generally spread on the most effective basis. Local authorities must respond accordingly and be resourced so that they will be able to do so.

In summary, I should like to emphasise what I have to say. I should first emphasise that I think there has undoubtedly been a growing interest throughout the country in the subject; that is, from the Government, from industry, from local authorities, from individuals and from voluntary bodies. The Secretary of State for the Environment has boldly identified an important objective. What we must now do is to ensure that practical methods are used to achieve that aim.

I shall emphasise again the three points I have made. First, I think that at government level they should seriously consider providing incentives for recycling. Secondly, at industrial level the crucial matter is that of design for recyclabilty; and, thirdly, at local level the separation of waste to enable the collection of recyclable materials is most important. If those three methods, among others, are adopted, we should be able to translate the intention stated by the Secretary of State into reality by the end of the century.

5.47 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for introducing this debate today. I should also like to apologise for having arrived a few minutes late. I was unaware that the consideration of Commons amendments on the Companies Bill would come to such an abrupt end. I was under the impression that it would continue until 10 o'clock this evening.

The problem of disposing of refuse, sewage sludges and commercial refuse in an environmentally acceptable manner is becoming a major headache in all developed and developing countries. Many local authorities are running out of sites in which to dump their domestic waste. With the world's burgeoning population growth rate —it is believed to be almost 5 billion at present —the question must be: how can we effectively handle the vast, increasing volume of waste products?

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, very eloquently outlined the various techniques for the recycling of waste products. I do not profess to have any expertise in this particular area; I am simply a concerned citizen looking at what I believe is an under-utilised industry in Britain. The concept of lining tips with non-pervious materials is admirable. However, it has not yet stood the test of time, nor does it seem very practical when one watches lorries without any proper supervision tipping waste products containing sharp metal objects on top of the lining material. I am sure that during his speech the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will be raising the issue of the polluting of underground water canals.

The Minister of State said in his opening address in the pollution and the environment debate on 1st February that: we should start by trying to reduce the total quantity of waste".—[Official Report, 1/2/89; col. 1098.] He went on to mention the fact that the Government should encourage the recycling of domestic waste products to the maximum extent consistent with sound economics. Surely it is not just the cost at stake; it is the protection of our environment for future generations.

Recent evidence to the environment committee of the other place estimated that there a re some 1,400 landfill sites in England and Wales which may be emitting enough gas to cause serious fires and explosions. We are aware of many methods of counteracting such accidents. Landfill gas is a national problem and needs monitoring. I should like to hear from the Minister what measures Her Majesty's Government are taking to regulate the use of landfill sites.

It has been estimated that within 20 years most of the peat-producing areas in Britain will be worked out. It is feasible that recycled compost could take its place. Systems and processes are available to reclaim and recycle over 90 per cent. of domestic waste. Those systems also regulate the sludge residue from sewage treatment works which is currently dumped into the sea. The system incorporates all the standard waste recovery procedures with the important addition of electricity generation, which makes the plant self-sufficient in energy while it produces compost.

On the question of paper recycling, the Department of the Environment figures for 1985 show that 7.7 million tonnes of paper and board were consumed by manufacturers in the United Kingdom, of which 2 million tonnes were recycled —about 27 per cent. of the total. Although paper recycling is uneconomic, it is believed that it is possible that more paper could be recycled. The noble Lord, Lord Kenilworth, in his maiden speech during a similar debate, made the point that the ever-increasing weight of the Sunday Times gives great scope for recycling that paper. Estimates of the number of trees needed to produce 7.7 million tonnes of paper and board vary from 80 million to 100 million.

The recycling of plastic is more problematic. It is not economic and some recycled plastic can give off noxious gases.

Two supermarket chains, Sainsbury's and Tesco's, have launched campaigns to provide more organic food; to have a range of biodegradable packaging; and to take part in large waste recycling projects. I hope that other retail stores will follow their good example.

In conclusion, a clearly defined waste management strategy with planned arrangements for landfill sites, recycling, incineration, re-use projects and compost systems is needed.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, waste recycling involves issues which run throughout the green debate and the whole environment. Effectively, it can be seen as a microcosm of the recycling problem. We are talking about the most effective use of our finite natural resources. We could make far better use of materials such as the timber which goes into newspapers, which we could re-use several times, and the metal used in canning. It has been estimated that 99 per cent. of aluminium can be recycled at only 5 per cent. of the energy cost. Such statistics make one realise how much we are throwing away and how much we could claw back.

As has been pointed out by the two previous speakers, our rubbish invariably ends up in large holes in the ground which are called landfill sites; and 90 per cent. of the sites produce methane gas which adds to the greenhouse effect and produces toxic seepages which, as the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, pointed out can make their way through ground water into our water supply. Many of the sites are too close to our rivers for comfort and so we may already have some toxic residue in the rivers.

The incineration of waste is not an option which should be considered lightly because when something is burnt it gives off gases. If something unpleasant is burnt it can easily give off damaging gases. Once again, incorrect incineration may contribute to acid rain and the greenhouse effect. It is believed that many of our incineration plants are of a lower standard than is desirable, and once EC regulations are introduced they will be illegal.

Landfill sites do not just have the dangers of direct pollution which I have already mentioned. They are not useful once they have been reclaimed. One can build houses on them if one does not mind them exploding now and again. If a house is built, one may find that the value goes down. Landfill sites are hardly ideal for recreational purposes. I spent six years playing for a rugby club on a pitch built on a reclaimed site in Norwich. It was the worst rugby pitch in the entire eastern counties. It was notorious for producing old pieces of argicultural machinery from the pitch at various points in the game. It was constantly surrounded by six inches of stagnant water which disguised six inches of stagnant mud.

When Norfolk County Council built a bypass on top of the pitch everyone was heartily glad to leave it.

We must consider increased recycling so that we do not have a waste problem. I have already pointed out that aluminium is greatly under-utilised. It is usually only used once and then thrown away, although it could easily be reclaimed if a reclaiming system were set up. Scrap metal provides a precedent for reclaiming used substances. In 1982 it was estimated that 63 per cent. of the United Kingdom's iron and steel derived from scrap and only one-quarter of the energy was required to reclaim steel from ferrous ores.

Recycling can be pushed further. Glass represents 10 per cent. of this country's rubbish. Virtually all glass can be recycled. We waste vast quantities of it when we throw it away. It is estimated that in 1985 Britain reclaimed 210,000 tonnes of glass and Holland reclaimed 230,000 tonnes. Put another way, Holland met 53 per cent. of its demand for glass from glass which had already been used once. Britain managed 12 per cent., which is an appallingly low figure.

Domestic paper is a subject with which many of your Lordships are probably only too boringly familiar. We must all have collected waste paper at some time and given it in. The last time I visited my native Norwich I noticed signs at collection points which said that they were sorry but they could not take any more waste paper. Surely more encouragement should be given to increasing the number of points which take in waste paper and reprocess it. That is a subject which will probably be covered by every speaker, but it bears repeating.

I could continue listing the types of materials that can be reprocessed and whose full potential is not realised. A more englightening fact is that some local councils have not merely managed to reclaim and recycle huge quantities of otherwise waste material but have also made a profit. In Richmond, Surrey, the local council managed to generate through the reclamation of waste £167,000 which was redistributed into the community. In other words, it appears that when we do not recycle waste to its full potential we are throwing money away hand over fist. I suggest that if waste can generate such an income we should look very seriously at the process for simple economic reasons. Also, if the Government were seen to be investing a little time and possibly money in this field, there could be handsome dividends.

Finally, the Government must take this problem very seriously. I wish to see them start by educating the public and indeed industry, the whole nation, into thinking about recycled waste as a real economic opportunity and social duty. When the Prime Minister said that we had only a lifetime lease on the planet, she seemed to be comparing the whole planet with one large piece of property. I suggest that, if a person were to lease a piece of property to somebody and received it back in reasonably good nick except that one or two of its rooms were absolutely disgusting, that person would be rather annoyed.

6 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ezra on raising this very important Question at such a time. I am sure that all noble Lords in the House are entirely agreed that it is highly desirable to reclaim and recycle waste materials. However, the point at issue which is posed by the Unstarred Question is whether Her Majesty's Government are satisfied with the progress which is being made on reclamation and recycling. I should have thought that it was obvious that they cannot be.

Looking at the statistics, I am told that the estimate of the domestic waste produced by each person in this country is between one-third and half a tonne annually. If we are to recycle and re-use that waste material, it seems to me essential that it should be separated quickly at source. Once it is mixed with all kinds of other waste materials, it is thereafter difficult to process. Therefore it seems to me essential to have a partnership between central government, local government, private industry and public industry, the voluntary organisations and so on. This would enable the process to be carried out in such a way that it enlists public participation. A great deal will depend on voluntary separation of the potential waste at source by the users. It needs to be properly processed by the local authority. There must be beneficial economic results for the industrialists who will do the recycling. The whole effort must be promoted and co-ordinated by the Government.

My noble friend Lord Ezra gave the glass industry a pat on the back for the way we use and recycle glass. I am not sure that we deserve it. A survey was conducted jointly by a London packaging consultancy, Michael Peters & Partners, and Diagnostic Market Research. I quote their figures from an article which appeared in the GuardianNewspaper on 20th July 1989: Only 16 per cent. of glass jars and bottles are recycled in Britain against a European average of 30 per cent. Denmark, Germany, Holland and Switzerland all recycle nearly half their glass containers". That shows the progress that we must make to draw level with European countries similar to ours.

I am happy to say that for over a year now in my own small town of Llanidloes in mid-Wales, a small market town with about 2,500 inhabitants, and in other small towns in our area we see large bottle bins. We separate the bottles and put green bottles into one bin, brown into another, clear bottles into another. The public have taken to this in a big way and an effort is certainly being made in my area as well as, I am sure, in many other areas of the country. But we still have a great deal of progress to make.

The Guardian article which quotes the figures in the survey states: Britain ranks well behind the rest of the world in recycling only 5 per cent. of aluminium cans. The European average is 13 per cent.", so that is not very high. We compare those figures with the United States, where it is 55 per cent., Canada, 65 per cent. and Japan, 42 per cent. As my noble friend Lord Addington pointed out, there are obviously beneficial economic consequences of the recovery in particular of aluminium cans.

Waste paper has been referred to. I wish to ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, this question: what do we do with waste paper in this establishment, in the Royal Palace of Westminster? Do we recycle it properly? Do we recover it? What use do we make of the recovered paper? We use an enormous amount of paper here. We only have to look at the Benches around us to see the amount of paper that is left here every day. What happens to it? Are we setting an example to the rest of the country?

On waste paper, it is known that Canada and the United States have so enlisted public support for the recovery of waste paper, without ensuring that the waste paper is properly processed, that I understand that they now sell subsidised waste paper to Europe. One of the reasons why the price of waste paper to voluntary organisations in this country has dropped is that it is cheaper for the processors to import it from abroad at present. That illustrates some of the problems involved.

However, it seems to me that the Government must take an initiative. A great deal has been said lately by government ministers about the desirability of improving the environment and of recycling all kinds of waste. But somebody must co-ordinate the effort that is needed. My attention was drawn recently —and I should have known of this before—to an organisation called C.SAWS. It stands for the Community Support Anti-Waste Scheme, which was started in Cardiff about 13 years ago in a deprived area. One hundred local businesses were involved, the local authority was involved and there was an urban aid grant from central government. Recycling took place with eventually a full-time staff of 47. There was a great deal of voluntary collection, and the activity was particularly directed at paper recovery. That shows what can be done in one town. There was the example of Richmond given by my noble friend and I am told that Leeds is now an important centre for this kind of innovative work.

However, it should take place throughout the country. There should be much more education to make young and old appreciate the importance of recycling. It is a matter which has excited the attention of the public generally only in recent years. Previously the great British public by and large were unaffected by the prospect of recycling and indeed the need to recycle.

However I am sure that my noble friend is right to ask the Government at this stage whether they are satisfied with the progress that has been made. If they are not satisfied, as I suspect must be the case, what steps do they intend to take to improve progress in this very important sphere?

6.10 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I echo the thanks which have been given to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for introducing this very important subject, and indeed achieving prime time for it. The noble Lord succeeded so well in achieving prime time that I must apologise to him for being three minutes late arriving for the debate, and therefore missing the early part of his speech. The noble Lord is clearly extremely expert on this subject. I must confess from the outset that not only am I less expert, but I am also probably less expert than almost any other Member of your Lordships' House.

In the 1950s I lived for a year in the Middle West of the United States. Despite outrage from my landlord, I could never grasp the distinction between trash and garbage. That was despite having been brought up in London during the war when my most unfavourite task was to take the pig swill out to the pig bin on the corner of the road. I was extremely pleased when the pig bins were abolished after the war had ended and I no longer had to perform that unpleasant task. However, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, deplores my selfish attitude towards reclamation and recycling.

When I entered local government, I was associated for many years with the London borough of Tottenham, which had its own pig farm. That pig farm was maintained successfully for many years after the war and was only given up in the 1960s because the land was more valuable for development purposes than it was as a pig farm. The successor borough of Haringey, where I still live, had for a number of years the habit of having a trailer at the back of the rubbish collection carts which was used for waste paper. I believe that it is 15 years since that was abolished, but I still religiously put my paper separately from other waste. I usually carry it out in a wine box and put it separately as if it were going to be reclaimed.

I thought for many years that it was the fault of the trade unions that that recycling no longer occurred. However, when I inquired about it recently, I found the confirmation of what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has said, which is that it simply is not worth the effort, and that the extra payment that would have to be made is not justified by the price that could be obtained for the waste paper. Therefore, even if our waste paper is offered separately, it is collected together with other materials.

It seems to me that in many ways we are moving backwards rather than forwards. If we are asking the Government whether they are satisfied with progress, we should look back to war time when the level of reclamation and recycling was very much higher in this country than it is today. At that time there was a collective public spirit regarding the separation of waste materials which led to a public attitude which encouraged recycling, whereas all public attitudes now go in the direction of greater waste, less recycling and more damage to the environment rather than less.

I suggest to the House and to the Government that recycling is paradoxically not the first target that we should strive for. I should have thought that there were three levels of dealing with these problems, of which recycling is really only the third. The first should be to cut down on the production of waste; that is, dealing with the matter at source. There should be some kind of disincentive for the vast amounts of packaging materials which are lavished on so many products nowadays. I am not talking only of food products but also of electrical goods, white goods, hardware and almost everything that we buy which used to come almost without packaging or with the minimum of packaging but is now wrapped, gift wrapped and treble wrapped in far too much material. That material is a positive embarrassment to get rid of and there is usually far more of it than is necessary. Instead of having prizes for packaging as the French have, perhaps we should have prizes for lack of packaging. That would deal with some of the problems that we have at the present time.

A further level of dealing with the problem of waste which is still preferable to recycling, although not as good as not using so much material in the first place, is the re-use of materials. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, referred to bottle banks in his home town. In my part of London we are religious users of bottle banks. However, that is nothing like as efficient as what happens in the United States, for example, where there is a prize for the recovery of bottles and of aluminium cans; or in France where wine bottles are returned and the consigne system is used. That system does not exist and has never been made to exist in this country. I would look to the re-use of materials such as bottles and cans rather than remaking glass from broken bottles in bottle banks as a more efficient system than the one we have at the present time.

Having gone through those steps, then perhaps it is more appropriate to think about recycling. Noble Lords have made a number of suggestions which I hope will receive the serious attention of the Government. It is certainly true that whichever aspect of recycling or reclamation we look at, there are examples of better practice in other countries than here. Examples have been given of reclamation of glass in the United States and Canada, and examples of the re-use of materials in Holland. My noble friend Lord Underhill reminds me that there is hardly a public place with a public lavatory in Holland which does not have recycled paper as opposed to the non-recycled paper and bleached paper that we have on our toilet rolls. The bleach causes additional damage to the environment.

We have a long way to go on almost every aspect of reclamation and recycling. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred to the removal of obstacles. I was interested to hear what he said about the European Community definition of waste. I shall be interested to hear the Government's response to that. The noble Lord then referred to incentives for better reclamation and recycling. He quite rightly referred to the admirable move to cut the tax on unleaded petrol. However, incentives can be of two kinds. They can be carrots, as the lower tax on unleaded petrol is, or they can be sticks. I suggest that this is an area where there is a real role for regulation and control as well as for encouragement and incentives. The example I gave of excessive packaging is one where we might well consider the role of regulation.

I was impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said about the necessity for design for recyclability. That is a horrid word and I wish we could do without it, but I think the point the noble Lord made is valid. The point that he made about the need for partnership between government, local authorities and industry is also valid. But above all it is up to us as individuals to see to it that we co-operate and it is up to government to encourage us to do so. I look forward very much to the response of government to this most important issue.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for raising this important subject. Reclamation and recycling of waste materials has been of real importance for many years, but latterly has taken on an even greater significance. The noble Lord's longstanding involvement in these matters is well recognised, and I pay tribute to the contribution which he and other members of the UK Reclamation Council have made.

The Government have long accepted the crucial importance of recycling, and took a number of early initiatives in response to the Trade and Industry Select Committee's 1984 report entitled The Wealth of Waste. These included: the allocation of co-ordinating responsibility for recycling matters to a Minister within the Department of Trade and Industry, now my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for industry and consumer affairs, Mr. Forth, and the setting-up of supporting interdepartmental committees of Ministers and of officials; the establishment of a recycling advisory unit at Warren Spring laboratory, where the technology for recycling materials and recovering fuel from waste is researched and developed; the development of an awareness campaign, including the preparation of a video and the distribution of an education pack that went to every secondary school in the country; and a sectoral examination of the best ways to encourage recycling and put in place systems for its growth.

That programme of measures was, in the Government's view, successful. It helped to increase awareness of the benefits of recycling, and in particular encouraged the co-operation between different groups which is so vital to recycling success. I give as an example the targets set at the 1986 glass commitment conference; these aimed to double the number of bottle banks to 5,000 by 1991 and achieve a ratio of one to every 10,000 head of population. Good progress is being made towards achieving those targets—more than 3,800 bottle banks are now in place, and we are up to one bank for every 16,000 people. The involvement of industry, of local authorities and of the individual in that activity is typical of the co-ordinated approach we need to encourage.

Your Lordships may be interested to know that when I recently visited K89 —an international plastics exhibition in Dusseldorf —I met with representatives of the British plastics industry. They assured me that recycling is at the very top of the industry's environmental agenda. That is why, for example, it is such an active participant in collaborative initiatives such as the recycling city experiment in Sheffield to which the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, referred.

The United Kingdom has a recycling record for many materials and products which is second to none, and of which we can rightly be proud. Last year, for example, it is estimated that the UK reclamation industry recovered almost 27 million tonnes of re-usable material from the waste stream, with a value of some £2 billion. All those involved are to be congratulated. Their contribution to raw material and energy savings, to the balance of payments and to environmental improvement was considerable. But the Government recognise, as many have said tonight, that much more needs to be done, especially in the area of collection and recycling of household waste, where our record is not as good as that claimed by some of our European neighbours. There are several reasons.

One is that the United Kingdom is one of the few European countries having widely available and relatively low-cost landfill sites. Some European countries turned to recycling earlier than we did because they were faced with very expensive disposal options such as incineration. Recycling was economically attractive as well as being environmentally beneficial. Another reason is that "green consumerism" has been slower to develop here than in some other countries. Only in the past year or so has there been much consumer demand for less environmentally-damaging products —recycled paper for writing is an example. Without a secure demand, companies have been reluctant to invest in the equipment to process recycled materials into end products.

Much is now changing. There will now be a strong natural push towards greater recycling because landfill costs will continue to rise sharply and because individuals are increasingly willing to express their environmental concern through the pattern of their spending. But the Government have also stated their commitment strongly to encouraging the further development of recycling as a central plank of a more comprehensive approach to environmental issues.

In May of this year my noble friend the then Secretary of State launched an innovative and co-ordinated DTI environmental programme. Among other measures, the programme included the establishment of a DTI environmental inquiry point at Warren Spring laboratory so that business and local authorities with questions on environmental issues—including recycling—can telephone free of charge for advice and guidance. The department's Enterprise Initiative was also extended to provide financial support to companies which need to bring in outside consultants to help them come to grips with environmental challenges and opportunities.

A further initiative was the establishment of a new business and the environment unit within the DTI. Officials from that unit are participating in numerous conferences, workshops, seminars and exhibitions to get the environmental message—and in particular the recycling message—across to business and to assess more clearly the different routes to effective recycling. They are focusing on products which offer particular challenges for recycling, such as CFCs in refrigerators, recycled paper, batteries, plastics, and tyres, and on issues such as designing products to improve their recyclability. They are also collaborating in the preparation of new education packs aimed at primary and secondary school children and designed for incorporation into the new national curriculum. The unit is also negotiating in Brussels on several EC directives which have recycling implications.

In recent weeks the DTI has brought together an advisory group to help develop a co-ordinated national approach to recycling and to consider ways of boosting recycling from household waste. That group, drawn from business, government, local authorities and voluntary organisations, has begun by concentrating upon why more of such valuable materials as glass, paper, cans and plastics are not being economically recycled now. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment recently stated that the United Kingdom should set itself the goal of recycling 50 per cent. of the recyclables —with apologies to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh —in household waste by the year 2000. The advisory group will be considering ways of achieving such an ambitious target. Success would make us the international leader in that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is a member of that advisory group and I feel sure that his very great experience of these matters will be invaluable to the group's deliberations. Ministers will certainly place great weight upon his remarks this evening in opening the debate.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that this is a very ambitious programme of government activity, and that the focus upon reclamation and recycling is appropriate. I am convinced that the climate has never been better for real progress to be made in improving the United Kingdom's performance. There is an encouraging willingness being shown by large numbers of the public to contribute in some way to protecting and preserving the environment, and the extraction and collection of valuable material from the domestic waste stream is one direct means of demonstrating that concern. It is up the Government, industry and all concerned at local and regional level to help facilitate the process.

We have heard this evening of a variety of proposals for achieving higher recycling rates. They will all be taken into account by Ministers when deciding upon the way forward. However, I should sound a cautionary note. Recycling is not an end in itself. It is only one means of conserving resources and achieving environmental improvement. That is especially relevant when addressing the kind of mandatory measures that some are pressing to see introduced. Several other countries have indeed legislated for materials to be collected; others have suggested mandatory deposits on various recyclable products. The result has been that they now have mountains of paper, plastics, metals and other materials that nobody wishes to buy. Recycling is about more than just collecting recyclable products and materials —they have to be separated, graded and processed to remove contaminants and the recycled materials used to manufacture new products for which there is a customer prepared to pay a realistic price.

The introduction of short-term or blanket measures or incentives into this chain of activity could disrupt the fine balance between supply and demand of virgin and recycled materials which is sustained by market forces. Any interference in this balanced mechanism —either centrally or via local authorities —should, in the Government's view, only be contemplated if a significant market failure needs to be corrected in the wider interest or perhaps to secure a specific objective. That said, however, there should now be greater recognition of the savings available to local authorities by the removal through recycling programmes of quantities of materials from the waste stream. I hope that forthcoming legislation will address that issue.

Perhaps I may turn now to some of the points that have been made during the course of the debate this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, suggested that DoE and DTI responsibilities should be brought together. I can assure the noble Lord that close rapport between the two departments already exists. However, it is logical that DoE with its regulatory and local authority responsibilities —which include waste disposal —should have a role distinct from that of the DTI with its market responsibilities and close involvement with the business community.

The noble Lord also asked about waste treatment priorities. I agree with the noble Lord that waste treatment priorities, particularly minimising waste, are critical. The DTI is co-sponsoring with the CBI a conference on the issue next Wednesday.

The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, asked about paper recycling and that subject was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. More than half the paper manufactured in this country last year was made from reclaimed waste paper. Only two countries in the world achieved a better performance, so perhaps the problem is not quite as black as noble Lords have suggested.

The noble Lords, Lord St. John and Lord Addington, referred to problems with landfilling. I was sorry to hear about the noble Lord's problems with his rugby pitch. The government view is that when properly managed and operated landfill is an effective method of waste disposal. It can be beneficial and an increasing volume of landfill gas is being tapped and used for heating in industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked me about the quantities of paper collected in the Palace of Westminster. I understand that all the salvageable waste paper collected from the Palace of Westminster goes for recycling. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the amounts involved average no fewer than 2 tonnes a day and on a high day —which may well be today —are as high as 4 tonnes a day.

Reference was made too to the current glut of collected newspaper and its relation to imports of waste paper from North America. We are concerned at the present glut. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, was right to point out that some charities are not able to collect waste paper nowadays because of the low price that it commands. However, the Government believe that that glut is restricted to newspapers and magazines and is a continuation of the traditional cycles in that sector. There is no evidence to substantiate the claim that imports of subsidised waste paper are having a significant effect in that area. I am told that there are already signs of an improvement in the situation. In the longer term, expansion of the United Kingdom paper-making capacity should absorb all the waste paper collected by voluntary groups. I am told that demand for most other grades of waste paper remains strong.

As I said, the Government are anxious to encourage recycling on every front. I note too the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, about the difficult definition of waste issue. I understand that officials in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Department of the Environment are shortly due to meet representatives of the reclamation industry to discuss further this vexed question. I agree that it would be most unfortunate if licensing procedures were to have an adverse effect on reclamation and recycling in the United Kingdom and we shall certainly seek to ensure that that does not happen.

This has been a timely and interesting debate, giving noble Lords the opportunity to express views on this important matter. The Government are working towards a coherent approach to recycling which will sustain long-term improvements over the levels currently being reached. The issues are complex and we do not seek quick-fix solutions which will ultimately do more harm than good. However, we must not forget that it is business, not government, which will create the wealth to pay for a better environment and that the drive and innovation of business will be needed to achieve the higher recycling rates which we all wish to see, as will the efforts of individuals and voluntary groups.

The government programme which I have described this evening is designed to complement the work of others engaged in recycling. We all share the same objective —to achieve much higher levels of recycling from industrial and household waste. I am confident that significant progress will be made during the coming years.