October 15, 2002
May I take the opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) to his Front-Bench post? I no longer have to be quite so kind to him as he is no longer the pairing Whip, but it makes sense to spare a few kind words for his hard work, in several guises, for our party; he was vice-chairman, as well as occupying a senior post in the Whips’ Office. I know that he will enjoy what is no doubt an exciting new portfolio for him.
I also have a word of welcome for the Minister for Rural Affairs, who is earning his corn this morning by dealing with two consecutive debates. Earlier, I spoke with his private office, and I want to say at the outset that the idea behind the debate is not to be overly party political, but to make constructive points about recycling. One of the few privileges of Back-Bench duty in this place is the occasional luxury of introducing a debate on a pet subject. I am not unrealistic about the likelihood of changing the law with my words today, but I hope that we raise the profile of the issue. The debate provides me with a platform to express my views and an opportunity to put on record my concerns in relation to recycling.
Recycling household waste is a key topic, and I make no apology for devoting time to discussing it. When I was growing up in the 1970s – not all that long ago – Britain was considered to be the sick man of Europe. A more accurate tag for Britain today, despite the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent protestations to the contrary in his Johannesburg speech, is the dirty man of Europe. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our somewhat risible record on recycling household waste.
I represent the most central of the United Kingdom’s inner-city seats – the very constituency in which the debate is taking place. I therefore appreciate that my constituents, the throng who visit London daily and, dare I say it, all of us in the House are responsible for a significant amount of litter that is disposed of in central London. Similarly, I appreciate that the built-up nature of the district means that we do not suffer the blight of either a local landfill site or an incinerator in our midst. My call rapidly to increase the rate of recycling is therefore not based on narrow, constituency self-interest.
The sheer magnitude of the garbage problem is characterised by the horrifying statistic that, every hour of the day, people in this country throw away enough litter to fill one of the great landmarks of my constituency, the Royal Albert hall. That amounts to 100 million tonnes of litter each year, the overwhelming majority of which finds itself in a landfill site or an incinerator.
It does not have to be that way. England is way behind most of its European Union partners in the household recycling league. A few moments ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) told me that Denmark has an innovative scheme, similar to the old deposits for bottles, that applies to plastics as well as glass whereby a small deposit can be retrieved for bottles taken to a supermarket and placed in a recycling mound. Such an approach, using a carrot rather than a stick, would be welcomed in many parts of Europe.
Some 46 per cent. of German household waste is composted or recycled. The figure is a miserly 9.5 per cent. in the UK, and only Ireland, Italy and Greece have marginally worse records on household recycling. The much-derided EU – on this side of the House at least – has produced some sensible household waste targets. In the 25 years up to 2020, beginning in 1995, we are expected to reduce the amount of biodegradable household waste being sent to landfill sites to about 35 per cent. of the 1995 level. The interim target is a 25 per cent. reduction between 1995 and 2010. We are roughly halfway through that period, and it is fair to say that we have made only a negligible impact in reducing waste during the past seven years. We have a lot of catching up to do in the next two thirds of a decade.
One thing that always strikes me is that we must try to bring the issue down from sustainability in the broader sense, which may excite many of the experts in this field, to a basic level that will appeal to our constituents. I always find it remarkable that after I buy a cup of coffee at a local coffee bar – a Starbucks or a Coffee Republic, of which there are many in my constituency, as anyone who walks around the streets of Cities of London and Westminster knows – the receptacle will be thrown away. Some may be recycled, but the great majority are not. The reality is that that polystyrene cup ends up in a landfill site where it will probably take about 1,000 to 2,000 years to disintegrate fully. That cannot be a sustainable way of dealing with our waste in the years and decades ahead.
Many experts are already are talking about the destructive enzymes that are developing beneath the oceans as huge amounts of indestructible plastic and chemical waste are dumped at sea. Likewise, the prospect of landfills becoming full is a pressing concern that all local authorities and national politicians must address. In my constituency, commercial recycling is as key in the war on waste as the household initiatives that have developed in recent years. If ever local and individual considerations should be a guide – thankfully, that is often the case in politics – it is in the matter of recycling, which is personal. It requires the individual to make an effort and a choice.
Leadership from politicians and others in environmental matters is vital, but it still comes down to us as consumers and residents to consider our actions. My experience is that success in recycling connects very strongly with a sense of community and belonging in one’s immediate environment. For that reason, our throwaway culture in central London and in Britain as a whole is so depressing.
In the business world, whether offices, shops or factories, there seems to be much less enthusiasm to separate paper, plastic and glass than there is in homes. In one sense that is understandable, but, equally, we shall all face a somewhat doom-laden future if we do not start taking responsibility for how our actions affect the planet.
In Westminster, great initiatives among residents have been introduced in recent years. They have prompted a tremendous response, which I have perceived in my 16 months as the constituency MP. However, because of a uniquely high turnover of residents – almost a quarter of the current population are not likely to be living here in 12 months – keeping everyone up to the mark is a continuous and thankless task. In the City of Westminster as a whole, and no matter how hard the environmental and cleansing departments work, all of us, as members of the public, could achieve much more by being considerate with our waste.
I am a great paper user – I am sure that this applies to many of my colleagues – and I tend to write letters and to deal with most of my personal correspondence predominantly by mail rather than by e-mail, which is much more environmentally friendly. It is my preferred way, and I do not apologise for it. However, my paper usage is minuscule, compared with just one document that may arrive from any of an array of public bodies that eulogise on hot topics.
To be honest, for many years I felt guilty about not recycling either my office or household waste, so I decided to take a small lead when I was elected a Member of Parliament in June 2001. Let us face it, having rubbish hanging around in our kitchen at home for a little longer than we would normally like is slightly inconvenient, but if we fail to take a lead now, how many more landfill sites will have to be dug in the countryside? How many more industrial incinerators will we need in the decades ahead?
When all is said and done, the acts or omissions of one individual make relatively little difference to the torrent of trash being generated by people and businesses in this country. If the idea of filling the Royal Albert hall on an hourly basis is difficult to grasp, we should consider the matter in this way: each and every one of this country’s 58 million citizens – let us settle on that figure, although we in the House are battling over the number of residents because of the census report – throws away about 20 times their average body weight in garbage each year. What happens to that endless tide of glass, metal, plastic, polystyrene and cardboard? Sadly, while the extent of our waste problem is new, the solutions are devastatingly prehistoric. In simple terms, we dispose of about 90 per cent. of our household and commercial waste, irrespective of its pollution level, by burying it in the ground or by burning it off at an extremely high temperature.
For some time, scientists have noticed a strong link between polluted landfill sites – about 300 in England and Wales contain the most hazardous industrial waste – and an array of birth defects. Last August, the British Medical Journal published findings from Imperial college, London, which is in my headquarters area, that raised doubts about not only the most heavily polluted industrial waste sites, but all 2,300 landfill sites in the UK. Apparently, babies born within a couple of kilometres of such a site are more likely to suffer congenital abnormalities than those born further afield. Given that roughly three quarters of the British population live in such close proximity to their nearest landfill site, and in the aftermath of the great scares over BSE, CJD and foot and mouth disease, I fear that public confidence in the reassurances of any Government, of any political colour, has now reached an all-time low. Despite such medical evidence and increasing public awareness of the potential hazards of industrial burial, the vast majority of UK household waste continues to be sent directly to such sites.
It would be unfair to characterise any Government, of any political colour, as having simply sat on their hands as the landfill problem became ever more pressing. My party, the Conservatives, introduced the landfill tax – the UK’s first environmental tax – in 1996, but the first few years of its operation, other than a very modest Treasury windfall, have had little impact on its target. Anyone who dumps waste in a licensed landfill site is taxed at about £12 per tonne of biodegradable waste and £2 per tonne of non-biodegradable. Most commentators admit that such penalties provide virtually no disincentive to using burial. Even setting the tax at such derisory levels has given rise to a culture of non-compliance – some three fifths of local authorities report that illegal fly-tipping has increased since the introduction of the tax and much of it occurs on farm land, which has blighted many people in rural constituencies.
In March 2001, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, in its paper "Delivering Sustainable Waste Management", attacked the inertia and low expectations that continue to characterise waste management in this country. It also criticised the Government’s much-vaunted 2000 waste strategy as failing to provide real vision.
As ever, the crux of much of the new regulation is its enforcement. The hapless Environment Agency appears to be hopelessly overstretched and confesses that it is aware of cases in which illegal operators have opened sites, allegedly as construction sites, that are used for dumping contracted waste at levels below that of the landfill tax.
I understand that several leading lights in the waste disposal industry have been quoted as saying that millions of tonnes of material have been diverted in recent years to form the contours of golf courses, shopping complexes, sports grounds and housing estates. The Environment Agency seems to have little authority to license or inspect such sites, and we can hazard only a wild guess at the true level of such illegal operations. All too often, as I think the Minister can confirm, the regulations and disincentives in terms of fines are so derisory as to make little difference.