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Packaging

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 17 May 2007

Legislation requiring an increasing proportion of packaging to be recycled and outlawing excessive packaging is helping to reduce packaging. The supermarkets have agreed voluntary measures to reduce packaging. We will announce further measures shortly when we publish our new waste strategy.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I have received correspondence from a constituent, Chris James, who has recently come back from a family holiday in America, where he compared shopping in Wal-mart in America with shopping in his local supermarket in Swansea. He was particularly struck by the fact that in America there was so little packaging and that all the fresh produce was displayed with a minimum of packaging. When he got back home, he noticed a significant difference in the amount that he had to dispose of or recycle. Will the Minister speak to the supermarkets with a view to reaching an agreement on some kind of standardisation for packaging? We need to encourage them to take these steps.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: the experience of her constituent in the United States mirrors that of many people who travel to other countries and find that produce is not so heavily packaged as they are used to here. We are in constant touch with the supermarkets on this issue, and we have seen a new will on their part to address the problem. One or two of them have not only signed up to the agreement to which I referred, but are going further in reducing and minimising packaging. We shall pay close attention to that issue when we publish our new waste strategy shortly.

The Minister will know, however, that supermarkets are not exactly forthcoming in dealing with regulations: we need only think of the way that they are hammering the dairy industry and the farming industry generally. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) raises an important point, because we do suffer from far too much packaging. I commend to the House the initiative of Waitrose in not handing out plastic bags for the next week or two. That is a good start, because our streets are littered with totally unnecessary plastic bags.

Personally, I would rather that Waitrose never handed out a disposable bag again, and I think that all other retailers should adopt the same policy. Those in this country that have adopted the policy have seen a dramatic fall in the issue of one-way disposable bags—not just plastic but other bags. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the fact that, a couple of months ago, we got the supermarkets to sign up to an agreement to reduce the environmental impact of all disposable bags by 25 per cent. over the next two years. Consumers also have a role, and he and other Members may like to reflect on their behaviour as consumers in relation to packaging and bags, to complain to retailers and to make it clear that packaging is sometimes excessive.

The issue is reducing not just the amount of packaging but the materials used in that packaging. Many councils will not recycle much plastic packaging. Is there pressure on supermarkets to think about using the type of packaging that can be easily recycled in preference to that which cannot?

Yes, there is. A slight misconception exists, because the vast majority of plastics used by supermarkets are recyclable, but the recycling of plastics around the country, from local authority to local authority, is patchy. Some local authorities that got the recycling bug later have concentrated on other materials that help them improve their figures more quickly. We are mindful of the issue, and we will consider it closely when we publish our new waste strategy.

As well as wanting the physical volume of packaging reduced, consumers want to know the carbon footprint of packaged products that they buy. So far, however, that approach seems totally beyond the ambition of the Government. Part of the problem, as the Green Alliance has noted, is that no single body is driving progress in this area. Will the Minister therefore consider constructively the submission of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment to the Conservative quality of life policy review—[Interruption.] It would be helpful if the Minister calmed down a little and listened to the question; it is Question Time, after all. Can that submission calling for an independent packaging watchdog be considered constructively, so that real progress can be made in this area?

I always want to consider interesting and constructive ideas. It may have passed the hon. Gentleman’s notice, although not that of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made such an announcement at the Oxford farming conference earlier this year. The difficulty in relation to the carbon footprint of different foodstuffs is that we simply do not have the evidence base yet to introduce a credible system that would be adopted by all the retailers. Retailers are also interested in the issue, and we are working with all of them to try to agree a standard measurement, so that we avoid the problem, which was mentioned earlier, of having a plethora of carbon offsetting schemes but no real standard in which consumers can have confidence. We have wanted to introduce such a scheme for a long time, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has now jumped on the bandwagon.

Standards are one thing—and I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his Oxford speech—but we still need an independent regulator with real teeth. We have the Waste and Resources Action Programme, for example, but that is working with the industry, not policing it. Currently, responsibility is split between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Who will be responsible for enforcement and making sure that progress happens?

The hon. Gentleman is calling for more red tape. We are confident that, just as we have used independent advice to come up with a standard for carbon offsetting, it would be perfectly possible to use independent advice, based on independent research, to come up with a good carbon footprint scheme for foodstuffs. However, we do not need a new independent regulatory body to police it. That is a ludicrous idea. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for—

No, not the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I have forgotten the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I am not allowed to use his name in the Chamber. Anyway, I think he would be very concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we need yet another regulatory body to regulate something that—[Hon. Members: “Wokingham!] Yes, I meant the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He would be very concerned about the idea of establishing yet another regulatory body to regulate something that we are perfectly capable of regulating ourselves.

May I declare an interest, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the packaging manufacturing industry? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the requirements and needs for some of the packaging that we use. I agree with my hon. Friends that fresh produce should not need packaging—except, of course, when consumers want to shop weekly at a supermarket, and want the produce that they buy to last for more than two or three days. Therefore, there is a requirement for certain types of packaging for the purposes of hygiene and labelling, and to keep produce fresh. Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and try to find time for a full-scale debate in the House, in Government time, so that some of these issues can be discussed and we can avoid some of the recent campaigns in, for instance, the Daily Mail

You have made very well the point that I was about to make, Mr. Speaker. We have spent a considerable amount of time on the subject of packaging, and quite right too.

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House, and some in the media, that some packaging is good for the environment. Food does not go to waste that would otherwise go to waste, which in itself would be wasteful. However, other Members are right to say that there needs to be a balance. Enough of us come across enough examples of produce that is over-packaged to make it important for retailers and legislators to address the issue.