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Green Waste (Contamination)

Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

The nation owes a debt of gratitude to its metal detector enthusiasts. As I will explain, individually and collectively they have identified a serious environmental disaster that must be averted.

At first glance, the concept of spreading garden waste across farmland seems to be an excellent idea—more “green” than burying it in landfill sites. The idea has been taken up with enthusiasm by councils across the country, encouraged by a combination of financial incentives and regulations to reduce, if not eliminate, landfill. Indeed, local authorities, spurred on by Government targets, compete against one another to see who can collect the most recycling materials. In principle, that is a worthy objective, but it has led to unintended consequences in the collection of so-called green waste from gardens. Once households had their own compost heaps. I still do. That is one basic we should go back to.

It is those serious, environmentally damaging consequences that I shall highlight this evening, in the hope that action will be taken with immediate effect by central and local government to prevent any further damage to the soil and water courses as a result of the contamination caused by discarded materials mixed in with what is often wrongly described as green waste and spread on food-producing fields.

I was first alerted to this worrying situation on 7 June this year, when a constituent, Mr Stuart Elton, attended my advice bureau. Metal detecting is his hobby. What he told me appalled me. Nowadays, when he and fellow metal detecting enthusiasts, with the permission of the land owner, go out looking for buried treasures from the past they are more likely to find a wide variety of metal, cut, crushed and mashed among the rotting green waste. That is not so much a needle in a haystack, but rather the contents of a scrapyard strewn across fields.

That led me to write to the president of the National Council for Metal Detecting, Mr John Wells. I was keen to learn more about the matter, both from a metal-detecting perspective and because of the obvious pollution and environmental consequences that my constituent had drawn to my attention. In due course, Mr Wells travelled from his home in Coventry to have a meeting with me at the House of Commons, which in turn led me to apply for tonight’s debate.

There was a time when the world of archaeology was variously sniffy or even hostile to those engaged in metal detecting, claiming that such activity was harmful to archaeological sites and discoveries. Quite often landowners were oblivious to what was going on. That is no longer the case. The National Council for Metal Detecting and its members have an excellent record of partnership working with all interested parties and have been responsible for some breathtaking finds that have added to the sum of our knowledge of the past. As I represent the first capital of Roman Britain, I am delighted to report that in Colchester we have an excellent metal detectors group, whose members epitomise best practice. It is currently full, with 100 members, and has a waiting list. As recently as 30 November, its chairman, Mrs Sue Clarke, was reported in the Colchester Daily Gazette as saying:

“Colchester is a great place to be part of a metal-detecting group. There is so much history around here. There is never a boring rally.”

The term “rally” in this context refers to members, with the permission of a landowner, going as a group to search for artefacts.

To get back to the subject of my debate—the consequences of the contamination of green waste—I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the serious environmental and pollution issues literally cannot be covered up any longer. Not everyone in the green waste industry is up to the job, whether we are talking about deliberate deceit or failure to comply with the strict regulations. The Minister’s briefing will, I trust, include accounts of people being prosecuted for spreading pollutants and other contaminated material along with so-called green waste.

One example that I have been told about involves a company called Vital Earth GB Ltd, which, in August this year, was fined £75,000, with costs of £13,535, at Derby magistrates court for offences under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The compost delivered by the company to a farmer was found to be contaminated with mixed waste, such as plastics, paper and metals, including kitchen knives, bottle tops and cigarette lighters—not at all environmentally friendly, and not friendly to those engaged in metal detecting, either. The compost quality protocol states that if quality compost is mixed with other waste materials, the resulting mix will be considered to be waste, and will therefore be subject to waste regulatory controls. Spreading it across England’s green and pleasant land is not what should happen to it. After the court hearing in Derby, an Environment Agency official said:

“This is a serious environmental crime. By depositing controlled waste Vital Earth have fallen significantly short of their environmental duties. We will not hesitate to prosecute in such cases.”

Perhaps the Minister could state how many prosecutions there have been under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 against those who have contaminated fields with compost that contains contaminated materials. This serious crime of pollution, which affects fields growing crops for human and animal consumption, and watercourses into which the pollution leaks, is a matter that needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency.

Mr Elton told me that a colleague contacted him to say that

“a farm near Colchester is covered in the stuff and is virtually undetectable. How long will it be before the whole of the Colchester area is affected?”

This afternoon he e-mailed me to wish me luck with the debate, and added:

“Although it was my metal detecting interests that brought me to this problem originally, having seen the dreadful state of some of the treated fields I believe everyone would want to stop this non-biodegradable rubbish turning our countryside into one big landfill site.”

I have been provided with other eye-witness accounts that include references to finding, in “green waste” on fields, medical waste, such as bandages. Another metal detector enthusiast observed that

“many local historical sites are becoming saturated in aluminium and making it extremely difficult to recover metallic artefacts such as coins and brooches and that side of things whilst not as important as the food we eat or environment we live in...will affect our national heritage and academic learning from the past.”

Mr Alan Charlish, from the west midlands, reports that

“Despite the known problems of contaminated compost we in the UK are allowing the stuff to be spread across our fields without, it seems, any form of control. It is not only the obvious contamination that we as metal detectorists see all the time, such as old batteries, various metals, plastics, etc, it is also the unseen chemicals that are going in.”

He added:

“Left much longer the problems will become irreversible. The fact is that despite the claims that screening takes place there are so many contaminants that are entering the food chain via local authority recycling schemes.”

As if those problems were not enough, I have been advised that we must now add ash dieback to the unwelcome ingredients in green waste, because leaves from infected trees are apparently finding their way on to farmers’ fields. I understand that last week, a soil conference conducted by the all-party group on agro-ecology was held at the House of Commons. Various speakers discussed the need for good soil and protection of the environment.

In addition to drawing the Minister’s attention to that meeting, I wish to advise him of the magazine “Digging Deep” which is published by the National Council for Metal Detecting. In issue 9 Mr Wells sets out the concerns of his members about the problem that is the subject of my debate.

I sense that what I have told the House this evening is only a snapshot of a major national scandal. The UK is the fourth largest producer of cereal and oilseeds in Europe, with cereals grown on more than 70,000 farms. There are more than 42,000 beef and dairy farms in England and Wales.

In his article Mr Wells states:

“Green waste is biodegradable waste that can be composed of garden or park waste, such as grass or flower cuttings and hedge trimmings, as well as domestic and commercial food waste. The differentiation green identifies it as high in nitrogen, as opposed to brown waste which is primarily carbonaceous.

This definition identifies those elements that when composted singly or together form nitrogen rich material that when added to existing soil serves to enrich and aid development of plants and crops.”

Thus, in theory, the spreading of green waste on farmland is sensible. Sadly, the reality is different. As Mr Wells so rightly observes:

“The so-called green waste now being spread upon fields cannot be classed as green waste. A high percentage of the content is not compostable and needs to be controlled in exactly the same way as refuse going to landfill or incineration plants.”

In his article he explains how things go wrong in the collection of garden waste, its onward transfer to a contractor, and the manner in which it is then processed and finally spread on fields. Frequently, at each stage, there are failures, the consequences of which are catastrophic.

Elsewhere Mr Wells writes:

“Farmers, in the belief that they are doing the right thing for the community, are being conned, and have their land contaminated with plastic, aluminium, glass and all kinds of other products, containing chemicals and substances which not only destroys the appearance of the countryside but also puts at risk the health of wildlife, our waterways and our human beings.

Thousands of tonnes of this toxic rubbish, containing syringes, bottles, gloves, toys, glass—some of which will not decay for hundreds of years—are being tipped on the fields each year.”

I conclude with a rallying cry from the president of the National Council for Metal Detecting, which I am confident will be echoed by every environmental campaigner in the country:

“The dumping of green waste on farm land is not only ruining our hobby, it is also contaminating the land for decades to come. If this continues, metal detecting in this country will become a thing of the past. The dumping of this material is nothing short of legalised fly-tipping—and has to be stopped.”

I invite the Minister to promise the necessary action to do just this.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) for raising this worthwhile subject. He shows why there is a need to achieve a balance between encouraging the recycling of waste of all types and securing protection for people, animals and the natural environment.

No one should challenge the idea that it is right to encourage the treatment of green waste to produce valuable compost or soil conditioner. We strongly support measures that encourage the recycling of green waste. Over the past 10 years we have invested about £7 million in helping to develop new markets for quality compost. The composting sector in the UK has grown tenfold in the past five years as European and national legislation has encouraged local authorities to collect biodegradable garden and kitchen waste for processing into useful products, rather than consigning it to landfill. Let us not forget that organic waste sent to landfill produces methane, which has strong climate change effects. Composting is now a key component of many local authorities’ waste strategies, as my hon. Friend pointed out, as they work to improve the sustainable management of their waste.

The demand for composted products has continued to increase. The industry turned over an estimated £226 million in 2008-09, 36% above the figure for 2007-08. Agriculture is the most important single market for compost, accepting 1.8 million tonnes of a total production of 2.8 million tonnes in 2010. Green compost, when produced to the right quality standard and used in the right way, benefits agriculture, particularly on arable—cropped—soils. It replaces fertilisers or the use of peat and other material, thus conserving natural resources.

However, we must ensure that compost is produced to the right quality standard. That starts by ensuring that we keep green waste separate from other waste and avoid the introduction of contaminants, be they physical ones, such as pieces of metal, or less obvious ones, such as oil, rubber and residues found in street sweepings from the public highway. We need to ensure that the composting process is carried out in an environmentally sound manner and does not result in the production of polluting leachate that escapes into water courses or odours that cause a nuisance for those living nearby. The Environmental Agency has an important role in regulating composting and other waste recovery operations.

As has been graphically described, we do not want contaminated waste spread on land. We have in place quality protocols that are supported by publicly available standards—PAS 100 for compost and PAS 110 for the digestate for anaerobic digestion. Those specifications allow only source-segregated biodegradable inputs, including biodegradable garden and kitchen wastes collected from households. The PAS 100 specifications include stringent limits on physical contaminants, such as metal, plastic and glass, that can be present in the finished composts. Those limits were revised down from a total of 0.5% of dry weight to 0.25% in 2011. They are now the toughest in Europe. If those standards are met, the output is considered to be completely recycled and is no longer subject to waste management controls. Producing waste to those standards helps producers to guarantee compost that is safe to be marketed or spread on agricultural land as a quality product and helps to improve confidence in composted materials among end users.

I must express disappointment at the Minister’s response so far. He is describing the theory, but the reality is what metal detecting enthusiasts from across England and their hobby group are telling me. What he describes is simply not happening out there in the field.

I think that the point I was coming to might answer my hon. Friend’s concerns. I will say now what I was going to say later: the Government are in absolutely no way complacent about this. We might have the most stringent standards in Europe, but we want to see that we are enforcing them. Having the most stringent standards is just a factor on a piece of paper; we are concerned with outcomes. I want to assure him that we will follow up any cases where we believe there has been a failure to comply with standards, and I will move on to explain how the principle that the polluter should pay will continue to be a key component of what we do.

Of course, not all compost needs to be produced to such a standard. Lower grade compost and compost-like outputs can be legitimately used on land, for example as mulch. In those cases, the compost remains a waste and its use on land is subject to environmental permitting or registered exemption controls in the same way as the composting process itself. That is monitored and closely enforced by the Environment Agency. We are aware of cases of sham recovery where, under the guise of composting, some operators have seemingly been more interested in disposing of unwanted materials than producing a worthwhile product. Where such cases are identified, the Environment Agency will investigate and consider enforcement action in accordance, importantly for my hon. Friend, with its enforcement and sanctions guidelines.

The controls on compost spread to land are in place, but we are keen to guard more generally against adverse impacts resulting from the spreading of a wider range of waste and non-waste materials on land. For this reason, officials in the Department and in the Environment Agency have set up a joint project to look at the impacts of other materials spread on land and whether we have the right controls in place. Nobody has total possession of all wisdom in this regard, and we are happy to take up any cases that we hear about from hon. Members, local authorities, or members of the public and organisations such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned. In doing so, we will need to be absolutely clear about the rationale for any further intervention and avoid unnecessary or disproportionate regulation. We believe that there are sanctions in place that can deal with every one of the cases that he raises. If that is not happening, we as Ministers want to know why, and we look to him and others to provide cases that we can take up with the Environment Agency, which we will do with vigour.

Will the Minister consider the fact that it is possible to look at the outcome as opposed to the process and perhaps offer some facility for the Environment Agency to recognise the integrity of agricultural and food-producing land and to offer some protection for that land? We already protect water voles and all sorts of other things in a number of different ways. If we looked to the protection of the land, any offence on it could be worked against by the Environment Agency rather than trying to classify every assault on the land.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. What Government have to do is to create standards, and we do that in accordance, in the main, with European designations on such matters. However, that is a very prosaic and rather unambitious reason to do it. We also do it because we want to do so. We want to see a healthy environment. We want our food grown in a healthy way, and we want to be mindful of the health of the consumer and, of course, the impact on the environment. We are very concerned with outcomes, so we are genuinely worried when we hear such issues raised. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, we are in no way complacent. We take our responsibilities very seriously. We are absolutely desirous of having good outcomes from all the measures that are in place. Many people say that far too many regulations are imposed on our food-producing industry and that we need to try to rationalise them, but we do not do that at the expense of the health of our environment or the consumer.

We have covered a lot of ground in the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester and the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt). I understand the attraction of metal detecting as a hobby, because a lot of people in my constituency do it. It is not only a good way of getting out into the countryside and doing a worthwhile activity; it is part of our agenda of more people having access to the countryside. It is also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester points out, a fantastic way of collecting and identifying some extraordinary artefacts. We have all heard some of the wonderful stories in recent years, especially in and around the ancient Roman city of Camulodunum, now of course Colchester. I appreciate the frustration of the members of the National Council for Metal Detecting and note its recent petition on the subject. I particularly note the concern of those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I agree that we cannot accept the inappropriate spreading of what is alleged to be green waste, or the wilful damage to our environment.

The Government have a fundamental duty to continue to support and encourage the recycling and recovery of waste so as to conserve natural resources. We also have a responsibility towards the established principle in modern society that the polluter pays. That is an important sanction against the kind of pollution that my hon. Friend has described, and I reaffirm that if he can bring us evidence of this kind of thing happening, perhaps from his contacts in the National Council for Metal Detecting, I can assure him that there will be no lack of will among Ministers or those in the Environment Agency to take up those cases.

I hope that I have managed to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester and the House that there are good regulatory systems in place, and sanctions that should be working. There are also quality protocols which, if complied with, can add immensely to helping our environment. Where they are not being complied with, the perpetrators can be punished.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.