Clause 21 - ''Biodegradable waste'' and ''municipal waste''

Waste and Emissions Trading Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 10th April 2003.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 4:15 pm, 10th April 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 78, in

clause 21, page 14, line 41, leave out 'such as' and insert 'including, but not exclusively'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 79, in

clause 21, page 14, line 42, leave out 'and'.

No. 80, in

clause 21, page 14, line 43, at end insert

', and certain plastics designed specifically to degrade within a period of 12 months'.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

The purpose of the amendments is to recognise that the scope for biodegradable waste has increased in the last few years. We used to think of it merely as food and garden waste and paper and paper board, but new technologies have created packaging, in particular, from other materials. One hears about packaging made from potato starch, which is biodegradable, and plastic carrier bags that can degrade within the year. I worry that we talk about biodegradable municipal waste without really knowing what it is. We all know what garden waste and food waste look like. However, with the packaging and other materials that are coming into use, we do not know what is biodegradable. Our purpose in adding the words

''certain plastics designed specifically to degrade''

was to draw attention to the fact that some materials are creeping into common use and to ask whether they are part of the biodegradable waste that we are counting.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My contribution will be in the form of two questions. The Minister may be able to answer them now. If not, I hope that he will either answer them in writing or come back to the Committee. They relate to the first and second parts of the clause.

The hon. Member for Guildford referred to the first of my questions, which relates to the changing nature of biodegradable waste and how it is defined. Just as the Minister said in our last discussion, these things are dynamic, both in the processes that can be employed to assist with waste disposal, which are constantly changing, and in the nature of the materials with which we are dealing. New materials are being developed all the time—for example, plastics are becoming more biodegradable in some cases and less hazardous in others. What impact is that likely to have on the steps that we need to take to meet the requirements of the Bill? That will have an impact on recovery, reuse and recycling. Can the Minister give us more detail about the changing nature of biodegradable waste?

My second question relates to municipal waste, although, again, I do not expect the Minister necessarily to have the information to hand. I want to know how municipal waste is changing. As lifestyles, technology and the materials that we use change, so does the typical municipal waste bin. To use the Minister's phrase, what goes into wheelie bins now will be quite different from what went into them five, 10 or 20 years ago. We must have a profile of waste so that we can reach proper conclusions about how to deal with it. Unless that profile is accurate—again, I accept that this is a dynamic issue—it is hard

to reach conclusions about the Bill's likely effectiveness.

So, I am seeking information about biodegradability, the waste profile and the relevant trends. I would be grateful if the Minister could pick up those matters.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 10th April 2003

I have a short question. We are dealing with the definition of biodegradable waste, but at what point is biodegradable waste biodegraded? At what point is it no longer biodegradable? Is there such a definition? In my constituency, a tremendous company called Biorganics runs a composting scheme. It deals largely with feathers from the Sun Valley factory, which is just inside the Hereford constituency. One of the factory's big problems is the huge amount of feathers that it produces, because it has no way of dealing with them. They are made of keratin, which does not naturally break down, which is why one sees feathers lying round the countryside. However, the scheme allows compost to be produced—at least, that is the generic term. In fact, it is a sort of soil, which is used on the fields. It is a tremendous fertiliser.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend teases me.

Unfortunately, the composting process is rather smelly. It produces a strong smell of ammonia, which upsets the residents of Stoke Prior and to which they are quite sensitive.

As I said, therefore, I am curious to know at what point during the process biodegradable waste is biodegraded. I hope that the Minister can tell me, because it would be helpful to know.

I am also curious about the scheme under which councils may find it useful to encourage householders to put their compostable waste in a green bag and have it taken away, rather than composting it themselves in their garden. Councils, as municipal authorities, may be tempted to increase the amount of biodegradable waste that they compost rather than preventing it from going in the bin in the first place.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

There is an interesting point, which my hon. Friend may want to tease out of the Minister. Has a model been produced to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of that scheme? An earlier amendment referred to providing composters to householders and raised the issue of whether that might not be an appropriate way of encouraging the proper and responsible treatment of waste. I worry slightly that the alternative of providing a facility where people can have materials composted for them is less effective. It will certainly mean more journeys, and it will be a bigger process. If things are dealt with on site, they will obviously be dealt with more quickly and efficiently. Have the Department or the Minister produced a model to assess the scheme?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for that. I was about to make those very points myself, and now I no longer need to—without scraping the bottom of the wheelie bin, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle was teasing me earlier.

I hope that the Minister will address those two important points. First, there is the point about when biodegradable waste is no longer biodegradable. Secondly, what happens if the definition does not encourage people to use their council in relation to composting? I am talking about people who have the chance of composting material themselves, rather than people—perhaps living in a block of flats—who are not in a position to have even a communal composter or wormery.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

The hon. Gentleman may like to know that some research—I do not know the exact references—was carried out by local authorities some while ago, following the distribution of composters. The results showed that only something like 10 to 15 per cent. of people to whom composters were distributed used them as composters. There were many other uses: rabbit hutches, storage for tools and old running shoes and so on. However, the actual use of composters as such was fairly low. I am sure that he will want to take that into account.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful for an intervention that was both light-hearted and important. Composters are, as hon. Members probably know, a type of dustbin into the top of which material for compost can be put. Compost is readily available at the bottom. The problem with composters is that many people just have a pile. I believe that at Barker Towers, where my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle lives, there are many compost heaps—that is what he was whispering to me earlier. People would normally have a compost heap, rather than a composter. If people are using composters for storing tools and a variety of other purposes, that is a shame. I hope that every effort will continue to be made to encourage people to have a compost heap of their own.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The amendments are about matters of definition, although one would not have guessed that from the debate. Not only was I asked earlier about an algebraic formula, but I am now being asked about when biodegradable waste is biodegraded. I am not sure that I can answer those questions, so I shall turn to the amendments.

The amendments would amend the definition of biodegradable waste in the clause by replacing the words ''such as'' with ''including, but not exclusively''. They also remove an ''and'' and add at the end of subsection (1)

''and certain plastics designed specifically to degrade within a period of 12 months''.

On the first point, we can argue about the meaning of words, but the words ''such as'' mean the same as, but are better than, ''including, but not exclusively''. I am not sure about the force of the argument for making the change. The key point—I shall also argue this about definitions of biodegradable waste—is that the words in the Bill are used in the landfill directive definition. That is important, because, as I keep on saying, we are concerned with meeting our requirements under article 5(2) of the directive. For that reason, I cannot accept amendment No. 78.

The changes proposed in amendments Nos. 79 and 80 would also result in the definition in the Bill being

different from that in the landfill directive. They would extend the list of examples of biodegradable waste to include specifically

''plastic designed . . . to degrade within a period of 12 months''.

What does the phrase in the amendment mean? Does it mean completely degrade, partially degrade, or that the process of degradation has begun? That is one difficulty. The real point is that the amendment is unnecessary: to the extent that any waste is capable of anaerobic or aerobic decomposition, it will be biodegradable. It is not necessary for such waste to be expressly included in the clause.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

If one is to create useful compost, it is imperative that one is discerning about the materials that are composted and separating them out. If one simply uses any material that is capable of being composted or biodegraded, one ends up with something dangerous. I am thinking particularly of cooked foods, which are often mistakenly put into kitchen composters. That is probably the most common example. I wonder how the definitions will help to inform a strategy that, in turn, will help to inform a wider public about how we ensure that what we compost serves a useful purpose, rather than simply becoming problematic.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I do not believe that the definitions in the landfill directive or the Bill will answer the sort of problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The problems are relevant, and are answered by having an organic standard for composting. We spent several months last year producing an organic standard that we finally published. It was subject to widespread consultation with the Composting Association and stakeholders about what was good quality, recognised organic composting. That has now been agreed and is established, and is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.

There was also the problem of animal by-products being put into home composting. After foot and mouth, the Government were extremely concerned that no action should be taken that might resurrect foot and mouth in this country. On the other hand, we were criticised because the exclusion was so wide that home composting was completely discouraged. We sought through a European Union regulation to try to find the right balance between the two. We want to encourage home composting, but without any risk of human or animal disease.

The definition of biodegradable waste in the Bill is, as I said, derived from the landfill directive. It is important that the definitions are the same, as the objective of the landfill allowance scheme is to meet the targets set in article 5(2) of the directive. A wider definition would complicate the system and disconnect it from the landfill targets in the directive. In order to demonstrate that we have met our obligations under the directive, our report to the Commission would have to submit figures using the directive definition. At the very least, that would create unnecessary complications for the monitoring authority, as it would need to collect figures covering both definitions. It would also bring further pressure to bear on disposal authorities, which I am not sure is the

intention. A narrower definition would mean that we had failed to implement the directive fully, and would leave us open to infraction proceedings. The amendment carries that risk to the extent that it seeks to introduce a time limit on when waste can decompose.

We should stick closely to the definitions in the directive. I cannot answer biological questions about the nature of biodegradability, although I could get experts to answer them. However, that is not the point. However they are answered, the important point is that we keep close to the directive. I almost said that we are required to do so whether it is right or wrong, because that is what we are required to do by law. I cannot accept the amendment for those reasons.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is asking what we do when waste has been biodegraded by some other method. In the case of the feathers, which I described earlier, it is soil, which is then put on a field. It could be put in a hole in the ground, which might be construed as landfill. That is why the definition is important, because the sort of landfill that soil and feathers represent is not the sort of landfill that we are talking about in the Bill. However, the example is still valid, which is why the definitions are critical.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The waste acceptance criteria define inert waste. If biodegradable waste is treated so that it meets that definition, it ceases to be biodegradable waste, which answers the hon. Gentleman's point. Any plastic capable of anaerobic or aerobic composition is biodegradable waste, to which amendment No. 80 relates, and will be biodegradable waste according to the definition in the clause. I hope that the hon. Member for Guildford will be satisfied by that explanation and does not need to pursue the amendment.

On the main thrust of this group of amendments, however, I repeat that the matter is not about substantive policy issues but definitions, which I insist must be close, if not identical, to those in the landfill directive.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 4:45 pm, 10th April 2003

I thank the Minister for that clarification, which was what we were seeking. We were concerned about what falls inside and outside the category of biodegradable, yet the Minister took an interesting and helpful angle on that question, and tied it back to the original objectives of the Bill, which we all support. Having received that answer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I beg to move amendment No. 81, in

clause 21, page 15, line 4, after 'waste', insert 'collected by collection authorities'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 82, in

clause 21, page 15, line 5, after 'waste', insert 'collected by collection authorities'.

No. 83, in

clause 21, page 15, line 6, at end insert—

'(c) and is in the case of (a) and/or (b) recorded for official purposes as such'.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

One might think that inserting the words ''collected by collection authorities'' would be an obvious thing to do. However, we are concerned, because councils have had a lot of problems in measuring their recycling levels. There has recently been an outbreak of sparring between political parties, as each has tried to prove that it is the greenest. The definition of how waste is measured has changed as the years have gone by. As each council tries to prove that it is green and that its recycling figures are on the gentle upward path, other parties come along, take advantage of the fact that the definition has changed and say, ''No they're not.'' Everything depends on how one counts things, as opposed to whether the general thrust is towards increased recycling, and we have been concerned about that.

We wish to define waste from households as municipal waste that is ''collected by collection authorities''. However, that waste could also be that which is collected at municipal waste facilities or dumped waste that is collected. Such distinctions are important when we try to define the figures. With the amendment we are trying to clarify the exact point at which household waste becomes biodegradable municipal waste and counted for those purposes. The worst example might be the problem of home composting. An estimate used to be made of the amount of waste that went to composting and was included in figures as a generally agreed rate. Now, however, councils are not sure what effect that has on the overall figures and what is sent to recycling.

There is still the problem of how to reward councils that encourage households by giving them cones and composters. We do not see that waste, because although people are being virtuous and filling up their composters nicely with it, it does not go anywhere to be recycled because it is not even collected in the first place. The amendment seeks clarification on how such waste is counted so that when councils look at their performance figures, they know the exact point at which it becomes material sent for recycling.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

The amendment would amend the definition of municipal waste in subsection (3) by limiting it to waste that is ''collected by collection authorities'' and recorded as such. As I have said many times, and again a only few moments ago, the landfill allowances scheme that the Bill would establish is designed to implement the requirements of article 5(2) of the landfill directive. We must not do anything that could result in the United Kingdom's under-implementing the directive. In order to do that, we must, as I said in the previous debate, ensure that our definitions are consistent.

Not all waste is collected by collection authorities. Waste disposal authorities have a duty to arrange for places where residents can deposit household waste and for the disposal of that waste. The amendments would result in such waste being excluded from the

landfill allowances scheme, even when it falls within the definition of biodegradable municipal waste. That could leave us open to infringement proceedings brought by the Commission.

I am not sure what the amendments want to achieve by requiring waste to be recorded before it falls into the definition of municipal waste. That would seem to narrow the definition and could lead to infringement proceedings. Solid municipal waste arisings are already recorded and will continue to be so. Municipal waste sent to landfill will also be recorded, as will the amount of such waste diverted to other forms of waste management. All the figures will be supplied to the monitoring authority to enable proper checks to be made, so I submit that there is no need to add the requirement to the definition.

The hon. Lady may have been tabled the amendments to probe what lay behind the provisions. I hope that I have given her an adequate explanation and that she will not press the amendments.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I thank the Minister for his response. He is right to say that the amendments are probing, because the issues have caused many problems to councils in trying to establish what they are and are not collecting. We have had various discussions about collection and disposal authorities, the interface between the two and how we can co-ordinate their efforts to exploit best what the directive is trying to do. We all want that, but we do not want to fall over on the definition.

The Minister's answer was helpful because if he had said something else, we might have found that we were excluding material. However, his answer implies that we want to include as much in the counting as possible. That is what we wanted to determine, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I raised a couple of significant questions in the debate on the first group of amendments. The Minister properly did not respond to them because, as he implied in his response, they were really stand part points, so I shall raise them now. I shall repeat them for his convenience, and he may want to address them.

My first point is about the nature of biodegradable waste. As I said, that is dynamic, as the contents of a waste bin are changing, and, because technology is changing, things are now biodegradable that were not before. Processes are improving, and it would be useful to have some feel for how that is happening. What are the trends? What is the current picture and what is it likely to be in a year or five years? If we are going to have the strategy we all want, we will need to set targets, and we will need to set them against the trends. Is there a model for that, and is the Minister aware of it?

My second related point is about subsection (3), which defines municipal waste. If we are going to make a judgment about whether the nature of biodegradability is changing, we must make a

judgment about the profile of the average household's waste. It may be getting bigger or smaller, or it may be that the balance of waste is changing. Lifestyle issues may have had an impact on that during the past decade or more. I do not want to speak too much about my childhood, as it makes me sound as if I am lost in a halcyon past, but in the golden age when there were only ever Conservative Governments and television programmes were so much better, I suspect that the average waste bin was rather different. Again, there are probably models of that, and if we are going to meet the targets, I would be interested to know what measurements have been made of the change in waste profile and how it affects them.

Those are specific and testing issues, and I appreciate that the Minister may not have the information readily to hand, though perhaps he does, judging by what he is reading. If he wishes to return to the Committee later with the information or send it in writing, I would be satisfied.

Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher Minister (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Environment)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; he did raise the issue earlier. I made a note of it and failed to respond to my own note. The definition of biodegradability does not change. I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking about the nature of biodegradable waste and the trends in it. The main components of municipal waste are paper, cans, glass, textiles and disposable nappies. Trends develop over time, but I do not have the information to hand. However, I will endeavour to collect it and make a statement at the beginning of the next sitting on 29 April.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is most helpful. I am sure that the Minister has accepted that I asked the questions for a good reason, and I am grateful to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.