Skip to main content

Recycling (Plastics)

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

I fear that the debate that we are about to have will be slightly overshadowed by President Sarkozy’s address to the joint Chambers of Parliament. I must apologise to the Minister, because I am sure that she has a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—in fact, I think I have a marginal preference for listening to President Sarkozy rather than me—but the fact is that plastics are fundamental to modern social life. I find myself sounding rather like the character of Dustin Hoffman’s future father-in-law in “The Graduate”, who, when discussing his future son-in-law’s prospects, looks at him very earnestly and says, “Plastics, my son, that’s the future.” I have great empathy with the Dustin Hoffman character, because my father has been very involved, as a chief executive, in the plastics industry and that message has certainly been pointed out to me from time to time.

The reality is that plastics are crucial to our lives. They are light, versatile and extremely durable, and they take many and various forms. They are also chemically inert, which is good for medical uses, culinary uses—we have all used plastic utensils for eating food—food packaging and other things. The electrical industry and the construction industry make very heavy use of plastics. We could have a full half-hour session just listing the various things, including the microphone in front of me, that involve plastic in one way or another, but I will hurry on.

Chemical inertness is one reason why people take against plastic or dislike it, but it is not the only reason. Fundamentally, people dislike things made of plastic for cosmetic reasons; they do not like the look of them. I have a plastic glass in front of me, but people often prefer to drink out of glass glass, particularly if they are drinking beer—I have been told that beer tastes completely different out of a proper glass rather than out of a plastic cup. It is mainly the chemical inertness that generates the problem and the animosity to plastic. It is the reason why it lingers around and the reason why, when it is disposed of, it gets in the way.

In the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, we saw some graphic photos of bits of plastic in strange foreign seas that had started off in British supermarkets. If we sit in the countryside for any length of time and look around, it is not unusual to notice a plastic container that has been left by a picnicker. It will remain there until someone clears it up.

The city is littered with plastic in one form or another. In landfill sites, there is always an element that does not disappear. It is not bulky, however, and does not take up a massive amount of space. In one sense, therefore, it is not all bad. Something that is not biodegradable, that hangs around and is chemically inert, does not react and does not leak methane and other gases, even if it is left in landfill, is a positive thing in favour of the plastic industry. The plastic industry is not slow to point out that benefit in its products. Plastic does not generate the same amount of greenhouse gas in landfill as other materials.

The industry also points out that plastic is an eminently reusable and recyclable material. It will add to that the entirely fair argument that the carbon footprint for plastic containers is relatively low. For example, plastic packaging reduces the weight of packaging in general. I am told that the amount of plastic used to package any one utensil is being reduced all the time. Although we have all heard arguments about little electrical gadgets such as USB sticks being wrapped up in enormous quantities of plastic, by and large, the weight of plastic used to package goods across the piece is genuinely reducing.

The production of plastic involves a less high-energy process than the creation of other materials that are a substitute for plastic. For example, an intense amount of energy is used to generate glass products as opposed to plastic products. The plastic industry also points out the clear environmental benefits of plastic, particularly plastic packaging. It points to the fact that we waste far less food than we used to. Food is biodegradable and produces gases that are hazardous to the environment. Plastic not only makes the food last, but it protects goods from breakage and ensures that they do not get damaged on their way to sale, which is a good thing in itself.

The down side of plastic is that it enables people to move food that much further, increases the amount of food miles, and ensures that products that we would not ordinarily eat travel from places such as Africa and South America and get to our shops. While that is a culinary benefit, it is not necessarily an environmental benefit because of the CO2 emissions involved. I do not know how we can assess the overall carbon footprint of plastic, but we have no reason to think that it is any more damaging than some of the alternative products that we might use for the same purposes. That said, we must note that plastic—the use and disposal of it—features very heavily in the environmental debate, even if that debate appears to be centred on issues such as global warming. It features very prominently in environmental policies of various parties and Governments. All are keen to do something about plastic bags, whether prompted by the press or by the consumer.

There are reasons for that focus on the industry at this particular time. One reason that I can identify with, and which I have observed within my local council area, is the fact that if there is a drive on recycling and if people are encouraged to waste less and reprocess what they can, refuse collections can be altered to enable them to do that and to encourage and incentivise them. One refuse system that is well used by councils is the alternate weekly collection, which often excludes plastic as a recycled material. When looking at their residual waste stream, householders will look at plastic and say, “This forms a very large and substantial part of that.” They will urge their councils to do something about it and include it in the items that are recycled. However, there are obstacles to that, and I will enlarge on them in a minute.

The second reason for the particular concentration on this material as an environmental hazard is the fact that plastic waste is more visually intrusive. It is certainly more highly coloured and more easily noticed than most other forms of waste. Therefore, there is a general demand to reduce waste plastic. Clearly, recycling plastic must come after avoiding unnecessary use of plastic and plastic containers in the first place.

When I was queuing up to buy a newspaper in WH Smith the other day, I was horrified to see people who were not buying much more than a newspaper—perhaps a newspaper and a pencil or a packet of cigarettes—habitually being offered a bag. In times gone by, they would have put their goods in a bag that they had with them, stuffed them in their pocket, or just carried them out. The habitual reminder that they did not have a bag to carry their goods in was there and was slightly disturbing.

I have quizzed the Minister at the Dispatch Box about Sunday newspapers. Such papers bang on a lot about how desirable plastic recycling is, but they are delivered in a non-reusable plastic bag—the broadsheets in particular. They often omit that fact. The first stage, therefore, is to avoid unnecessary use. The second stage is to encourage reuse, and clearly the supermarkets are doing that. Most hon. Members will have been invited to their local branch of Asda and been asked to pose with various plastic bags that are being put to second, third and fourth use. That is totally desirable and quite the thing to do.

Much of the drive and discussion concerning plastic bag taxes and many of the campaigns against unnecessary packaging are designed either to deter unnecessary use or to encourage reuse, both of which must stand ahead of recycling. Those are well worked-up themes and ones that we all applaud and have no problem with. I do not see any particular problem in developing those types of initiatives. We would all be hypocrites or capable of self-deception if we thought that we could easily dispense with plastic. When I am handing out political literature, as I do from time to time, to people who are eager to distribute it on my behalf, I find a reusable plastic bag extraordinarily useful. I do not know how I would manage leaving bundles of “Focus” on people’s doorstep without using a plastic bag. It would be dishonest and hypocritical of me to visualise a day when we could totally manage without them, because managing without them might mean that we have to use substitute materials that create other environmental problems.

There will therefore always be demand for recycling—it will not go away. That demand is quite legitimate, whether from the public—society in general—or the Government. The debate is about the fact that the demand is hard to satisfy, and I am looking for and expect a positive response from the Minister in that respect. It seems that there is a triad of problems—collection, processing and a lack of mature markets for the recycling product—all of which require some sort of attention.

Of the three, I am most familiar with and informed about the first, namely collection problems. Plastic is light and needs crushing, but there is not much weight in a lorry full of plastic bottles. To collect plastic, one might need several lorries to make several trips, which adds to the cost. We are all familiar with the overflowing plastic bottle banks in supermarket car parks and how difficult it is to educate the public to crush the bottles to make more room in the containers. We have also seen how people indiscriminately, despite notices, put any plastic in the banks, any how, thereby contaminating the waste stream. Many lorry journeys are involved in the removal of plastic from people’s doorsteps, and there is much corruption of the waste stream. Clearly, one obstacle, which I am not sure we can easily get over, is to educate the public about different kinds of plastic, how to deal with them and how to put them into the appropriate waste stream.

This shows the level of public ignorance—and my own. I learned only the other day that every plastic is in fact identified by a particular number within a certain type of triangle. I did not believe it at first, but I found that it was true when I looked at different plastics. Apparently, the European Union, in its wisdom, decided at some point in time that if plastics were to be produced, it would be good to put markers on them so that we would know which is which. I am debating plastic recycling in the House of Commons, and I learned that only the other day—the public’s learning curve will be that much sharper and steeper if recycling in general had a well informed public effort behind it.

Secondly, on the processing problem, often, when we have collected stuff, we need to separate, crush and bale it, which requires equipment. Some local authorities have got the situation well organised. For example, pretty well every district council in the Hampshire area can collect plastics, because the waste disposal authority there is ready to use and process it effectively. The same situation does not prevail in my area. We are dependent on Merseyside waste disposal authority. I have asked several times what it is doing to help the collection authorities better to recycle plastic, but I have not been given a clear answer. However, it has an extensive private finance initiative investment programme ahead. Processing needs critical investment, and there is a substantial difference between Merseyside, which does not get that, and Hampshire, which does.

The third problem is markets for end products. There are many burgeoning and innovative recycling industries growing up at the moment in the UK. I came across one of them in the Wirral the other day, which deals with the CDs and DVDs that newspapers and other organisations send us ad nauseum, for which we have no place. I have no doubt, Mr. Jones, that you put every single one that you receive on and look at it carefully before disposing of it, but many of us do not have the time to do that, and we simply dispose of them. There are huge quantities of such items hanging around in the world, and a firm in the Wirral recycles what I believe are called polycarbons. However, it is not obvious that there is a ready pipeline for such items—perhaps charity shops could be used.

I tend to agree with Peter Smith of the British Plastic Federation. He summed up what I am trying to say. He has stated that recycling rates depend on the collection, sorting, recycling infrastructure and the economies of scale of strategic waste management, but we do not have those things in the UK. He added, charitably, that the federation welcomes the recent announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it will consider joint waste authorities to ensure more joined-up thinking on those aspects of waste management. If that were to happen, it would be applauded.

I am not saying that the situation is negative. There have been appreciable successes, and the Minister would be right to refer to them. Only 2.6 per cent. of polyethylene terephthalate bottles were recycled in 2005, but now 21 per cent. are. Some 22 per cent. of plastics are said to be recycled—I am not sure whether that is 22 per cent. of all plastics or 22 per cent. of plastics that the public throw out, or whether that involves the break down of commercial and private waste. There has certainly been an increase in the use of plastics whether in fuel or fillings. Sadly, there is much work to be done. We seem to be engaging in the unnecessary process of collecting plastic for recycling and sending it to China, where something is done so that it can be sent back to us as bin liners. That does not strike me as the sound thing to do, if we are seriously concerned about global warming.

I am told that 100 per cent. of Ribena bottles are made of recycled material, that 40,000 tonnes of post-construction polyvinyl chloride have been recycled, and that a great deal is being done, but we need more than a tokenistic approach to plastic bags. As the industry says, the plastic bag tax in Ireland has had mixed results. The actual quantity of imported plastic has increased, bin liners have been substituted for other kinds of plastic bag and non-reusable materials have proved to be heavier to shift around, which has added to the carbon footprint of goods. The chief executive of WRAP has said that a simple levy on plastic bags in Ireland only made matters worse. She said that people underestimate how many plastic bags are used to put out for recycling that are substituted by plastic bin bags, and that we must remember that taxes and levies can have perverse effects, such as making people use more plastic.

There is much more to do, but it requires—I think the Minister will be sympathetic to this plea—a strategic role for the leadership in DEFRA and not a simple, knee-jerk reaction from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on his wide-ranging speech on the nature of plastics, their uses and the opportunities that they provide for us, but also on the problems associated with them.

The hon. Gentleman said that he is not sure how to calculate their overall carbon footprint. The Department is now very much engaged in such work, because it is clear that we must prioritise climate change and make judgments about all sorts of materials in that light. He said that he thought that political parties, Government and consumers focused on such matters and that people very much want to do something with the plastics that they handle, and he referred to alternative weekly collections. I should like to put on the record that it is important that people understand that there are weekly collections in alternative weekly collection areas. It is weekly dry recyclates—one week with the normal practice, and residual waste the next. People are not being denied the free collection of their materials. Those collections have apparently increased our recycling rates—the top recycling authorities have such arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about his local difficulties. I understand that Sefton will have a trial in August of plastics collection, which the Government appreciate. He referred to people in WH Smith—I do not want to name only that shop, because so many other retailers offer people free plastic bags. He will know that we are now committed to ending the free give-away of carrier bags of any kind. We hope that retailers will do it by voluntary agreement, having already pledged to make significant changes on the matter by the end of the year, but if they do not, we will legislate. The Irish experience has not been properly analysed. We know that the number of bags given away has been reduced by 90 per cent. It is not tokenistic; it is an important symbol of our throwaway society. The hon. Gentleman discussed litter, and Ireland originally acted because of its litter problem. It has had some success, and we want to emulate it. We also want to respond to what consumers are telling us: they want to see an end to bags.

The total amount of plastic waste arising in the UK is estimated at about 5.9 million tonnes per annum. Non-packaging plastics account for 64 per cent. of the overall plastics arising in the waste stream, originating mainly from the construction, electrical, transport, furniture and agriculture sectors, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Plastic packaging waste forms a minority of the waste stream, but it is undoubtedly of greatest concern to consumers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funds the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which does a great deal of work to increase recycling and to find markets for recycled products. WRAP is working with a contractor to demonstrate recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment plastic back into new WEEE products, and will report later in 2008. A project in the automotive industry that we consider important is the reprocessing plant announced by MBA Polymers. It will be capable of handling 60,000 tonnes of plastics from the motor industry. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is also a plant that processes DVDs and CDs. There are many initiatives.

Has there been any discussion with the plastic industry about reducing the number of different types of plastic? They all have a little triangle on the back, but there are about 10 different types. That must make recycling difficult.

Indeed. Many discussions have been held on many issues, and my hon. Friend is right to point to that one. It would be much easier to deal with collection and reprocessing if there were fewer types of plastic. Then we could look for more obvious markets and ways to make new products from recyclates. The Government are not in a position—no Government would be—to force people to use only a limited number of plastics, but it is highly desirable, and we have had discussions along those lines.

The hon. Gentleman said rightly that demand is hard to satisfy, but I can tell him that there has been a substantial improvement in local authorities. More than 90 per cent. of UK local authorities now offer some sort of plastics recycling service, and more than 50 per cent. of UK households can now put plastic bottles in their kerbside recycling box. Some 25 per cent. of plastic bottles used in the UK are now recycled, compared with 2001, when the collection rate was only 5 per cent. The UK recovered about 22 per cent. of all plastic packaging in 2006, and the Government are committed to doing more. About 2 million tonnes of plastic packaging are produced every year, and most of it is still not recycled. We need to find ways to do much more.

The targets for recovery and recycling of plastic packaging have recently been increased, and we expect the plastic target to rise from 24.5 to 26 per cent. this year with further improvement. I am aware of the confusion that consumers can experience when trying to decide whether plastics can be recycled, and we know that we need to make it simpler for them. We want more convergence between local authorities on what materials they will collect for recycling, including plastics, but we recognise that there are still gaps and variations in what is collected at the kerbside.

I have also asked the Advisory Committee on Packaging and WRAP to work with the Local Government Association, the packaging industry and retailers to develop practical proposals to increase collection rates for plastics. The hon. Gentleman referred to the lightweighting of plastics. He is absolutely right that that is one of the successes of the European directive and the transposing regulations, which require producers to minimise packaging. It is important progress, but we would like to see more of it. WRAP is undertaking a number of trials to see what scope there is for further recycling. They are wide-ranging and aim to understand the best ways to handle plastics from the environmental, economic and technological perspectives. The programme is investigating three main areas—collection, reprocessing, and end markets.

I shall give a few examples. Last year, as a result of funding from WRAP, the London Development Agency and the private sector, the first UK plant to recycle PET into plastics suitable for food packaging opened. The plant has the capacity to recycle 35,000 tonnes of waste plastic. Another project looking at trays used for chicken led to a 17.5 per cent. reduction in the use of polypropylene in that product. A large-scale trial of HDPE milk bottles with Dairy Crest, Nampak and Marks and Spencer found that it was possible to make bottles with 30 per cent. recycled content that performed to the same standard as bottles made from virgin plastic.

The hon. Gentleman referred to sending recyclates to China. Because the ships bringing manufactures to this country tend to return to China empty, it is not wasteful to send plastic recyclates to China, as they enable China to use recycled material, with great savings over raw materials. WRAP also recently started a project to undertake trials using a number of technologies with the aim of understanding the best ways to handle mixed plastics. Different recycling and recovery options are being considered as part of that work, including reprocessing mixed plastics into new plastics, incineration, chemical treatment and even turning mixed plastics into a form of diesel. WRAP has just completed the first 10 trials and will hold a conference in June to disseminate the results and discuss the way forward. The next steps from those projects are to scale up one or more of the best technologies to a commercial scale and work with local authorities and householders to raise awareness of the best ways to collect waste plastics for effective and high-value treatment.

Whatever progress I describe today, and whatever innovations the hon. Gentleman and I refer to, there is no doubt that we need to do a great deal more. DEFRA has at least the aim to develop a strategy. We now have projects within all the major waste streams, including a plastics project that will consider all aspects of plastic waste and how to advance reuse, recovery, minimisation and recycling of that important material. We need greater public awareness that plastic bottles include cleaning bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, trigger sprays and a raft of household goods. We need more kerbside collection, more bring back provision, more careful bottle design to ensure recyclability and increased recycling and reprocessing capacity in the UK.

Consumers can also play their part, and we urge them to do so by refusing products, reducing and reusing, and by acting appropriately according to their local recycling provisions. Much can be done. Not enough has been done, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we, as a Government, and the Department are determined to do much better on plastics in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.