New Clause 12 - Battery recycling

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 1st February 2005.

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'(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations within 24 months requiring producers of household batteries to make arrangement for the receipt and recycling of batteries they have produced from retail collection points; and for the costs of collection and recycling of industrial and automotive batteries to be covered by the producer.'.—[Sue Doughty]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Batteries present a big problem. They contain many harmful substances. The UK seems to be at the bottom of the league table for recycling them and we shall have to smarten up our act. The Government have said nothing encouraging about what we will do about battery recycling.

We tabled several questions on the matter, and it appears that the United Kingdom recycles 0.5 per cent.   of batteries. Belgium recycles 58.5 per cent. The next lowest to us in the table is Spain, and it recycles 14 per cent. of batteries. People can put them in a collection box at markets. The figure for France is 16 per cent. Out of eight countries for which figures are available, we are way down—we are scarcely off the bottom.

There are no domestic battery recycling facilities in the UK, although we obtained information today that one will be opened on 17 March. We are pleased about that. It will deal with alkaline and zinc carbon batteries, which represent 80 per cent.—and rising—of household batteries, but clearly the Government have no strategies in place to encourage the market or to deal with the shamefully low recycling rate. If battery waste were being produced by industry it would be classed as hazardous waste, but because it comes from households it is not.

There was previously a battery recycling facility at Avonmouth, but the parent company closed it. Any batteries that are collected are sent to France for recycling. Alkaline and zinc batteries are sent elsewhere in Europe. We do not know where lithium batteries go. They tend to be incinerated, which is very bad news.

We have been trying to find out what has been happening to batteries in the UK—whether they are buried, burned or sent overseas—but there is no data. We have asked how many batteries have been sent to other countries for recycling since 1997. We know that that there is an informal agreement because we all know people who put their old batteries in their cars and take them to France. That takes us back to the idea about waste jumping boundaries. However, there is no data.

We asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how many lithium batteries were incinerated in the UK in a year. The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment said that he did not know. That is not a small problem. It has an impact on human health. Eight per cent. of rechargeable domestic batteries contain the toxic chemical cadmium. As we know, every now and then people throw away their rechargeables when they no longer hold their charge.

The website of the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and that of the Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage state that the chemical cadmium is a persistent bioaccumulative that does not break down in the environment, and when humans are exposed to it through the food chain, the effects can range from headaches and digestive irritation to kidney disease, lung damage and cancer.

In answer to a parliamentary question on the environmental consequences of disposing of spent batteries in landfill, the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment said:

''The main environmental concerns associated with the landfilling of batteries relate to the potential generation and discharge of leachate into the environment of hazardous substances i.e. cadmium, lead and mercury, all known to be toxic to the aquatic environment and human health.'' 

These substances are persistent. He continued:

''Discharge of these substances to the environment are likely to occur through (a) the compaction of weight, leading to substances discharging from the battery and (b) percolation of rainfall further leaching these substances into groundwater. It is however worth noting that spent batteries constitute only 0.1 per cent. of the Municipal Solid Waste stream.''—[Official Report, House of Commons, 11 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1627W.]

However, the EU directive will require all member states to recycle 44 per cent. of household batteries and 80 per cent. of household nickel cadmium batteries, and to collect and send for recycling all automotive industrial batteries. So we are expecting, as is usual when directives get transposed into national law, that this directive will need to be transposed into national law in 2007. If so, several of that directive's requirements will need to met by 2008. It is now 2005.

The new clause is reasonable. Indeed, it is absolutely essential, and one would hope that the Government will adopt it. I am sure that the Government would not dispute the harm that batteries do to the environment and to human health, or the persistent problems caused by batteries not being disposed of properly. That is why we tabled the new clause, almost in a spirit of helpfulness. The Government can make a useful amendment to the legislation to deal with the problem of battery recycling, and we hope that the Minister will deal with it in that way.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:45 pm, 1st February 2005

I note with interest what the hon. Lady has to say. The Opposition have taken several initiatives on the vexed problem of producers of household batteries, which are part of a serious problem that the Government have not addressed by signing up to several EU directives, particularly the one that does not allow the co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste. There will be many opportunities to consider the matter, including a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate tomorrow, but we take the issue seriously and would prefer it to be dealt with as part of the Government's broader strategy for developing hazardous waste disposal, possibly with their European partners, as the problem of the disposal of household batteries will clearly be with us for some considerable time.

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

I am not sure that it is reasonable to expect us to take comments from the hon. Member for Vale of York about signing up to European treaties, when one considers the record of the then Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, to whom the hon. Lady referred with such glowing admiration, as she was the one who signed up to the most remarkable tract of European legislation while appearing to condemn anyone else who was interested in Europe.

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

Mistaken, perhaps. I am not sure that she was misled.

In response to the hon. Member for Guildford, I agree about the importance of dealing with batteries. She will know of the leadership that we have offered in Europe in trying to deal with some of these issues. I am a little surprised that she did not refer to the fact that political agreement on a new batteries directive was   reached at the December 2004 meeting of the Environment Council. The directive will make producers responsible for the collecting and recycling of all sorts of batteries. As there are different sorts of batteries, so cases are different, and generalising across the board might be a mistake.

The directive is expected to be adopted in 2006. The problem is that it may undergo tax changes before then—that is a familiar experience—so we cannot be sure at this stage of the requirements that it will impose. It follows that any UK legislation on battery collection and recycling, including the requirements of the proposed new clause, passed prior to the directive being adopted might then have to be amended soon after it is passed to ensure transposition and consistency with the directive. That problem is compounded by the fact that we do not yet know whether the directive will be transposed by secondary legislation, or whether it will require primary legislation.

Furthermore, the directive will have a much wider scope than that covered by the proposed new clause. As such, introducing new legislation on batteries ahead of transposing the new directive would cause confusion, uncertainty and unnecessary additional burdens to industry.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My understanding is that a directive, by its very nature, means that the way of achieving the detail of the agreed objective will be left to secondary legislation. Therefore, I would be interested to learn whether this is a new concept. Are the Government coming forward with primary legislation to implement an EU directive?

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

In general, secondary legislation can deal with the transposition of European legislation, but there are circumstances in which that does not apply. We are not certain of the form of the directive as yet.

It is worth pointing out that the UK has an excellent record in recycling automotive batteries, but for portable batteries it would be difficult to exceed the targets proposed in the directive of 25 per cent. collection after four years and 45 per cent. collection after eight years.

Several EU states with excellent recycling records have taken that amount of time to reach these collection levels. Given the experience of battery schemes in other member states, it is likely that a combination of collection routes will need to be used in order to maximise the levels of batteries collected. For household batteries—small sealed batteries—retailers and local authorities are likely to have some involvement. More innovative routes may also be used, such as incentive schemes and collection via schools.

To get a head start on the directive coming into force, we are currently in discussions with a range of interested parties. The directive has the following aims: first, to harmonise national legislation across the European Union; secondly, to contribute to the   creation of an internal market for the collection and recycling of old batteries; thirdly, to put in place arrangements for financing to avoid freeloaders in the market; and, fourthly, to provide a level playing field for all the actors involved.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:00 pm, 1st February 2005

I had just finished outlining our discussions with a range of interests to get ahead of the directive. I hope that that will have given some encouragement, particularly to the hon. Member for Guildford, about what we are doing instead of waiting for the directive to come into play. It would be inappropriate to place requirements in legislation ahead of being certain of what is required from the directive. Sometimes haste can lead to confusion. For example, people might start down one track and be invited to invest in facilities that might not meet the precise requirements.

It is important to get the proposed directive in place, and it has our strong support. It cleared scrutiny in both Houses early in 2004. At that time, the UK Government welcomed its aims, which were

''to achieve environmental objectives and to have an effective and workable directive that is economically viable for those with producer obligations.''

There were one or two comments about a scheme in the late 1990s in which a small percentage of rechargeable batteries containing cadmium were collected. Regrettably, the scheme, which was called Rebat, fell into disuse when not all battery producers agreed to provide funding. The hon. Member for Guildford asked about lithium battery recycling, and she may be interested to know that AEA Technology has established a facility for recycling such batteries at Golspie in north Scotland, and trials are under way.

The record shows considerable variation in levels of recycling of different types of batteries. The figure for consumer batteries is below 2 per cent., whereas for automotive and industrial batteries it is more than 90 per cent. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been in discussions with the Local Government Association, the Waste and Resources Action Programme and battery manufacturers and retailers about establishing a project to promote portable-battery collection and recycling, and to develop battery-recycling infrastructure in conjunction with several authorities.

I endorse the plea made by the hon. Member for Guildford about battery recycling. We are addressing that issue. What would be inappropriate would be to set a time limit or to put legislative requirements ahead of certainty about the directive's requirements. I hope the hon. Lady will withdraw her new clause

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for his full and informative answer. I certainly take his point that, if the directive is coming along, precision is important and working with what the directive requires is right.

In the spirit of getting to the end of the Bill, I will comment on the new word that appeared with hazardous waste, which was ''head start''. I say hurrah and welcome, and how good it was to hear that; we will be watching what happens. As the Minister knows, the Opposition have often said, particularly of hazardous waste, that there is too little being done, too late. The waste industry is left with a huge headache trying to scrabble together mechanisms for dealing with waste that can no longer go to landfill.

I hope that the Minister and his team will rapidly work with the suppliers and the people dealing with collection and processing of batteries, narrowing down options for what might or might not be required under the directive. Instead of getting to the day when co-disposal ends and finding that we are not sure what we are doing, the systems will be clearly in place and we will have licensed places able to take batteries for disposal when we need them.

I will work on what the Minister said and will watch to see what will happen. I welcome the words ''head start'', which are slightly new to this sort of debate, and will not press the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Forth. May I say what a pleasure it has been to serve under your chairmanship and that of Mr. Taylor? I hope you will convey our thanks to him.

It is appropriate to thank the Clerk, Hansard, the attendants and the police officers, who have made sure that the Committee, despite the high passions raised on various occasions, has proceeded in an orderly fashion.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their support. Indeed, several of them have managed to stay awake for considerable parts of the discussion. I thank the speaking Whip on the Opposition Benches for his occasional sedentary interventions, as well as for leaping into the lead position at one of our sittings. I am grateful to the Opposition for what has been, in general, constructive engagement and probing of the Government's entirely virtuous approach to these matters.

I hope that I have thanked all those required to be thanked—except the officials who have supported me. They have done a tremendous job in the preparation of the Bill and in the consultations that went on before.

Mr. Forth, it has been a pleasure to be a member of this Committee.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:15 pm, 1st February 2005

On a point of order. May I echo most warmly the Minister's kind words, particularly for your and Mr. Taylor's excellent chairmanship. We have benefited from your guidance. We give thanks,   too, for the excellent support we have all had from the Clerk, and to Hansard, which has borne with us when we have lost the papers needed for writing the report, the attendants and, as ever, the police for watching over us. I pay particular tribute to my colleagues who manfully carried on in my inexcusable absence while on business outside the Committee. I hope that I am forgiven for that. My hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds, for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) leapt into the breach.

I thank the Minister and, through him, the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment. The full briefing from their officials has led to a greater understanding and clarification of the Bill. We are obviously disappointed that we have not managed to change it one iota but we hope to do so on Report. We have also greatly enjoyed working with the hon. Members for Guildford and for Ludlow (Matthew Green).

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I echo the thanks to you, Mr. Forth and to Mr. Taylor for ably guiding us through the Bill. It has led to some complex areas involving DEFRA and some aspects of ODPM legislation. It was useful to have that help and support. Particular thanks go to the officials, the Clerks, the police and the Hansard reporters. We need those people for our Committees to work. Their diligence in asking the right questions at the right time ensure that the entries in Hansard accurately reflect our proceedings.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow for his expertise on ODPM matters and his general support. My thanks go to the Whips for ensuring that we got through the business in the time allocated. I thank the Ministers for the thoughtful and constructive way in which they responded to our points. I thank the Conservative Members for the points they brought to the debate, which has given us an adequate opportunity to examine the Bill. I look forward to working with this team should the opportunity present itself again.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

It falls to me to add my thanks to my parliamentary colleagues for the way in which they have conducted the Committee. They have made it a pleasurable task for me and my colleague David Taylor to take the Chair. We are both very grateful. I add my thanks to our officers, the police, the badge messengers and the Hansard reporters for, as ever, giving us their support throughout the Committee.

May I also acknowledge the silent but professional presence of departmental officials who are a key to any Committee? They are often unsung and unrecognised, but I know how valuable they are and how much any Minister relies on them for their professional advice. Most of all I should like to thank our Clerk who has kindly but firmly guided me through the Committee and kept me more or less on the straight and narrow. For that I am very grateful.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at eighteen minutes past Five o'clock.