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16 Jun 2009 : Column 60WH—continued

Ann Keen: The Government are aware that the supplements industry continues to have concerns about the legislation, including those that my hon. Friend has just outlined, and particularly on the scrutiny that the
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European Food Safety Authority will apply to the claims that have been submitted for assessment. As a result of those concerns, the FSA has persuaded the Commission and the EFSA to work more transparently.

The Commission has enhanced access to papers on its website and the EFSA has begun a process of stakeholder engagement on its assessment practices. I hope that I have addressed the points raised by my hon. Friend today. The FSA meets regularly with all the sectors of the supplements industry to maintain an open dialogue on both supplements and health claims, and I urge them to continue to meet on the issues debated today. I reiterate the Government’s support for proportionate regulation. On the matter of maximum levels, we must re-emphasise that the aim is to protect consumers by setting levels based on safety, in addition to maintaining consumer choice.

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Aerosol Technology (Climate Change)

1.27 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am pleased that we can start a little early, which may enable us to dwell at greater length on the subject of the debate, which is the potential of aerosol technology to play a major role in tackling some issues relevant to climate change. I see the debate as having a six-fold objective: first, to highlight a technology that could assist in the battle against climate change; secondly, to highlight a technology that I believe could be a world leader, and therefore of huge benefit to UK plc; thirdly, to draw attention to the work of Mike Garrett MBE, who is the innovator with respect to the technology; fourthly, to give the Minister an opportunity to set out the Government’s position on this important issue; fifthly, perhaps to secure a meeting with the Minister and her officials at a later date, to discuss the matter in greater detail—particularly with reference to what assistance the Government may be able to give; and, finally, to clarify what action the UK Government can take at European level to promote the type of technology in question.

Before I go into detail about the technology, it may be worth recognising that with respect to climate change the Government have taken some significant steps, most recently with the Climate Change Act 2008. The Minister will be very familiar with the legally binding targets in that measure, which also set up the carbon budgeting system, with its caps on emissions over five-year periods, and created the Committee on Climate Change. I acknowledge that the Government have taken action to date.

It is also worth dwelling on the fact that perhaps the best example of international action on CFCs that directly affected aerosols was the Montreal convention. Only when the international community identified the problem—the hole in the ozone layer—and finally decided that it had the will to do something about it was it possible to address that serious environmental problem. I acknowledge that the Montreal protocol has not completed the job, but 190 countries and the European Community have ratified it. By 2005, the parties to that protocol had phased out the production and consumption of more than 95 per cent. of all the chemicals controlled by the protocol, and we are now beginning to see a reversal in the damage being done to the ozone layer. The protocol’s provisions should ensure that the ozone layer will return to pre-1980 levels by 2050 or 2075. I refer to that only to show that when a decision is taken to do something it is possible to achieve a global change.

I turn to the meat of the debate. KBIG is the company driving the challenge. I have no interest to declare other than the fact that the business is based in my constituency. I have met people from the company on a couple of occasions, and I believe that it is doing work of great value. It was co-founded by Mike Garrett, who invented the Vitox oxygen dissolver. I hope that the Minister will not ask me to give a precise explanation of what it does.

Vitox is a market leader. It is used for the highly efficient addition of oxygen to polluted and waste water treatment plants. That is my understanding of what it does; it clearly plays an important role. Many such units are operating throughout the world—for instance, in
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reclaiming polluted waters in Hong Kong harbour and in emergency use on the River Thames. Indeed, many here today will be familiar with the Thames Bubbler, which runs along the river putting oxygen back into the water. It is one example of the work being done by Mike Garrett on aerosol technology, which I am about to outline in some detail. It is a creditable product, which has been rolled out worldwide. As an inventor, Mr. Garrett should be credited with identifying and developing new products.

I now come to a more detailed description of the aerosol technology, which I believe could make a substantial difference to climate change. I do not apologise for the technicality of the description; it is necessary to demonstrate that the technology is viable, well researched and is not lacking in credibility or substance.

KBIG’s technology provides a new form of propellant for use in delivering products, especially in aerosols—a propellant that is more environmentally safe than conventional liquid gas. Given concerns over CO2 emissions, it is important that it is recovered from existing industrial processes. It is not newly created CO2, but is recovered from other industrial processes.

It works by using an activated carbon adsorbent. The properties of the propellant are modified to produce a low pressure drop from a full to an empty canister as the product is dispensed. The pressure change is lower than that of a liquid propellant subjected to the typical variations caused by changes in ambient temperature. Furthermore, the pressure drop can be largely tailored to a value commensurate with the required properties of the canister in use. For those familiar with aerosol products, the technology is particularly suitable for use with internally bagged products. The aerosol contains a bag with the propellant, so it is commercially viable but cost neutral as against petroleum-based products.

Members will know that liquefied gas propellants have been used in aerosols for many decades, although everyone will be familiar with some of their drawbacks. They contribute to major environmental damage. Aerosol cans should not be put on a fire as they are flammable, and explosive when mixed with air. Aerosols also feature in solvent abuse—something that all Members will want to reduce. Members may not be aware, however, that aerosols can cause allergic reactions; and important to the manufacturer and retailer is the fact they can introduce undesirable odours into the canister product.

Pressure changes in liquefied gas propellants caused by changes in the ambient temperature can lead to a complete loss of propellant effect in cold weather. One solution to this is the use of permanent gases such as air or carbon dioxide; the pressure alters less in response to temperature changes but it is rapidly lost as the contents of the canister are expelled. A propellant system is required that captures the better features of both systems—one that is not dangerous but one that will ensure that the aerosol does not experience the significant drop in pressure that makes the remainder of the product redundant.

The sort of propellant developed by KBIG was first proposed decades ago. However, until recently no viable commercial implementation had been secured. KBIG developed the product, asking manufactures and others to challenge it and say whether it would do the job, and
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then refined the process to ensure that the product was commercially viable and functioned as the manufacturers wanted. A programme to achieve this was initiated by KBIG in 2003, with a number of industrial partners. Solutions were tested and refined to enable the technology to meet the exacting criteria necessary for commercialisation.

I have a physics degree, but I do not know what the Minister’s background is. However, although I understand something of how the propellant works, some of it required a little explanation from Mr. Garrett. Adsorption is the phenomenon of gas molecules becoming reversibly attached to a surface of a material by the interaction of molecular forces. The number of molecules held on the surface is dependent on the surface area, the temperature, the pressure, and the nature of the gas and the surface. Normally the adsorption is not very evident, but some materials have a porous or layered structure that results in much larger surface area. In case that was not understandable, I shall illustrate the important point: given the nature of the element, 2 ml of activated carbon has a surface area of 1,500 sq m. Considering that 2 ml is smaller than the inside of the circle that I am making with my finger, to have a surface area of 1,500 sq m is quite dramatic. That is why activated carbon is so useful in providing the propellant capacity needed for aerosols.

Workers attempting to incorporate activated carbon as an aerosol propellant encountered problems. For example, initially, the heat generated was sufficient to melt the plastic components in the canister, and other difficulties were encountered in ensuring consistent performance. Also, a priority was to ensure a product without impurities, which—I guess—reduce the level of adsorption and, therefore, the efficacy of the propellant. However, various ways of reducing and eliminating such problems were identified.

I must now get very technical again on the manufacturing of aerosols. However, I am sure that if my technical description is inadequate, the representatives of KBIG here today will set me right. The system is designed to be incorporated into existing bag-on-valve gassing and filling lines. To keep out impurities, the activated carbon granules are added under an atmosphere of carbon dioxide. The source material for the carbon granules is coconut shell. This widely available waste product has the advantage of providing both the activated carbon and the energy source for firing the furnaces needed to create it in the first place. It is a very environmentally friendly process fired by carbon already created through the process of generating the activated carbon. The carbon granules are then absorbed by the aerosol, and as the aerosol is used and the product expelled, creating a vacuum within the aerosol, the gas caught in that 1,500 sq m of surface area can be released into the aerosol. It will maintain the pressure and ensure that the product continues to work. That is a layman’s explanation of how it works.

KBIG thinks that this technology will be attractive to fillers—it is already in discussions, but I shall mention no names—because adding the granules to the production line, and placing them in the canisters, is a very simple process. Very little, if anything, is required for the re-tooling of manufacturing lines to put that into operation. The inertness of carbon dioxide, combined with its non-flammability—there are no worries about putting the aerosol on a fire—makes it a good replacement for
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LPG-type propellants. Given the flammable nature of existing propellants, it will also ensure a lower risk of incident within the manufacturing environment.

I hope that I have given the Minister a reasonable feel for this technology, how it works and why it has significant and very positive environmental implications. However, in case I have not already convinced her, and to illustrate my point further, I shall give some figures. She will be aware that, between 1990 and 2006, UK emissions from volatile organic compounds fell by 62 per cent. However, as of 2006, it is estimated that solvent and other product use accounts for 44 per cent. of VOC emissions. That will have a climate change impact. Providing an alternative type of propellant and doing away with LPG-type propellants will reduce those emissions and have the associated and very positive climate change benefits.

I hope that the Minister will agree that this type of product has the potential to be a world leader and of huge benefit to UK plc, and KBIG is certainly willing to put its product to any test that interested companies or bodies want to put it to. I also hope that the Minister has noted the work done by Mike Garrett MBE on the product. I would now like to give her the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on aerosols, climate change and, perhaps, on this particular technology. Is she willing to meet with those involved, should it be thought helpful? I also hope that she will set out the action that the UK Government can take to ensure that this type of technology is promoted within the European Union, which is considering the issue of aerosols, gases and so on. There might be an opportunity to push for these measures in Europe.

1.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing this useful debate. I can assure him, as a science graduate myself, that I was able to follow his technical explanations. This debate raises an important environmental issue with implications for addressing climate change. It is certainly helpful to consider possible alternatives to the use of volatile organic compounds in aerosol propellants.

The UK aerosol industry is a dominant player in the European market, producing 25 per cent. of all the aerosols used in Europe. The UK produces 1.4 billion aerosols annually, of which more than 50 per cent. are exported, and consumes about 600 million units across the different application sectors. The aerosol industry has reacted responsibly to past environmental issues. After chlorofluorocarbons—CFCs—were found to be the ozone-depleting substances causing the so-called “ozone hole” over the Antarctic, the industry voluntarily removed CFCs from consumer aerosols 20 years ago—ahead of the ban under the Montreal protocol.

Hydrofluorocarbons—or HFCs—were then found to be greenhouse gases, and a voluntary restriction on HFC use in aerosols has been in place since 1995. The aerosol industry has worked with the European Commission to revise the 2008 aerosol dispensers directive to try to solve issues associated with the use of compressed gas as a propellant. It is important that the industry continues to keep developments in propellant technology under review, in relation to both environmental and application issues.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned that it is usual to use propane and butane as the main propellant in aerosol products for most applications, as it enables them to meet the efficacy and high-level performance required from these products. The VOCs utilised in aerosols serve three main functions: first, they generate good quality sprays; secondly, they are quick-drying solvents that allow the product to be applied in the correct proportions; and finally, they keep the pressure in the can constant, so that the aerosol stays in an effective state until it is finished. Consequently, these sprays emit VOCs into the atmosphere. However, it is worth noting that they are only one of a number of emission sources of man-made VOCs. There are also natural and biogenic volatile organic compounds that are emitted from trees and vegetation, particularly in the summer. As a result, VOCs from aerosol sprays account for a very small amount of all VOC emissions and, where feasible, the industry has developed products so that they contain the minimum amount. To put this in context, inventory estimates show that total anthropogenic emissions of VOCs in the UK in 2007 were 940,000 tonnes, of which about 6 per cent. were estimated to be from aerosols.

Tom Brake: I hear what the Minister is saying about how, relatively speaking, it is a small percentage of overall emissions, but she will also be aware that the Government have a very challenging target of 80 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 and that they will need to take every single measure that they can from wherever it is available.

Joan Ruddock: I could not agree more. Having just set the world’s first carbon budget in this Parliament I am more than aware of just how stretching our targets are. It is important to get the context and to see what the contribution might be, which is what I am currently doing.

A reaction with nitrogen oxides in the lower atmosphere produces ground-level ozone and other photochemical oxidants. It is worth bearing in mind that we have identified around 200 different VOCs that can contribute to ozone formation. Some are more reactive and so cause more ozone to form than others. If present at high enough levels, ozone can be harmful to human health and damage vegetation. Ozone is also a greenhouse gas, so VOCs have an indirect, though small, effect on the resultant warming of the atmosphere. The hydrocarbons in LPG have a low global warming potential, owing to their indirect effects on ozone and also methane, but the warming caused by VOC emissions from aerosols is only slight. Although their environmental impact is relatively small, the Government welcome any further reductions in aerosol emissions of VOCs into the atmosphere. We are willing to hear direct from any company that has developed aerosol products that are potentially beneficial to the environment, such as those based on alternative propellant systems using compressed gas, so that we can consider whether to factor them into our environmental policy as appropriate. We are interested in being informed about the activated carbon and carbon dioxide propellant system to which the hon. Gentleman referred in this debate.

Tom Brake: I should like to raise a health issue, which I know is slightly outside the Minister’s remit. Do the Government also take into account the possible health impacts of some VOC propellants against other alternatives that might be available?

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Joan Ruddock: Indeed we do, as does the European Union, which has been progressing discussions on how to reduce the level of VOCs that people are exposed to.

As a result of hearing about this technology, my officials have contacted the company concerned to find out more about the product, and to provide details of relevant contacts in both my Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As for the question about whether a meeting could be facilitated, I am more than happy for that to happen, and I am sure that the officials will be delighted, too.

I have noted from the hon. Gentleman’s comments that this particular technology is claimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He made the point that it was the use of existing CO2 that was coming from waste products. Clearly, any use of CO2 causes concerns as do whole life cycle analyses. When he talks about producing activated carbon and using furnaces to do that, there has to be a whole life cycle analysis to make proper comparisons. We would need to be convinced that there is such a benefit, despite this apparent contradiction—CO2 being our major greenhouse gas—and that using CO2 in that way would not produce the problems that were encountered when replacing CFCs and then getting a gas that in itself was even more problematic. If this technology does indeed have the net effect of removing some CO2 from the atmosphere, then it would certainly be welcomed. However, the efficacy of such so-called “green” propellant systems is also a key factor to consider, as well as their overall carbon footprint. My understanding is that although the aerosol industry—both in the UK and worldwide—has a strong interest in developing compressed gas systems, which offer a similarly high level and consistency of performance as liquefied gas systems, so far they have had only limited applicability. Clearly that is another factor that needs to be considered.

On a broader point, perhaps more consideration should also be given to alternatives to aerosols. I stress that point because behaviour change is one of the keys to reaching our carbon targets, and there are many means by which people can dispense the products that they seek to use, particularly when it comes to products such as deodorants and antiperspirants that do not require the use of aerosols themselves.

Tom Brake: If there is behavioural change within the consuming public because they identify a product that is greener than the alternatives, does the Minister believe that the Government have any role in trying to encourage that process to increase the uptake and highlight the environmentally preferable option?

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