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Renewable Content Obligation

Volume 488: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

As the House resumes its sitting, I add my heartfelt condolences to David and Samantha Cameron on the tragic loss of their son, Ivan.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of minimum levels of recyclates in designated products and classes of product; to establish a scheme for the certification of designated products; and for connected purposes.

Recent press reports about waste mountains piling up, because of the collapse of markets for recovered waste as raw materials for new production, are wide of the mark. Most recovered waste continues to be sold at reasonable prices, although it is fair to say that there has been a considerable falling off in the price for cans, PET plastic, paper and cardboard. Those are the sinews of recovered material in the UK and the vital ingredient in ensuring that the waste hierarchy is maintained.

That hierarchy, long adopted as the guide to waste management practice, indicates that the best way to reduce waste is to avoid creating it in the first place; if it is created, it should be possible to recover and reuse it. If not, and if it is organic, the waste can be composted and, further down the hierarchy, used for energy recovery. Only after all other uses have been considered might residual waste be disposed of in landfill.

The press reports perhaps gain more credibility than they deserve because they reflect an underlying question often asked about recovered waste: what happens next? If all the efforts of recovery are lost because nothing does happen next, the point of those efforts will come into question. Where recyclates are concerned, the establishment and development of markets for the raw materials that come again into existence are a vital part of the process.

As a country, we have been doing well in recent years on the issue of recovering waste. Landfill is reducing significantly, waste growth is slowing and, in the past 10 years, recycling and composting have quadrupled. The recycling of packaging has doubled. Those are impressive gains on the picture 10 years ago of overwhelming reliance on landfill, with the consequent huge waste of usable resources and the huge loss of opportunity to replace virgin material coming into the production cycle with recovered, already-used raw materials. It also represented an enormous cost in carbon emissions, but we still have a long way to go. We are still landfilling far more of our waste than virtually any other country in Europe and we face ambitious targets for the further development of the recovery of waste over the next 10 years.

By 2020, we should be recovering 75 per cent. of municipal waste and rapidly reducing to a minimum residual municipal and commercial waste that goes to landfill. That means, quite simply, that we will need to find ever more widespread markets for the resources that we are recovering. An increasing range of products will have to have a substantial element of recovered materials in their content. If we do not find markets for this resource, it will inevitably tumble down the waste hierarchy—high-grade waste such as food standard plastic will be mixed with low-grade plastic, and recyclates that could be used for manufacture will be used for energy. At worst, pre-collected and sorted waste with no market for its potential will return to landfill.

The Daily Mail and its like tell us regularly, and usually erroneously, that carefully collected and sorted waste is all going into a big skip and thence to landfill. It is true that a good proportion of that waste is exported for reuse and does not enter the domestic product cycle, but some of this is justified in the long term. For example, we produce far more scrap metal as a country than we could conceivably use for metal manufacturing, so it makes sense to export clean metal for manufacturing abroad. The recent dip in markets was very much a phenomenon of demand for exported waste and indicates that the international market is perhaps a less reliable way to go than has been assumed. Yet today we rely on this market to remove much of our sorted waste.

As regards glass, we export 250,000 tonnes a year out of 1.5 million tonnes recycled. We export more than half the 8.6 million tonnes of paper and card that we recycle. Two thirds of plastic packaging and almost 80 per cent. of metal is exported. We can imagine what the loss of these markets might do to the stream of recyclates coming through the system on a continuous basis. That will not happen, of course, but to keep up with the expanding stream of recyclates, we need to export more, as matters stand, and in some instances to export more where identical virgin material is coming through our docks the other way to enter the production cycle.

My ten-minute Bill, which should perhaps be more exactly and accurately entitled the recyclate content Bill, would provide a way to face up to this future and emerging problem for our waste with confidence and with secure markets, primarily here in this country, for the results of our efforts to recover and reuse our waste streams. It would enable the Government to specify levels of recyclate to be included in the production of designated products on sale in the UK. In short, where a product or a range of products was designated by the mechanisms contained in the Bill, it would be required, as a condition of sale, to have the right amount of recycled content within it.

This might be thought of by some as a sudden and irrational flight of fancy—“That would never work!” Yet it does already, in goods and services that we all buy and use. The renewable transport fuel obligation, or RTFO, requires producers of fuel in the UK to include in their products an aggregate of 2.5 per cent. renewable fuel this year, rising to 5 per cent. by 2010—that is, the addition of biodiesel or bioethanol to mineral fuel. If someone switches their lights on, the product that they will be using and buying—electricity—will have, as a requirement of sale to them, a defined element procured from renewable sources. The Bill, then, would not introduce a new concept or restrain the market but instead provide a level playing field for the makers of designated products and, as in the case of the RTFO and the renewables obligation, a buy-out price or the opportunity to purchase credits if someone does not or cannot comply. Those exceeding their targets in recyclates have an opportunity to benefit by trading additionally with those who do not.

There are enormous opportunities for the use of recyclates in products, usually at or near the cost of finding the raw materials from virgin sources. The issue is largely the will to do it and to break the “first mover” cycle of those who say that they cannot supply recycled content products because they cannot get reliable supplies of raw material and, on the other hand, those who say they cannot reliably supply recyclates for manufacture because people will not include recyclates in products. This is of course not true for substantial sections of industry: many manufacturers work hard at including renewables. I applaud the work of those engaged, for example, in the Courtauld commitment on industry recycled content. I commend the work of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, which successfully matches up companies that have what they regard as waste with those who can use precisely that waste as a resource in their processes—exactly the sort of circular metabolism set out by the Bill. The work of the Waste and Resources Action Programme in encouraging and developing markets for recyclates is also tremendously important and could be greatly enhanced by a recyclate obligation, increasing on a slope as the market firms and the procedure becomes a commonplace.

What might suitable designated products be? We can think of glass bottle manufacturing using sorted cullet, glass wool for insulation using mixed cullet, road-making material using ground glass and recycled aggregate, breeze block manufacture using recovered ash, street furniture and similar products using recycled low-grade plastic, and yes, items such as recycled high-grade plastic milk bottles. There is also, of course, the manufacture of cardboard and the production of paper, even newsprint—currently highly recycled but using, in some cases, material that we send to Canada and which comes back to us as newsprint. There is a long and wide-ranging list, and the task of the mechanisms set out in the Bill would be to set recyclate content levels achievable from supply of waste and introducible economically into the product cycle.

How Members should not get me wrong: the Bill does not seek to address failure, or a crisis. It seeks to secure the future for successful recycling in the UK by closing the loop, by making sure that as much as possible goes back into the loop of production, consumption, recovery and presentation for reuse, and by making that closed loop resource-thrifty in a world where we are depleting resources such as oil, from which we make plastic a million times faster than we are replenishing it, and carbon-thrifty in a world where we have to reduce radically the amount of carbon we emit to keep the world habitable. It will do so by using the mechanism of market-shaping to secure the market, and in so doing, it will secure our future recycling requirements.

Question put and agreed to.


That Dr. Alan Whitehead, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen, Mr. David Drew, Emily Thornberry, Mr. David Chaytor, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Chris Mullin, Paddy Tipping, Dr. Desmond Turner and Mr. Elliot Morley present the Bill.

Dr. Alan Whitehead accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May and to be printed (Bill 64).