Orders of the Day — Waste Material (Recycling)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd November 1973.

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Photo of Mr Peter Trew Mr Peter Trew , Dartford 12:00 am, 22nd November 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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