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Recycling Of Plastics

Volume 167: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1990

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3.42 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that ownership of plastic wrappings and containers shall remain with the manufacturer or retailer; to require the return of such materials for recycling; to provide for incentives in the form of returnable deposits for consumers and a standard labelling format to ease segregation of materials; to impose controls on the incineration and disposal by other means of certain plastics; and for connected purposes.
The Bill is timely because it arises from a recognition by the plastics industry, heavily represented in my constituency, that there is a waste disposal problem with plastic materials, and because it outlines the path down which the industry may wish to go in future.

I begin by paying tribute to the managers and staff of Visqueen Limited, in my constituency, one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags and film in this country, who first raised this important subject with me.

World consumption of plastics has risen from 1·5 million tonnes in 1939 to 80 million tonnes last year. In the European Community, plastic makes up 7 per cent. of municipal waste by weight, but 25 per cent. by volume. Its use is to be encouraged because it has the inherent advantages of lightness, economical cost and excellent mechanical properties. It is a particularly important material in the protective wrapping of food, in the distribution trade, in building and in the electrical industries.

However, encouragement means that we must think creatively about the disposal after use or possible reuse of plastics. With that in mind, the industry has already taken positive steps actively to collect post-consumer waste and to introduce in-factory reclamation of waste. All the in-factory waste at Visqueen is reused to make black plastic refuse sacks. The parent company now has two further plants on stream—one to deal with agricultural plastic film and bags at Ardeer in west Scotland and the other to deal with supermarket waste at Heanor in Derbyshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). It is due to be opened by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Consumer Affairs next Monday.

Recycling has been slow to be recognised as a major option for waste, but we cannot sustain our present throwaway attitudes indefinitely. If we do not move to tackle the problems of plastic waste, we shall increasingly harm our surrounding environment. There are few alternative options open to us.

Refuse dumped at sea leads to plastic film damaging aquatic life, smothering fish and plant life and wrapping round the propellors of ships. Agricultural film which is ploughed into the ground comes back up, choking animals and ruining the countryside. In cities, plastics make up much of the lightweight litter about which we complain so bitterly.

According to William Rathje, an American garbologist—apparently that is the term for someone who excavates dumps—plastics have not been a major problem in landfills. They are inert and compactable. The largest single item in landfills is paper, with telephone directories the main culprits, but landfills are filling up, and thermosplastic materials—the six main commodities—are made from crude oil, which is not limitless.

We must tackle the problems the right way round. The European Commission intends to legislate on the matter, according to Commissioner Schafter-Sotiropoulou. However, as we have found with paper and glass, encouragement cannot be given to recycling until industry has a demand for the collected materials.

The Bill provides for a marking scheme to ease separation of the six basic materials. It might work in the same way as the Australian green spot system, in which a number or code is put on products to say into which group they fall. I am sure that many consumers who currently collect their bottles and paper, could collect and separate plastics to go in with plastic waste collected from supermarkets.

Consumer goods, from lawn mowers to clothing, begin their useful life only when sold, but packaging has almost completed its useful life by the time that it reaches the consumer. Like all products, packaging uses raw materials and energy, which are both costly to the manufacturer. Therefore, there is an economic incentive to keep the use of those resources to a minimum.

Consideration should be given at the design stage to the impact that the package will have as waste. Features that will aid recycling must be considered. These days, few items need only one layer of protection. Most are packed in primary consumer packaging such as a jar, and grouped together by secondary distribution packaging, such as a cardboard box or shrink-wrapped tray. There can come a point where reducing the use of material in the primary pack is counter-productive, because the secondary pack has to be strengthened and more material used.

Some packaging is so efficient that its secondary packaging gives rise to more waste than the primary packaging. The secondary packaging accumulates at retail outlets and can be more easily collected for recycling.

Biodegradability is some times held up as an option, but it is not. First, none of the so-called biodegradable plastics are truly biodegradable. Secondly, the research into biodegradability is far from complete. Thirdly, waste in landfill is so compact that it may take centuries to rot.

If anyone wants a mint condition 1952 newspaper or telephone directory, our American garbologist advises digging down through 38 layers of any tip. With further development of recycling technology, I hope that it will be possible—[Interruption.]

Order. This is a very important Bill. Would hon. Members mind having their conversations outside the Chamber?

With further developments in recycling technology, I hope that it will be possible to reopen landfill sites by the end of the century and to recycle the plastic materials in them.

Plastic materials are one of our best options for the future if they are constantly reusable. We can start by recycling waste from large users, such as distribution, supermarkets, the building trades and agriculture. Deposits would work for large users, but they have been found to be ineffective for household goods. Proper labelling is also vital.

In my part of the world, we want to stop the dumping of rubbish in our North sea. We have run out of landfill space in our county and are looking for more. Our people do not want to incinerate any more than we have to, even if plastic burns well with other materials.

Recycling represents a crucial fourth option. With this Bill, I ask the House to seize the opportunity with both hands.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tim Devlin, Mr. Phillip Oppenheim, Dr. Michael Clark, Mr. David Tredinnick, Mr. Stephen Day, Mr. Toby Jessel, Mr. Anthony Coombs, Mr. Hugo Summerson, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. Spencer Batiste and Mr. Kenneth Hind.