New clause 30 - Zero waste strategy

Part of Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 10th April 2003.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment) 3:00 pm, 10th April 2003

I am not sure that I wholly agree. I believe in stretching or ambitious targets. However, when one is engaged in a process that is moving all too powerfully in the wrong direction, to set an extraordinarily radical goal in the opposite direction does not inspire greater effort; it just brings the whole exercise into disrepute. That is what worries me.

I hope that members of the Committee will not continue to regard me as an isolated figure, because I speak for the Government on waste; I insist on that. However, like all Ministers, I want to be practical, and I cannot nail my colours to the mast of zero waste in the current circumstances. I am quite prepared to discuss the matter, but it goes far beyond the Bill and, indeed, the landfill directive.

Zero waste to landfill is the more modest definition. It is about not only the management of waste but the lifecycle of products, and we are beginning to take that on board in terms of producer responsibility. The issue is how we, as a society, use our resources. In that respect, I might add that the UK signed up to the world summit on sustainable development. There were five main objectives, the fifth of which was that all participating countries should draw up a plan for sustainable consumption and production. Again, that is an extraordinarily ambitious requirement, but virtually all countries have accepted it. If we think about what we mean by sustainable consumption and production, meeting that requirement would actually go quite a long way towards achieving zero waste. The Government are seeing stakeholders and trying to move in that direction. Significantly, other countries, not only in the EU but much more widely, have signed up to the same objective.

Those are important questions, which are linked to the idea of a consumer-led society. In the Bill, however, we should focus on what we can achieve. If I may put a brake on the ambitions of some members of the Committee, we should not try to run before we have shown ourselves and others that we can walk.

Reducing our reliance on landfill is, after all, the first step, and the Bill will help to achieve that. We must also accept that some landfill will still be needed. In the next decade, we are unlikely to get remotely near a situation in which we have nil waste going to landfill, but we can begin to turn around the amounts. If we do really well, we may be able to decouple economic growth from the creation of waste that goes to landfill. However, the best practical environmental option for some waste, such as asbestos, is probably to bury it.

New clause 30 would require the Secretary of State to put before Parliament a strategy for delivering a year-on-year decrease in the volume of waste—that is part of the decoupling process that I just mentioned—and to report progress to Parliament. It would also require him to specify a formula accurately to measure the significance of waste by volume against waste by weight. The reductions proposed in the strategy would be based on that formula.

We had an interesting and lengthy debate on the issue last Thursday, and I said that I would write to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire about it; indeed, I should probably circulate the letter around the Committee. As I emphasised last week, I am extremely sympathetic as regards the underlying problem that he outlined. To be completely honest, we are not recycling enough low-weight, high-volume items such as plastics. That is probably the weakest point in the whole recycling framework, but I am not convinced that specifying targets using volume as a measure is the right way to solve the problem. Most waste can be, and is, compacted, which makes volume a much less robust measure than weight.

That is obvious if one considers the space occupied by a bag of household waste. First, that waste is contained in a wheelie bin, if the authority provides them, as mine does. I am dubious about wheelie bins because they are so large that they encourage people to throw virtually everything bar the kitchen sink into them. The waste is compacted in a dustcart and then it is compacted in a landfill site, where it is subjected to increasingly high pressure as more waste is piled on top. The question arises as to when we should measure volume, and that is not an idle question. Should it be measures when the waste goes into the bin or when it has been at the landfill site for six months? The measure is relative. Compaction of waste once it is in the site is so effective that the volume of such things as plastics is no longer a major issue.

There are other problems associated with the measurement of volume. The weight of waste can be easily and accurately obtained from weighbridge readings. Volume can be registered only with reference to the nominal rated size of the container, and part loads in skips or tankers can only be estimated. Using volume as a measure simply is not accurate enough to be of value and for heterogeneous solid waste—which is normal—there are no statistically acceptable factors that link weight and volume. I add the highly relevant point that the last Environment Agency survey on waste arisings had to use estimates of volume where weighbridges were not available. Conversion of those volume data to weight introduced such significant errors that further work had to be done to refine the data. I do not pour cold water on the idea, but there are serious methodological problems.