BAN Waste Select Committee evidence

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Phase 1 Day 1 2001-09-20 Sean Pruce, Environment Agency

report from minutes of Select Committee


Submitted: Brief for members containing suggested questions, and papers produced by the Environment Agency detailing (a) Agency Position on Composting and Health Effects and (b) Strategic Waste Management. (For copies, see Official Minute Book)

Mr Sean Pruce of the Environment Agency (Waste Licensing Team Leader) was in attendance to make a presentation and to answer Select Committee questions. The Chair welcomed him to the meeting.

Mr Pruce pointed out that his position was role-specific and that he worked in the Northumbria area, dealing with licensing waste issues in a regulatory role. He would attempt to answer all questions, but in the event that more detail was required, he would refer to the Agency and report back on any such matters.

The Environment Agency was keen to participate in the Select Committee process. The view on Waste Strategy was in the context of sustainable development. Household waste was currently growing at the rate of about 3% per year, but by the year 2020 could be twice as much. There were a number of challenges to be met: (a) growing volume (b) Waste Strategy 2000 targets which the Government had set for the UK, and (c) landfill diversion directives over the next 5-20 years.

There was an increasing emphasis on regulatory control and an increased need to react positively to public consultation, of which this Select Committee was an example. Society needed to minimise waste (for example, via packaging) and develop processes that produced less waste. The Agency wanted to see Reuse of Waste in the context of a 'resource', with products made from recyclable materials - and with waste collection bodies working with authorities. There was a need to 'change ways'.

Insofar as the Environment Agency's role was concerned, it was attempting to change waste management on the basis of technological knowledge. It was seeking to influence the process, since the Agency did not make the strategy. It also published Strategic Waste Management Assessments, which were regional documents providing local information. These were not 'strategies', but they were there to help industry and the public. In the North East assessment, the Agency had concluded that if the current situation continued (i.e. the level of landfilling and recycling in the region), the landfill diversion and recycling targets would not be met. With regard to Energy from Waste as a primary means of addressing landfill targets, then it was possible to meet landfill targets - but not recycling. If the maximum levels of practicable recycling and composting were sought, then both landfill and recycling would be met but there would have to be an additional increase in Energy from Waste.

The Environment Agency did not decide on what facilities would be built or where, but attempted to ensure that environment and human health were protected

The Agency was calling for a 'shake-up', greater public awareness and greater incentives for the reduction of household waste. It was stressed that businesses paid more for disposal than householders. Reference was made to Waste Management Clubs set up in the UK, some in this area. The Agency was also calling for the early introduction of municipal solid- waste incinerators and hazardous waste treatment plants into the new IPPC regime (Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control). The timetable for this was August 2005, but the Agency were asking Government to bring this forward.

The Agency believed that the waste hierarchy was a good guide, but the strategy should be based on BPEO (Best Practicable Environmental Options) taking into account local environmental, social and economic factors. The Agency believed that a Strategic Waste Policy should be based on sound scientific advice, knowledge of health, social and environmental issues

Where there was uncertainty, and the consequences were serious, the Agency urged precaution. There was no 'no risk' option for waste. Recycling, treatment and disposal all posed risks to human heath and the environment. Whatever option was chosen by society, the Agency regulated to reduce risk to acceptable levels.

At this stage in the proceedings, the following questions were asked:-

(1) The disposal of sewage costs an amount greatly in excess of the disposal of rubbish, per household. Does the public need to be educated about the real cost of waste disposal and, if so, how do you propose that this is done? (Phil Capon)

Mr Pruce answered that the Agency were not in the 'driving seat' with regard to costs for householders. Decisions needed to be taken by the local authority. This was primarily a local authority issue.

(2) Are you happy with legislation on waste regulation and definition of when waste stops being waste and becomes a product? When will the Agency have clarified the legal position? (Bill Colwell)

Mr Pruce stated that in is time in the waste management industry, he had seen two leaps forward: (a) the introduction of the Environmental Protection Act in the mid-nineties and (b) the introduction of IPPC (see above). He had seen a great increase in regulatory control, but there was always room for improving and a learning process, something which had led to the introduction of the aforementioned Act and the IPPC. Insofar as when waste became a 'product', this was a legal view which he would refer to the Agency and report back to the Select Committee on.

The Chair understood that the Environment Agency had been trying to obtain a legal opinion from counsel for 12 months and requested a note updating the current position.

Bill Colwell also requested that the Agency should consider the issue of 'waste as a resource' and report back. Mr Pruce suggested that in terms of legislation, equating waste as a resource may allow people to escape from the regulatory controls imposed on them. He felt that this was a legal opinion versus a more philosophical argument.

(3) Lots of Councils are looking at composting, and creating soil improvers, if this is practical. The water companies are also looking for Industry to put treated sludge on too. Is there enough land available in the north-east for large amounts of composting and sewage sludge? Would it be good for the land? (Carolyn Spencer)

Mr Pruce could not say how much land was available, but with regard to whether it would be good for the land he suggested that if composting met certain criteria, then this was so - but it was a case of what was put in at the 'front end' facility. Segregation was the key.

(4) What is the position with community composting schemes? Food waste cannot go in now; are you enforcing this? (Will Haughan)

Mr Pruce stated that the Animal By Products legislation was not enforced by the Environment Agency, this was a matter for the local authority.

The Chair pointed out that Newcastle City Council had been undertaking trials (approved by the Environment Agency) and queried what the situation was vis a vis food waste. Mr Pruce was no able to answer, but undertook to report back.

Sylvia Conway expressed the view that she tended to regard the Environment Agency as a watchdog, and was concerned that the Agency responses so far on legislation etc tended to refer the issues to the local authority as being their responsibility. Mr Pruce stated that insofar as the animal by-products and environmental health issues were concerned, the Agency attempted to provide information and assistance but did not regulate.

Jenni Madison referred to the report of the House of Commons Select Committee Report on the Environment, which had stated that the Environment Agency must provide a better standard of inspection of incinerators if the public's confidence was to be regained. In addition to this, continuous monitoring of the emissions from all incinerator stacks should be carried out and the data made freely and easily available to the public. Where recurrent breaches of limit values were found to occur, the operator should be fined and if breaches continued to occur the plant closed down. How confident was the Agency of this position and whether IPPC covered this area in a way that assured pubic confidence? Mr Pruce stated that this was an important question and assured the Committee that the Agency did everything it could. However, he undertook to report back to the Committee with a more specific answer.

Phil Capon queried whether IPC could be considered a 'permit to pollute'. Mr Pruce disagreed. Whichever way waste was managed, there was a risk, which the IPC addressed. Phil Capon pointed out that the Environment Agency had been asked if the Byker incinerator would satisfy this definition, and it had said that it would. Mr Pruce undertook to report back.

Having established that the IPC document on regulations etc was not a confidential document between the Agency and the company, the Chair suggested that communities could be involved because if the limits of emissions were set out under the new regulations then companies had a requirement to record the emissions and as long as local people were able to look at those records, then there was an opportunity for them to ask questions. Mr Pruce agreed. The Chair concluded that the key issue was one of transparency - that it must be an open, non-confidential document which the public could see.

Val Barton suggested that the problem was what happened between the measuring process and publication of the document. Monitoring should be continuous, meaning non-stop over a 24 hour period. How could the Agency improve what was being done already? Mr Pruce undertook to raise the issue of continuous monitoring with the Agency Head Office and report back. Mr Pruce referred again to the Environmental Protection Act and the introduction of IPP, and the fact that people were observing how the latter was progressing.

The Chair queried Mr Pruce's statement that there had been an increase in household waste of 3% asked if this was based on information from the North East, or across the whole country. Mr Pruce understood that this was countrywide; however, figures available for the North East appeared to bear out this figure.

With regard to changing consumer habits if there were charges for the removal of refuse, the Chair posed the following question: if there were charges to householders of - say - �5/�10 per week (dependant on whether bins were half empty or full), would such charges be effective in changing peoples' behaviour? Mr Pruce suggested that, personally, he would. There was a chance that people might reconsider the kind of packaging when purchasing goods. The Chair extended this argument to the issue of fly-tipping. Mr Pruce concurred that these were important issues, and it could lead to people buying material that has less packaging. In response to a query as to whether fly-tipping was a problem in Newcastle, Mr Pruce suggested that this was a problem throughout the country, but that the local authority should be asked this question.

Mr Pruce undertook to provide a copy of the North East Regional Waste document at Bill Hopwood's suggestion.

In response to a query on identification of those persons who might be most responsible for fly-tipping, Mr Pruce stated that he had formerly been Head of Waste Regulation Authority at Northumberland County Council where it had been observed that they tended to be observable in two types: (a) jobbing builders and (b) householders who were unaware of the existence of civic amenity sites.

Bill Hopwood pointed out that the Government and most local authorities put a lot of emphasis on organic waste when dealing with compost. Available documentation referred to rules and regulations, but he queried the actual definition of 'compost'. His understanding in simple terms was that it should be useable on land for growing purposes - and asked Mr Pruce for a clear description and what was going to happen. Mr Pruce pointed out that confusion on the issue was shared by many in the UK. It was a broad spectrum of material. With regard to European legislation, the definition was being developed presently. Bill Hopwood then extended the discussion to take into account compost as a 'product' that could be sold, and the process involved. Mr Hopwood concurred that the use of compost, properly defined, perhaps even as a soil conditioner instead of peat, was a good example of using waste rather than a resource.

At the conclusion of this session, the Chair thanked Mr Pruce for attending.

RESOLVED - that Mr Pruce report back on those matters identified above in due course.