Schedule 5 - Producer responsibility for disposal costs

Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 10th November 2020.

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Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:00 pm, 10th November 2020

I beg to move amendment 17, in schedule 5, page 157, line 9, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

Earlier this afternoon, I noted how important the Bill is and how we need to ensure that it receives thorough scrutiny, so that it is as strong and coherent as it can be. With that in mind, we need to do what I urged the Committee to do earlier: get the Bill right, so that we honour and meet the promise of a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation. I remind the Minister that she and her colleagues heralded that promise at every opportunity, until the Bill disappeared in March, only to return now.

That is why we are proposing the amendment. As I noted with amendment 16 to schedule 4, we must not rest on our laurels. We cannot have a Bill that is simply made up of passive and weak “mays” and “coulds”; we need the “wills” and “musts”. The fact that we have waited so long, listening to campaigners and those active in the sector, means that we cannot waste the opportunity to deliver a strong, wide-ranging and competent piece of legislation.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her amendment, but I reassure her that we feel it is not needed. The Government need the flexibility—I have mentioned this before—to decide what measures will best deliver the outcomes we want to see achieved. Requiring producers to pay disposal costs in all cases might not be the appropriate option.

The power is drafted to give flexibility to choose the appropriate measure, or combination of measures, for any product. It also gives us the flexibility to decide for which products or materials producers must pay disposal costs, the producers who must pay the disposal costs, the costs that they must pay and what those costs should be.

At this point, I will take a step back to reflect on what the measures will actually mean. The powers will allow us to create a strong financial incentive for businesses to do the right thing. I have spoken with businesses, and of course they want strong signals, because without them they will not be inclined to invest, innovate or go in the direction that we want them to go. That is so important.

The measures will encourage producers such as supermarkets to reduce the packaging they use in their products, so that less waste is produced. Everybody will start thinking about their products and their packaging, because they have to be responsible for what happens to it at the end of the day. It would be in the best interests of manufacturers to make products that are more reusable and recyclable. Thinking back to nappies, if they are to be reusable or rewashable, they could contain recycled fabric—in fact, that is a jolly good idea, and someone is probably already doing it. That is just an example. Such decisions should all have sustainability in mind, and the customers will see that—with the new labelling and all the information—in the products that they buy.

I can therefore reassure the hon. Member for Newport West that the Government have every intention of making regulations using schedule 5. The resources and waste strategy also commits us to reviewing and consulting on measures, including extended producer responsibility for five other waste streams by the end of 2025. Those five include textiles, construction materials and fishing gear. Along with the other products in that list, they have all been highlighted as urgent areas that could do with this kind of focus.

We need to retain the flexibility to introduce product-specific regulations using the appropriate powers, and as drafted, this power provides the flexibility to impose extended producer responsibility obligations where it is appropriate to do so. I hope that is helpful, and I therefore ask the hon. Lady whether she might withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for her words, and respectfully say that strong signals sometimes need to be backed up with strong words, which is why we wanted to amend the wording of the schedule to “must”, not “may”. However, that point having been made again, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment 161, in schedule 5, page 157, line 13, leave out from first “the” to end of sub-paragraph (2) and insert

“social costs incurred throughout the lifecycle of the products or materials.”

As the Committee will know, schedule 5 allows the relevant authority to make regulations that require

“those involved in manufacturing, processing, distributing or supplying products or materials” to

“meet, or contribute to, the disposal costs” of those products. This is all about the journey, from start to finish, of the materials that we all rely on every day, even when we do not think about it. We have already had ample examples of the kinds of recyclable things we need to consider. I have to say to the Minister and her colleagues that the issues covered by this amendment will be mentioned both now and in coming days, because the Bill lacks foresight in a number of areas, but particularly when it comes to assessing the whole life cycle. That is particularly important, and it should be part of this Bill.

Thinking through this amendment and the background to it reminded me of recent events in Sri Lanka. That reminder was further reinforced when I received the answer to a written parliamentary question that I tabled to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—for those who may be interested, it was question 109651. I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

“what discussions he has had with his Sri Lankan counterpart on the 21 containers of waste returned to the UK from that country in September 2020.”

The answer I received from the hon. Member for Taunton Deane was as follows:

The Environment Agency (EA), as the competent authority for waste shipments for England, is proactively engaging with the authorities in Sri Lanka on these containers and is leading the response on this matter.

The 21 containers arrived back in England on Wednesday 28 October. The containers, which were shipped to Sri Lanka in 2017, were found by Sri Lankan authorities to contain illegal materials described as mattresses and carpets which had been exported for recycling. With the shipment now back on English soil, EA”— that is, the Environment Agency—

“enforcement officers will seek to confirm the types of waste shipped, who exported it and the producer of the waste. Those responsible could face a custodial sentence of up to two years, an unlimited fine, and the recovery of money and assets gained through the course of their criminal activity.”

That was the answer I received from the Minister, and the issues it covers show why this amendment is so necessary. There are some parts that I will be following up on outside this Committee, but its arrival in my inbox was timely for today’s debate.

The Minister’s answer to the question demonstrates that waste and the issues that go with it simply do not disappear. Containers that left the United Kingdom in 2017 and travelled across the world are now coming back to cause trouble. This Bill can design out some of those issues if Ministers want it to, and this amendment would help to ensure that it does. We need to ensure that the life journey of the materials used is followed through by their producers from start to finish, focusing not just on the waste element but on the production and useful lifetime element of these issues. I urge the Minister to think about the social costs of the issues we are discussing, not just the environmental costs. Many of these issues require a cohesive and coherent approach that deals with a number of different factors, and I hope the Minister will give proper consideration to this.

As the Committee will know from the papers, this amendment is relatively self-explanatory, but it is important, and I hope the Minister will give it serious consideration. Once again, our amendment will help to deliver a strong Environment Bill with a strengthened and more comprehensive schedule 5.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

We moved this amendment to urge the Government to go that bit further in their ambition for this Bill. We have gone this far—we have set up the office, and have put in place all of these schedules and provisions—and by going just a little bit further, we could achieve so much more. Including

“social costs incurred throughout the lifecycle of the products or materials” in schedule 5 would make a great difference.

The Local Government Association also believes that this schedule does not go quite far enough. It is concerned that litter and fly-tipping of discarded packaging is not included in the schedule, and that greater clarity on what producer responsibility will cover is needed. It also questions why the Bill does not currently include the term “full net cost”. There is a commitment to pay local authorities, but it should set out clearly that producers will be required to pay the full net cost to councils. To achieve that, the schemes should seek to reduce consumption of materials in the first instance, reducing the full life cycle impacts arising from sectors and product groups.

That is why I urge the Minister and her Government colleagues to consider supporting amendment 161, which would address this omission by factoring social costs into the fees, alongside environmental effects. It would also ensure that fees are implemented across the full life cycle of products and packaging, rather than just, as we have said in previous amendments, the end of life impact. Such a change would incentivise responsible and sustainable design to minimise these costs in the first place and enhance the environment for us all.

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

Just to add to my colleagues’ excellent expositions, I draw the Committee’s attention to the wording of the schedule. It is headed “Producer responsibility for disposal costs”—fair enough. Paragraph 1(2) talks about

“the disposal costs of the products or materials”.

It is then as if the framers of the schedule thought, “Hang on a minute, is that what we really want to do?”, because paragraph 2(2) says:

“In this Schedule the ‘disposal’ of products or materials includes their re-use, redistribution, recovery or recycling.”

In order to continue with the way that the schedule is set out, the framers have had to mangle the English language to such an extent as to make it unrecognisable. A reasonable dictionary definition of “disposal” is “the action or process of getting rid of something”. The whole point about the circular economy and the waste hierarchy is to avoid doing that as much as possible in processing waste. Rather, one should try to recycle it, reuse it and keep it in life. It should go round the circular economy for as long as possible.

This schedule therefore looks like it is facing the wrong way in its whole outlook. The amendment goes some way to putting that right by emphasising that it is about the whole life of the product: what happens after it has been used the first time and how it can best fit into the circular economy definition of continuing with its use in the economy, so that new materials do not have to be brought in because the previous materials have been disposed of.

I suggest that the amendment is tremendously helpful, because it puts right the mangling that has gone on to get the schedule into existence in the first place. While paragraph 2(2) goes some way to un-mangle the phrase, the amendment completely un-mangles it. It emphasises what we should all emphasise—indeed, it is policy to emphasise—namely the whole life; the circular life of products that go round and round in the economy.

I hope the Minister will accept the amendment in the positive spirit in which it is intended. Among other things, it will restore to the Bill what most members of the public would consider to be the meaning of the word “disposal”. It is quite important that we ensure that legislation is not just intelligible to the general public, but can be received by them in the spirit in which it was put forward—that is, that they understand a particular phrase to mean what they think it means, not what someone somewhere in a building far away has invented it to mean because they could not get it right in the first place.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:15 pm, 10th November 2020

First, I thank the hon. Member for Newport West for withdrawing her previous amendment and not pushing it to a vote. I thank her for her consideration of this particular amendment, but I would like to reassure her and the Committee that I do not believe it is necessary.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is important that as a society we monitor and address social issues relating to the manufacture of products and materials. In the UK, we address them through legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Human Rights Act 1998. Other initiatives, such as the United NationsInternational Labour Organisation and the Forest Stewardship Council, look to tackle those issues on a global scale.

However, the core focus of extended producer responsibility is to encourage producers to take actions that will help to protect and improve the environment, including paying the costs of managing products at the end of their life and improving the design of products to make them recyclable or increase the amount of recycled material that they contain—all the things that we have mentioned previously. Recycling rates will then increase and the supply of secondary material will increase.

I will quickly address the issue that the hon. Lady touched on about Sri Lanka. I just want to highlight that it is a manifesto commitment, which we will implement through this Bill, to ban all exports of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. That is in clause 59, I think—I cannot read my writing. I have terrible writing.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

I am grateful to the Minister, because this is very important and the hon. Member for Newport West was right to raise it. Those of us who have responsibilities as trade envoys are very conscious of some of the damage done to relationships with overseas countries, particularly Commonwealth countries, where waste has effectively been dumped by local councils. That is partly due to the supply chain for waste disposal. Does the Minister agree that this Bill will make real steps forward in tackling that problem?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The hon. Member for Putney touched on litter, and I was going to say that this is a very wide subject—waste, hazardous waste, export of waste, litter—and clauses 60 to 68 deal with a whole lot of those issues, so we will discuss them at length when we get to them. However, we are mindful of what my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester says, and there are measures in the Bill to really get to grips with some of those things, which are rightly important, especially for our global standing, as he says with his trade envoy hat on. I know he does such great work representing us, so I thank him for that.

I must disagree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about words being mangled. The only thing that we want mangled is the waste, so that we can take it apart and turn it into something else. I completely disagree that the words have been mangled by those who have so carefully drafted the legislation. I will highlight the fact that the extended producer responsibility scheme and the requirements to cover the full net disposal costs of their products and materials when they become waste will encourage producers to make these changes that we all want to the design and the materials that will have an impact on the whole supply chain. That is the purpose of all this. That will then increase the supply of materials for recycling and the quality of material for recycling, by reducing contamination and the use of hard-to-recycle products and materials. The whole circular system will be dealt with, so I take issue with his mangling suggestion.

At the end of the day, our supply chains will be strengthened in secondary materials, which is so important that we will then give investors the signal and the confidence they need to invest in our UK recycling industry, so we can put the recycling units that my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden mentioned everywhere they are required and companies such as Coca-Cola can have all the PET plastic they want to make all the bottles they would like to make from good-quality recycled plastic. It is difficult to get hold of enough of many those things now, but when we get these measures in place, the idea is that it will all be sorted out. I can see the hon. Member for Cambridge smiling at me, but I know he knows that I am on the right track.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

My hon. Friend the Minister made a good point about making sure that the costs to the private sector involved in helping us recycle more come to a level at which it is important for them to invest. The fringe benefits from that are massive. Many of the recycling centres that previously sent waste to landfill are now available for all sorts of green energy projects including solar, hydrogen and onshore wind. It will make a huge difference in my constituency of Gloucester, so I am grateful for what she says about how the Bill will help that.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning his constituency and for raising that important point about how we need to get business on board, and how we need to give the right signals and get the right things to happen to move us to the circular economy. At the end of the day, we want less waste landfilled or incinerated, less litter and a decrease in the use of virgin raw materials. These outcomes bring wider social benefits —touching on amendment 17—as they improve the environment for the public and for wildlife. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For all of these reasons, the measures in the Environment Bill are strong enough as they stand, and it follows that social issues such as poor conditions for workers are considered outside the scope of extended producer responsibility. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for her explanation and I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Putney for highlighting the issues of litter and fly-tipping, which really vex people. My inbox is full of complaints about such issues as are, I am sure, those of most Members here if their constituency is anything like mine. It is important that the quality of people’s environment is enhanced and made as good as possible. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test: as he points out, the wording is important. People outside these walls do not fully understand what the Bill is trying to say: the word “disposal”—as he says—is in the dictionary and it means getting rid of something, but we want to make sure that we have a cyclical economy. We come back to making sure that words matter.

I was pleased to hear the Minister highlight the manifesto pledge not to dump rubbish in non-OECD countries. It raises the issue of whether it will go to OECD countries, but that is obviously important. I was also pleased to hear COP26 raised. It is important that the UK sets a shining example to the rest of the world on that, and that is why we are pushing amendment 17: it is so important that we make sure we get it right at this stage so that, as has been mentioned, future generations look back on the Environment Bill with pride. We will be seeking to divide the Committee.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 22 Environment Bill — Schedule 5 - Producer responsibility for disposal costs

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Schedule 5 agreed to.