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Waste Paper Salvage

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 2 November 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Sparks.]

10.0 p.m.

It is very unusual in this House for the subject of an Adjournment Debate to follow so directly upon the subject matter of the main debate preceding it. A few moments ago, the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade referred to growing difficulties in the paper industry in this country, and by a coincidence that is the subject matter of this Adjournment Debate for which I balloted successfully 14 days ago.

The hon. Member is commenting on what has been said in a previous debate. That is specifically forbidden. He should address himself to the subject he has put down for the Adjournment.

The mundane but very materialistic subject of this Adjournment Debate is concerned solely with the salvage of waste paper and allied materials, primarily for defence purposes. I should, at the outset, declare that I have a remote personal interest in this matter, in that among my business activities I am the managing director of an engineering company which is a large consumer of the fabricated products directly derived from salvaged paper.

Not only is this matter of salvaged paper of direct interest from a defence point of view, but it also has an immediate bearing on our balance of overseas payments, because, if we are unable to obtain, in the course of the next few years, a sufficient supply of indigenous materials for paper, board, cardboard and millboard manufacturing purposes, it will be necessary to import equivalent materials not only largely from soft currency areas, but also in some measure from hard currency areas.

There seems to be some misapprehension that the salvage of waste paper is concerned primarily with newsprint, and I see that a number of Parliamentary Questions have been put down on this subject during the last few weeks. I should therefore make it perfectly clear that the newsprint industry consumes only 2 or 3 per cent. of salvaged waste paper and, in fact, that industry dislikes intensely to use waste paper because it produces a gravely discoloured sheet which cannot be printed upon easily and which reproduces photographs badly.

May I summarise the principal purposes for which we urgently desire an increasing tonnage of waste paper for defence and general manufacturing? First, a high percentage of the manufactured goods and commodities shipped from this country overseas, for export purposes, are packed in containers other than timber containers, and those containers can only comprise fibre board or millboard cartons, reinforced in one way or another, for carrying packs of up to 112 lbs. in weight. That position has been accentuated very largely since the devaluation of sterling due to the inevitable increase in the volume of export trade, notably articles which are not very bulky.

Secondly, we need vast quantities of salvaged paper for the production of containers for the distribution of essential goods on our home market; and thirdly, for direct defence purposes. The War Office, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and practically all the Supply Departments at this moment need increasing quantities of containers which the fibre board container manufacturing industry is finding the greatest difficulty in providing, due to the shortage of salvaged material.

The account came to me—which has since been confirmed, only today—that the buying authorities of the Ministry of Supply were recently seeking a quantity of two million containers for the shipment of essential stores to the Middle East and Far East, and, without going any further into details, I may add that the manufacturers of the containers were in the unhealthy position of having to tell the Ministry that they could only provide these containers by taking them out of allocations set aside for the manufacturers of goods for export; in other words, it became a "tug-of-war" between defence and export needs.

I should like to give a brief history of our salvage arrangements for waste paper during the course of the last decade. In 1939—where I begin in order to get the statistics in correct perspective, as that was the last pre-war year—the total national salvage of waste paper was 750,000 tons. It rose in 1942 to 874,000 tons, a very considerable increase due, of course, to the stimulus of patriotic appeal in war-time and the special centralised arrangements made by the Board of Trade in conjunction with the local authorities. It later dropped, no doubt due to war weariness and over-exhortation, to only 583,000 tons in 1945. Then, in the post-war years, it rose to 796,000 tons in 1949. That figure I commend particularly to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary, because it happens to represent 30,000 tons more than the whole storage capacity of the board mills in the United Kingdom could absorb.

It was at that moment, in 1949, that the President of the Board of Trade took the decision to withdraw the arrangements left over from the war, for the collection of waste paper by local authorities. The withdrawal of that support led directly to two results. First, some 40 to 50 per cent. of local authorities in the country ceased salvage of waste paper. Secondly, the price of waste paper, which had averaged £6 8s. 6d. per ton f.o.r. for good clean mixed and baled waste in 1949, dropped immediately to £5 per ton or lower. In fact, the City of Edinburgh was left high and dry with a very large quantity of waste paper which the mills refused to accept. In the end, it was either burned or given away for a nugatory or trifling figure.

Only about 30 per cent. of local authorities today are collecting salvage paper. I have made inquiries in my own constituency, because I am in the what I believe is the unique position of having no fewer than six local authorities wholly contained within the boundaries of my own constituency. The principal local authority, Kidderminster, happens by coincidence—and I do not say this in any parochial sense—to have one of the highest salvage records in the country, which has been maintained throughout the post-war years. It has consistently maintained more than 20 cwt. per month per 1,000 head of population throughout the post-war years and that, I believe, ranks in the highest bracket in the United Kingdom.

I asked the town clerk why that was so. He told me it was due almost entirely to the fact that 300-odd street collection centres have been maintained and that the chief salvage officer was an enthusiastic fellow who had briefed his dustmen and salvage collectors closely and carefully that they were to try and segregate paper salvage and keep it clean. That general enthusiasm and local spirit has been largely responsible for the maintenance of this high record. It is often said that rural authorities cannot collect salvage paper.

It is very difficult indeed, particularly in the Highlands of Scotland or Western Wales; but in England it is not so difficult. In the case of one rural authority in my consituency, Martley Rural District Council, where there are no fewer than 53,000 acres, with a population of only 11,000 and an electorate of only 8,000 spread over a very wide area, the local authority manage to collect from every house in every village and every hamlet mostly at the rate of once a week or, where that is not possible, once a fortnight. That means that they are still bringing in a very considerable volume of excellent raw material.

I turn now to the position of the mills, which seems to me to be one of the controlling factors. In 1947 the mills consumed 645,000 tons of this material. In 1948 they consumed 770,000 tons. In 1949, by a queer coincidence, the figure was exactly the same—770,000 tons, correct to the nearest 1,000 tons. But this year, that is, in 1950—and I commend this figure again to the Parliamentary Secretary's attention—the mills need 900,000 tons, which is no less than 150,000 tons more than the total figure which is likely to be collected throughout the United Kingdom. Therefore, in 1950 there is a potential shortage of 150,000 tons, and the estimate by reliable authorities—the authority I quote here is the Waste Paper Recovery Association which works closely in conjunction with the Board of Trade—is that the requirement for 1951 is one million tons. Thus there is churned up a potential shortage of 250,000 tons compared with the national collection during the current year. It is that shortage of 250,000 tons which we have to face this evening.

I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary has considered alternatives to waste paper. Many people ask why we cannot import wood pulp. The Parliamentary Secretary will know, of course, that Scandinavia is a generous potential source of supply of wood pulp. I spent three or four weeks during the Recess touring pulp mills, timber mills and paper mills in Norway and Sweden, finding out the facts of the situation for myself, and I discovered that there has been an increase of 250 per cent. in the American demand for wood pulp since devaluation. To quote the exact figures to the House, in 1949 the Western European export of wood pulp to the United States was 176,000 tons; in 1950 the Western European export of wood pulp to the United States will be approximately 440,000 tons, which is two and a half times as great, or an increase of 250 per cent.

The Norwegians, the Swedes and the Western European countries are selling wood pulp to the United States of America not only to obtain hard currency in the shape of dollars but also because they believe they can obtain a high yield and a better price. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary wanted to provide an alternative to waste paper by importing wood pulp, he would not be able to obtain it because the United States have already swamped the market with their orders.

Let me turn to the other substitute. I referred earlier to fibre board and mill-board containers which are largely required for export trade and defence purposes. Uninitiated persons in this matter may say that if such containers are not available, why cannot we go back to the traditional forms of packing in wooden cases? The timber position due to the demands of house building——

At 300,000 per annum! The timber position, due to the demands of house building and other forms of capital expenditure is far from easy at this moment, and to obtain a reflection of the exact situation one should compare our imports during 1938 of softwood timber, excluding pit wood and plywood, with our imports of softwood timber during 1949. The figures are illuminating. In 1938 we imported 1,793,000 standards of softwoods, excluding pit wood and plywood. In 1949 we imported 1,079,000 standards. Thus we are importing at present only approximately at the rate of 60 per cent. of the softwood imports during the last pre-war year. That is the reason that we cannot provide more than the present level of approximately 230,000 standards of softwood per annum for the manufacture of wooden containers which might possibly otherwise have provided an alternative to the fibre board containers to which I have referred.

The ball is in the court of the local authorities for waste paper salvage. In 1948 they managed to collect 310,000 tons. In 1949 they collected 285,000 tons. This year they are likely to collect only 250,000 tons. In order to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, I cannot do better than quote an extract from a circular letter from the Board of Trade Paper Controller who, I believe, sits at Reading. It was a letter sent to all the manufacturers of fibre board containers in the United Kingdom: he says:
"I am to stress the point that while it is appreciated that supplies of Fibreboard Packing Cases will not be sufficient to meet the full demand, the highest priority must be given to the supply of cases required in connection with the Rearmament Programme and for the packing of goods for export to dollar Countries. The next order of priority should be given to requirements for the packing of goods for export to other Countries. After meeting such requirements the demand for cases for the packing of goods for home distribution"—
and these are the operative words—
"should be met as far as possible according to the degree of essentiality of the packing requirements in question."
Hence the Paper Controller of the Board of Trade is fully cognisant of the fact that there is an insufficient tonnage of raw material to meet the full requirements of the defence programme, to meet the requirements of the export trade and to meet the requirements of essential home trade distribution.

The largest manufacturers of fibreboard and millboard in the United Kingdom sent me only this morning a statement of their position in regard to stocks of waste paper. I will refrain for strategical reasons from mentioning the situation of the mill, but it is a mill which employs 4,000 people and which makes 70 per cent. of the board in the United Kingdom. These figures show a stock at this minute of 11,000 tons, representing only a two-week reserve, whereas 12 months ago, immediately after devaluation, their stocks were 45,000 tons, representing a 10-week reserve. They tell me that if these stocks are not increased during the remaining two months of this year, they will feel obliged to take out of production a substantial part of their board-making machinery on 1st January, 1951. There is the seriousness of the position.

May I now address myself, very briefly, to the remedies which I propose for the attention of the President of the Board of Trade? First, the salient point of the problem is to get the local authorities to increase their salvage by an amount of 150,000 tons during 1951, thereby raising their total salvage from 250,000 tons, which is this year's figure, to 400,000 tons, which is the optimum figure for 1951. Secondly, the President of the Board of Trade, in my view, would be well advised to reinstitute his Directorate of Salvage, the campaign officers and the bonus schemes, all of which were suspended in 1949 when the temporary surplus of waste paper appeared.

Thirdly—and this is the most important single point of all—the President of the Board of Trade must assuage the outraged feelings of the local authorities who could not sell their waste paper 12 months ago, and he should do it by arranging with the Waste Paper Recovery Association to guarantee a minimum price for good, clean, baled waste paper for a period of three years ending 31st December, 1953. The figure I commend to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary is a minimum figure for this material, in that specification, of £7 per ton free on rail at the particular local authority loading point.

The present average rate is £6 8s. 6d. per ton. So that my suggestion would mean an increase of 11s. 6d. per ton in the guaranteed minimum price.

The fourth point is, I believe, equally important. Local authorities should be stimulated to instruct closely their salvage personnel and everyone in their employment so as to ensure that all waste paper collected is not just thrown into the refuse bin along with a mixed bag of other materials, because if that happens it becomes valueless. The average dustman and salvage collector is an intelligent and conscientious human being. He is perfectly willing to comply with the requirements of the local authority but, like every other human being, he will respond to a proper incentive, and those local authorities which offer their dustmen and salvage workers a bonus are those which generally succeed in making the greatest tonnage contribution to the common pool.

Fifth, the Waste Paper Recovery Association, which is the national body to which I have referred, in conjunction with the President of the Board of Trade, should set a target for the tonnage of waste paper to be collected by every one of the 1,600 local authorities in the United Kingdom in the year 1951, and the total of this tonnage should be 500,000, which is exactly twice the amount the local authorities are collecting at this moment. I realise that 500,000 tons would be 100,000 tons more than the optimum figure I referred to a few moments ago, but it is far better to set a target high and achieve most of it and to have a margin of safety, for none of us knows, in the next 12 months, the ultimate requirements of the defence programme.

Finally, the President of the Board of Trade should confer with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see whether we cannot remove Purchase Tax from the capital equipment for salvage—from the specialised type of salvage vehicle one sees in the streets of the City of Westminster, for example, and which is carrying at the present time a quite high rate of Purchase Tax. To do so would lessen the capital expenditure of the local ratepayers. When he replies the Parliamentary Secretary will, I hope, be able to deal briefly with these six commendations in order to meet the very urgent and pressing raw material situation in the paper board and allied manufacturing industries.

10.21 p.m.

I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) for raising this subject tonight, for he gives an opportunity to the House to consider it, and I trust that publicity will be given to the discussion, and that that will give to the local authorities a spur and an incentive. I should not, perhaps, interpret the statistics that the hon. Member has given in quite the same way as he has done, because the latest available returns of mill stocks show that during the four weeks ended 30th September the amount of waste paper collected was the highest on record for any monthly period, with the exception of one month in 1942 when the first big national appeal for waste paper was made.

Collections of waste paper of all kinds amounted to 17,171 tons per week in September, compared with the average of some 15,800 tons per week for the first half of this year. The difficulty is that consumption has been increasing also. There is no doubt about the fact that during 1950 we have been eating into our previously accumulated stocks. The time has come now when, with reserves dangerously low, we must again make a major drive to increase collections.

The key to the whole situation, as the hon. Member has pointed out, lies in the separate collection of waste paper by the local authorities. Many authorities have given up this collection, partly for the reasons which have been advanced by the hon. Member and partly also because of the relatively low price which, for a time, the mills were prepared to pay for waste paper. I would point out to the hon. Member that at the same time that the mills were stocked with waste paper, so were the sheds of the local authorities; and because the mills were a little bit uncertain about their ability to use waste paper, so the price was reduced, and I understand that, although he quoted a price of £6 a ton as being the average last year——

But at the lowest last year it was reduced to approximately as low as £4 a ton, which was not really an incentive for the local authorities to go on with their collections.

The first need is to bring about a resumption of collections in those urban and semi-urban districts where collection can be an economic proposition. There will always remain scattered rural districts where without the help of a Government subsidy the collection of waste paper could only be a heavy charge on the local rates. Whilst I do not wish to discourage the collection of waste paper in rural areas, perhaps for the present we can concentrate our attention on the urban or semi-urban districts. If these areas co-operate wholeheartedly, the amount of waste paper which could be collected would be sufficient to meet our needs.

It has been suggested that we should restore the Directorate of Salvage at the Board of Trade. I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises and understands that that is not a practical proposition. Once it has been handed back to private hands, the ordinary law of supply and demand should be given a chance to operate. After all is said and done, it has only been handed back for 12 months, and during that time there have been many ups and downs. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade asked the Waste Paper Recovery Association some time ago to let him have a fresh scheme for increasing collections. I suppose the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

The hon. Member asked particularly that the scheme should be on lines calculated to appeal to local councils, and I am glad to say that the Association has now come forward with a plan. Mills have guaranteed to take all the paper that local councils can collect, and to pay a fixed minimum price of £6 10s. per ton for mixed waste paper until the end of 1951. I do not want the hon. Member to go away with the idea that it finishes at that. I understand that it will carry on.

I cannot give way. I must be allowed to continue at this hour.

This is a substantial improvement on the price ruling earlier this year, and should give those councils who have ceased collection that continuous guarantee which they need to encourage them to begin again. It will offer a higher return to those who have carried on. This price is a minimum. Higher prices are offered for the better grades of sorted wastepaper; and even for mixed waste paper, whenever the market price is higher than £6 10s. a ton the mills will pay the market price.

We intend to take steps to bring this offer to the notice of all councils in the more populous areas, and I hope this will mean that a special effort will be made to resume or increase the separate collection of waste paper. Not only does this offer a means of reducing the cost to the rates of the collection of refuse which every council undertakes, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a matter of national importance that the recovery of waste paper should be substantially increased.

The hon. Gentleman did make one or two more points about the payment by results to dustmen. I think he will agree that that is a matter entirely for the local councils. I hope, as he does, that the publicity which I trust will be given to this Debate will spur on the efforts of local authorities to help in the salvaging of a very important commodity.

In the one remaining minute, would the Parliamentary Secretary respond to just one more point? I do not believe that the price guarantee until the end of 1951 only, in spite of his assurance that it will continue, will sufficiently assuage the feelings of the local authorities. Will he reconsider the length of the guarantee?

It is not really up to the Board of Trade. After all, the hon. Gentleman has admitted his interest in the trade, and the Waste Paper Recovery Association is the body which is offering, or at least negotiating, the price. It is really up to him to put on pressure so that the length of time can be extended. I think he will agree with that.

What about priority for vehicles for local authorities to go round collecting?

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Ten o'Clock.