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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy) 4:13 pm, 26th February 2020

I absolutely agree. The European Union has been a team effort to which Britain has made a large contribution. It is a shame that we can no longer be leaders in the European Union and direct its future.

Although the Government have claimed that Brexit will mean enhanced environmental standards for the UK, the Bill does not really deliver much on those promises. We are facing a climate emergency, a fact that the Government acknowledge but are less willing to act on. We need to tackle the climate emergency immediately, with legally binding targets included in the Bill.

I am pleased to see that the Office for Environmental Protection has had climate changed added to its remit, but the OEP needs independence and teeth to hold the Government to account. Unless and until it can independently impose hefty fines, the OEP cannot match the EU as an enforcer of environmental regulation.

I wish to focus my remarks on part 3 of the Bill, which concerns waste and resources, and on the amendment that I will table in Committee. I will also mention the Government’s commitments on the deposit return scheme. Unfortunately, I will probably not get a place on the Bill Committee, so I will depend on cross-party support for my amendment. I believe it will strengthen the Bill and make it better, and I very much hope that the Bill Committee will consider it.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to establishing a deposit return scheme—a policy that the Lib Dems have been pushing for many years. However, there are several questions about how the scheme will work in practice. It is important that the scheme is both independent from Government and not for profit. The Department should work to ensure that the scheme is as wide as possible, incorporating cans and all types of plastic and glass bottles. I am concerned that as Scotland is introducing its own deposit return scheme two years earlier, DEFRA’s scheme for England and Wales might not be compatible. It should be. I am looking forward to hearing more from the Government on the detailed proposals. People who come from different backgrounds—I was born in Germany, where deposit return schemes have always operated and never been stopped—know that it is a particular challenge to rebuild the infrastructure needed for a proper scheme. Nevertheless, it is the right direction of travel and I very much look forward to the debate and hope that I can make a contribution.

I shall be tabling an amendment on waste traceability that will require waste collection and management authorities to publish the end destination of all municipal waste products. I am deeply concerned about the transparency of waste management in this country. I was a local councillor for three years and the cabinet member for the environment, and my responsibilities included bin collections and waste disposal, so I know quite a lot about the subject, and I know the difficulties that councils have in making recycling really work and making sure that people engage in recycling schemes. For that reason, it is important that local councils disclose not just where they send their waste after they have collected it but the end destination, so that nobody can say, “Well, you have sold it on to a management company somewhere in the midlands and we do not know where it goes then.” We would instead know what that company did with the waste and that it did not sell it on to some country abroad, so that it might eventually end up in the oceans.

We would also know whether we were sending our waste to waste incineration facilities. Although people talk about energy from waste, I remind the House that it is not a net zero solution. Incinerating plastic is no better than burning fossil fuels. If we are looking for a net zero solution for this country, incineration from waste is not it. We need to look at that urgently. My amendment would make sure that those who diligently recycled could be confident that their waste was recycled and not shipped abroad or burned in incinerators. Incinerators need a certain calorific value in order to burn. For example, burning wet food waste is best done by adding plastics. It is perfectly possible that waste companies are burning recycled plastic waste from local authorities.

It is crucial to understand that energy from waste plants is not a net zero solution. Burning plastics, as I have just said, is no better than burning fossil fuels. Plastic should be recycled where possible, and energy from waste facilities create a counter-incentive to recycling. A small change in the law to require waste to be traced to its end destination will make the system more transparent and waste authorities more accountable. In this way, everyone will know where their waste is going when they put it in the recycling bin. We owe it to our residents to give them that transparency.

Although this Bill brings forward some important changes to waste and recycling, there is still not enough focus on waste prevention and how the waste industry will contribute to a net zero Britain.