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Examination of Witnesses

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Libby Peake and Richard McIlwain gave evidence.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 2:45 pm, 12th March 2020

We will now hear evidence from Keep Britain Tidy and the Green Alliance. We have until 3.15 pm for this session. I ask our witnesses to briefly introduce themselves and their organisation.

Richard McIlwain:

I am Richard McIlwain, deputy chief executive of the charity Keep Britain Tidy. We work on issues of litter, resource and waste consumption, sustainable living and the improvement of quality places. We ultimately want to see a zero-litter and zero-waste society.

Libby Peake:

I am Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, which is a charity and think-tank focusing on ambitious leadership for the environment. To achieve that, we work with other NGOs, including through the Greener UK coalition, as well as businesses, to identify the most resource-efficient policies.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q The framework I am looking for, particularly in the waste and resources section of the Bill, is something that encompasses all the stages of the waste hierarchy, and particularly reflects how that waste hierarchy is put forward in the waste and resources White Paper, which is supposed to be taken on board as part of the Bill. Do you have any thoughts about the extent to which the Bill focuses on the design, reuse and minimisation stages of the waste hierarchy? If you think that it does not fully do that, are there ways that it could be made more useful in that respect? Do you have any particular thoughts on how the Bill might be pointed more in that direction?

Libby Peake:

I think you are absolutely right. We would certainly welcome the framing in the resources and waste strategy, which is trying to maximise resource use and minimise waste—we think that is the right strategy. There are some things in the Bill that would lead in that direction. The resource efficiency clauses could be very useful. One of our concerns is that these are enabling measures and we are not entirely sure how they will be used.

In terms of what has been talked about and debated, the focus has overwhelmingly been on municipal waste and plastics. To give a bit of perspective, it is worth remembering that plastics make up about 10% of municipal waste; municipal waste makes up about 12% to 13% of all waste; and waste is the final stage of the material cycle. Looking at the overall material impact that the UK is responsible for, 81% of the materials that meet final UK demand occur outside the UK. In terms of measures that we would like to see in the Bill, which we think could improve things, it would be really useful to take greater account of the global material footprint. That would send a powerful signal.

There are some simple measures in the Bill that could potentially be changed quite easily. The extended producer responsibility clauses are welcome. The clauses themselves look at things such as preventing material becoming waste and products becoming waste. The overall framing of it, however, is still on end of life and disposal costs, which does not necessarily point people in the right direction in terms of preventing waste and respecting the hierarchy.

I am sure that we will come on to the single-use plastics charge, which is also potentially worrying because it applies just to plastics. There are lots of other materials with impacts that could be avoided if the Bill took a bigger view towards that sort of thing.

Richard McIlwain:

I completely agree. In many respects, all the key words and phrases are in the Bill, but it is about looking for the joined-up flow from a waste hierarchy perspective.

To go back to clause 1, where it sets the idea of long-term targets at 15 years-plus, it is very brief about waste and resource. I wonder if there, in terms of painting a picture, it could outline the sorts of issues that we are looking to push targets towards, such as becoming more resource efficient, reducing the amount of waste we produce overall, and improving our recycling rates across the whole range of wastes.

As Libby says, when we talk about recycling rates, we often talk about household waste and municipal waste, but a lot of inert waste and soil still go to landfill. There is an opportunity there to look more broadly across the whole piece.

Libby touched on a number of points, including the specific detail about extended producer responsibility and charges for single-use plastics. There are opportunities there to frame the language a bit more and, as Libby said, to be specific when we are talking about things such as charges for single-use plastics. We should not get hung up on the issue of plastic. Plastic pollution is an issue, but plastic itself is a valuable material. We want to reduce consumption of it but keep what is in the system going round and round as far as we can. That is where the targets that look at resource use, waste minimisation and recycling will be key.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change)

Q Those are excellent succinct responses. The circular economy directive already exists, but we are not now bound by it, as we are not an EU member. Do the measures in the Bill reflect the UK moving on from that directive—capturing what is in it and moving ahead of it? Are there things that could be done in the Bill to ensure that that happens?

Libby Peake:

The Government have said that they are going adopt the measures in the circular economy package, but we have not determined yet whether we are going to exactly match what the EU does in future. Yesterday, the EU published a circular economy action plan, which we will not be bound by. It is really welcome that the Government have said on multiple occasions that they want to at least meet, and preferably exceed, what the EU does, but there are some ways in which the document that was released yesterday is potentially more ambitious than the measures laid out here.

One of the things in that document is that the EU is planning to regulate and tax single use and planned obsolescence, and it is not focused specifically on plastics. If the UK wants to get a jump on the EU, there is an opportunity to do that by simply changing the language in the Bill so that we are tackling single use, rather than just single-use plastics.

Richard McIlwain:

I agree that the EU has already talked about an ambition, even by 2030, to halve waste produced. That is very ambitious, granted, by 2030, but that is the level of ambition it is looking at.

As is always the case with enabling legislation, primary Acts, the devil will be in the detail of the statutory instruments, but there may well be some framing to do in the Bill to set the level of ambition about where we are ultimately trying to get to on the materials we consume, the amount we recycle, and the amount of waste we produce.

Even in the circular economy package, there are some targets that have been talked about in the resources and waste strategy, such as 65% household waste recycling. We are currently bumping around 45%, so we have some way to go, but Wales is up above 70%. Perhaps we should be looking across at Wales as a leader, as much as we look to the EU.

Libby Peake:

An earlier leaked version of the circular economy action plan that was released yesterday included a much more ambitious target, which was to halve resource use—not just halve residual waste. That did not make it into the final version, but it would have been revolutionary. It was widely applauded by the environment sector. It has not made it into the EU legislation, but that does not mean that the UK cannot aim for that and up its ambition. That is certainly something that we would like to see in the targets.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q On that point, one of the ideas is that we can do our own thing on our environmental targets. We do not have to do what Europe says, and potentially our targets could be better.

Yesterday, we had some business interests explaining how the measures in the Bill would help them change the design of their products so that they are more reusable and recyclable, longer lasting and so forth. What are your views on measures in the Bill that would help consumers to take more considered actions towards reducing waste and recycling? I am thinking particularly about the requirement for local authorities to be more consistent in their waste collections.

Libby Peake:

I would say that, in terms of recycling collections, a lot of the things that the Government have proposed will certainly correct some of the long-standing shortcomings of the system we have had in the UK. We have a postcode lottery, because people do not necessarily know what can be recycled and it is quite confusing.

In terms of getting people to feel responsible for their decisions and the materials they create, the main mechanism in the Bill that does that is the deposit return scheme, because that is the one thing that will indicate to people that the material they have actually has a value; it is not just a waste material that you need the council to take away. We would certainly encourage the Government to come forward as quickly as possible with plans for an all-in deposit scheme that can encourage such thinking.

Richard McIlwain:

I completely agree. There has been an awful lot of focus over the last few years on how we incentivise business to do the right thing. Often, that is about economics and the bottom line, and we sometimes forget that that is equally important for the citizen. We often come up with campaigns and ways to raise awareness—they involve pictures of dolphins and whales—and we appeal to people’s sense of morality rather than making it cheaper for them to do the right thing.

Libby mentioned a deposit return scheme, which works brilliantly in over 40 countries and regions around the world. We should absolutely be doing that on time, by 2023; we should not be delaying. Charges on single-use items, not just single-use plastics, is another economic nudge for people. On recycling, there are twin sides of the coin. We need to extend producer responsibility and simplify the types of packaging material, which will hopefully all be recyclable. On the other hand, having a harmonised collection system that allows people to collect those at home will make a big difference.

One further step that could ultimately be considered is whether you could place an economic incentive in the home through a scheme such as “save as you recycle”. Once you have harmonised people’s collection systems, you would make waste a separate chargeable service, so people pay for what they have taken away—in the same way that, if you are on a water meter, you pay for what you use. That would really focus minds. There is a real relationship between the producer’s responsibility and the citizen’s responsibility, but we need to incentivise both—not just business.

Libby Peake:

That is a logical extension of the “polluter pays” principle. It is great that that is part of the Bill and that part of Government thinking is that the polluter must pay. At the moment, however, you are tackling only one side: the producers. People’s decisions produce waste as well, and not having “save as you recycle” variable charging, or what is traditionally called “pay as you throw”, puts people off a bit. Not having that does not necessarily carry through the logic of producer responsibility and “polluter pays”.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q I have a quickfire question. We have our resources and waste strategy, which sets our long-term targets for reducing waste and for sending zero biodegradables to landfill by 2030. Overall, do you see the measures in the waste and resources section of the Bill, which is large, as a big step forward in putting all this together?

Libby Peake:

I think it is a really big step forward in sorting out the long-standing problems of the recycling system. It is not yet clear how it will deliver the Government’s commitments and aspirations on waste reduction and resource use reduction. In a way, it is slightly unfortunate—not that I would want to the delay the Bill—that this has come out before the waste prevention plan update, which was due last year and which I understand will be consulted on soon. Hopefully, that will set out some more ambitious policies for how resource use and waste will be minimised before we get to recycling.

Richard McIlwain:

That is a fair point. Absolutely, from a Keep Britain Tidy perspective, we welcome the measures in the Bill. The extended producer responsibility, DRS and charging for single-use items—we hope it is not just single-use plastic items—are big steps forward. As Libby says, in terms of extended producer responsibility, it talks about promoting not just recycling but refill. You would hope that the modulated sums applied to each piece of packaging would be far less if an item can be refilled or reused rather than simply recycled.

There does not seem to be much in there in terms of how we reduce our material footprint overall and how we reduce our waste overall. That is probably an area that we need to consider.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q I want to ask about the targets timeframe. In the Bill, the targets do not have to be met until 2037. Does that date reflect the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in?

Richard McIlwain:

In a word, no.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q What do you think might be a realistic but slightly more ambitious target?

Richard McIlwain:

The Bill allows for five-year plans and for interim targets within that. I do not believe they are statutory targets. We should be looking at statutory targets that are within a parliamentary cycle.

It is all very well having long-term, 15-year targets—that is absolutely the right way; the Climate Change Act 2008 is a classic example of that—but having statutory targets that are agreed at the beginning of each Parliament and then enforced through that Parliament will be key, not just in terms of arriving at the 15-year target, but in terms of giving investors, business and others confidence that they can invest in things that are not ultimately going to be stranded assets.

Libby Peake:

It is quite difficult to say, because we do not know what the targets are going to be. Obviously whatever the targets are, we want them to be as ambitious as possible, and we want to have interim statutory targets to make sure that we are meeting them, like you get with the Climate Change Act.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

We have 14 minutes left and six people who want to use up that time. It is highly unlikely that I will get all six people in, but those who do get the opportunity to ask questions, please be as rapid as possible.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

Do you feel that sufficient consideration has been given to the impact the Bill has on local authorities?Q

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

That is exactly what I mean by a well-targeted question.

Richard McIlwain:

I guess it depends what you mean by the impact on local authorities. If extended producer responsibility transfers the costs of dealing with packaging—whether it is in the recycling stream, the residual waste stream or as litter—and if that is a 100% net transfer and is fairly apportioned, that is a win for local authorities.

I do think there is a transition period; we need to look at how we transition from the systems we have towards the systems that we may well need, for instance in terms of harmonising waste collections. There is a role for the Government in looking at where they can overcome some of those transition needs, such as in contractual matters—for example, if local authorities look to break contracts early to comply with the harmonised systems, because some of them will be in longer-term contracts with the waste providers—to ensure that the costs do not fall unfairly on local authorities.

Ultimately, what I say in my role—we work a lot with local authorities—is that local authorities should look at this very positively. There are a lot of benefits coming down the line, not just in terms of the cost transfer but in terms of the service that they can provide to citizens, such as allowing people to recycle more and better, as long as those material cost considerations are ironed out early on.

Libby Peake:

We know that local authorities are concerned about the impacts of the Bill, but as Rich said, what they need to remember is that the extended producer responsibility reform could really help them. We are moving from a system where local authorities and, ultimately, taxpayers pick up about 90% of the costs for our recycling system to a system where the producers pay 100% of the costs.

Certainly, in terms of how DEFRA officials have been looking at it and the consultations we have seen so far, they are very aware that they do not want to negatively impact local authorities. If you look at things like the commitment to bring in universal food waste collections, which is an incredibly important bit of this legislation, they have said that that will be fully funded. That is really important.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

The Government have brought forward legislation to ban certain types of single-use plastics, including straws, cotton buds and stirrers. Last year I ran a campaign in my constituency called “Sachet Away”, which reduced the use of single-use sauce sachets. How do you think the Bill could help in that? You mentioned charges, Richard. What do you think the effects of the Bill will be?Q

My second question, quickly, is that on the Environmental Audit Committee we had a lot of evidence, including from Zero Waste Vietnam, that our waste that was being exported was not being recycled or reprocessed, but was literally being dumped. Do you think that the Bill can raise people’s confidence that that that will no longer happen?

Richard McIlwain:

Yes, that is ultimately what we should strive for the ambition to be. When we talk about single-use plastics, we must also remember cigarettes and cigarette butts, which are a form of single-use plastic. By count—by the number of them—they are the most widely littered item across the country. There is no reason, for instance, that an extended producer responsibility scheme could not be applied to the tobacco industry as much as to the packaging industry. Let us get some money in to sort that issue out, and plan prevention campaigns to stop that sort of littering.

Evidence from Cardiff University, Wouter Poortinga and others suggests that citizens respond more strongly to the idea of a loss than a benefit. I would argue that is why there is single-digit use of refillable coffee cups, as compared with paper cups. The discount is not attractive to people, and not many people know that if you turned that into a charge, every single person buying coffee would be subject to that charge, and it would get home much more quickly.

We did some YouGov polling—it is two years old now—which suggests that once you get to a 20p or 25p charge, not many people say that they would like to continue paying that for the benefit of having a paper cup. If we get this right and we look across the spectrum of single-use items, plastic items and cigarette butts, and apply extended producer responsibility charging and deposits correctly, those economic incentives could make a big difference, and we could take the public with us.

Libby Peake:

I would like to add to the bans and charges point. Bans on stirrers, cotton buds and straws absolutely make sense, because those things are likely to wind up in the ocean. In advance of those bans coming in, we have seen lots of shifts to other equally unnecessary single-use items made from other materials. McDonald’s is now switching from plastic straws to 1.8 million straws a day that are made out of paper and are not recyclable. We know that bans will cause environmental problems down the line that could be avoided if we used foresight now. It would be great if the Government took that stance and did not simply look at plastics. They can anticipate the perverse outcomes that we know are coming, and that can be prevented right now if we introduce the possibility of charging for all materials.

In terms of waste dumping, it is important to remember that it is absolutely illegal for the UK to send polluting plastic and polluting waste abroad. We are an independent signatory to what is called the Basel convention, which obliges wealthy countries such as the UK to ensure that we are not sending any material abroad if we have reason to believe that it will not be reprocessed in an environmentally sound manner. It is welcome that the Government are saying that they want to stop the practice, but what really needs to be done to stop it is much better resourcing of the Environment Agency and the other sorts of regulatory bodies. The EA’s funding went down by 57% from 2010 to 2019, and that has had the knock-on effect of not allowing it to carry out the necessary inspections and ensure that this sort of waste crime, or this sort of contamination, is not leaving our shores. In 2016-17, it only carried out about one third of the targeted inspections of recyclers and exporters. In 2017-18, it only carried out three unannounced inspections. There is a vanishingly small possibility that people who are deliberately exporting contaminated waste are going to get caught. I think that speaks to the importance of properly regulating and resourcing all the regulators and the Office for Environmental Protection going forward.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

We are really running short of time now, so I am going to take two questions and put them to the witnesses. First, Richard Graham, and then Jessica Morden.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

My questions will be very quick, but they are separate ones for you both, if that is all right, Chairman, and please—swift answers.Q

Richard, you have said how important it is to have the cost of collecting waste separated, so that people know what they are paying for, are incentivised and so on. Do you think that those opportunities are actually in the council tax? That is what people are really paying, is it not?

Richard McIlwain:

Yes, they are under council tax, and because they are under council tax—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Sorry, I did say that we would take two questions first. Jessica Morden.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

Very quickly, as a Welsh MP, thanks for pointing out that there are lessons to learn on recycling from Wales, as the fourth best recycling nation in the world. Are the provisions in the Bill effective in tackling fly-tipping and organised waste crime?Q

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

My question was only for Richard.

Richard McIlwain:

It is within the council tax—absolutely. People sometimes think that they pay an awful lot for waste disposal, when actually it is quite small as an overall approach to council tax. I would perhaps like to see local authorities being more obvious about the way that council tax breaks down. I know that sometimes you get a letter with your council tax bill and a nice little pie chart, but I think we could be more active in explaining to people exactly what that tax does, which would then allow us at some point to break out waste as a chargeable service, as people would be used to it by then and would see the cost. Also, potentially, they would see the benefits of reducing their waste and having a smaller residual waste bin, because it will save them money.

Do you want me to say more, on fly-tipping?

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Yes, fly-tipping and organised waste crime.

Richard McIlwain:

The Bill touches on elements of fly-tipping. I think the electronic waste tracking will be a big step forward, but again there are some people who simply do not bother with a written transfer or an electronic system, no matter what. I think it will make the system more effective and more efficient, but I also think that there is work to do to think about how we drive down 1 million fly-tipping incidents every year.

What we need to do, in my opinion, is reform the system of carriers, brokers and dealers, so that it is much harder to become a registered waste carrier. I would then have a big national campaign that makes people aware that if they give their waste to anyone who is not a registered waste carrier, they can receive a £400 fine, or potentially a criminal conviction, because far too few people are aware of that. Make the system better and more robust, and make people aware that they should ask about the system, and I think you could cut off the source of waste to fly-tippers at the very beginning.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Next, for Libby, if I may—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Sorry, is this an additional question?

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

Q Yes, I had one question for Richard and one for Libby.

Libby, clauses 49 and 50 spell out in huge detail the opportunities for businesses to consider redesigning their products in a more environmentally friendly way. The Bill also talks about food collection, not only from households but from businesses. What encouragement do you think that gives to businesses to redesign products, and also to local councils to get stuck into anaerobic digesters?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Before you answer that, can I bring in Abena Oppong-Asare to ask a very quick question, and then it will be the final two?

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Mine will be very quick, Chair. What powers, duties and resources does the Bill need to clean up litter on highways and road verges?

Libby Peake:

The resource efficiency clauses are welcome, and they are very broad. They are deliberately broad, and they can affect lots of things throughout the materials life cycle. At the moment, it is really difficult to say what sort of impact that will have on businesses, because there is no clear timeline yet for implementing any of these powers; they are enabling powers, and we do not know how they will be used.

One thing that is slightly concerning, which I hope the Government can clarify, is whether or not these sorts of powers and this sort of ambition will also apply to energy-using products—to creating resource-efficient, durable, repairable electronics. That is one of the fastest growing waste streams. Those are the areas that you would most likely think would be useful. They have been deliberately left out of the Bill, on the grounds that those powers are coming to the UK through the withdrawal Act, but I do not think it is yet clear whether the ambition on energy-using products matches the ambition and the potential in the Bill to change how materials and products are used and made.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Can we have a 10-second answer to Abena’s question, if possible?

Richard McIlwain:

Very quickly, roadside litter is an absolute disgrace. Most people agree on that. I would like Highways England to be given the powers and resources to enforce against littering. Local authorities need more resource to undertake the necessary work, because it is a very transient crime. A deposit return scheme, given that lots of cans and bottles get thrown out of cars, may damp down littering. Picking litter up is one thing; preventing it from being thrown in the first place is another.