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Plastic Bags

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning. I will make a short speech and allow as much time as possible for interventions, as a number of hon. Members have expressed an interest in the debate. I am also glad that our new Farming Minister is here on behalf of his ministerial colleague, the noble Lord, Lord de Mauley. I know that the Liberal Democrats have taken a positive stance on the issue of plastic bags.

The House will be aware of my early-day motion 534 with the catchy title of “Plastic Bags”. Essentially, it backs the Break the Bag Habit campaign, which involves a wide coalition of organisations, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign, the Marine Conservation Society, Surfers Against Sewage, and Greener upon Thames, which was born in my constituency. That coalition calls for the introduction of a charge on single-use carrier bags.

Before explaining why that is important, I want to stress that it would be a levy and not a tax. It would be collected locally and distributed to local causes, and because there is zero need to purchase a plastic bag, except in a few circumstances, the levy would also be easy to avoid. There is also no prospect of its becoming another green stealth tax, and the approach is broadly supported by the retailers. I have received a note from the British Retail Consortium, which has couched its support in cautious language. However, in August 2012, it also said that

“if England wishes to follow the approach of the other UK Governments to achieve greater reductions”

in carrier bag usage

“it will have to introduce legislation and a charge as there is a limit to what can be achieved on a voluntary basis.”

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has secured a debate on this incredibly important issue. Does he believe that the levy or, as some people like to describe it, the tax should be paid principally by the retailer demanding the bags and the advertising, or should it be passed on to the consumer? That, I think, is where this measure will stand or fall.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall come back to what the levy would look like in ideal circumstances. I will deal with his point, but I shall come on to it.

To step back for a second, I should say that we are an extraordinarily wasteful country. We generate enough waste every hour to fill the Albert hall right to the tip of its dome. Plastic bags do not constitute the majority of our waste, but of all the waste that we do generate, the plastic bag is surely the most idiotic.

Does my hon. Friend agree that only 0.2% of average household dustbin waste consists of plastic carrier bags and that therefore the measures that he is proposing would be unlikely to have a significant impact on the amount of waste generated? The figure of 0.2% comes from an assessment by the Treasury in 2002.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am told that the figure is closer to 1.5%, but I shall not quibble with what he says. However, I do not see that as an argument against a measure to reduce the use of plastic bags. Plastic bags have a disproportionate impact. We are told that 16% of all the animals that are found dead on the coast are dead as a result of their interaction with plastic bags. The plastic bag has a hugely disproportionate impact in the wider marine environment and in terms of littering and so on. Yes, I accept that plastic bags are not the whole waste story in this country, but they are certainly a big part of it.

Does my hon. Friend agree with David Laist of the Marine Mammal Commission in the United States? He wrote in March 2008:

“Plastic bags don’t figure in entanglement. The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag…For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either.”

The environmental impact is, in many instances, overstated.

I shall provide a few examples of why I do not accept that. I remind my hon. Friend that I did say that 16%, not 100%, of the animals found washed up on the coast that have died as a result of waste have died as a result of their interaction with plastic bags. It is still a significant number. I shall come to that issue in a second.

Despite this being described as a minority or a small issue, every year 8 billion bags are used and thrown away in the UK. Throughout the EU, 800,000 tonnes of bags are used. Only 6% of those bags are recycled. They are used for an average of 20 minutes and can take anything up to 1,000 years to decompose. The vast majority will end up in landfill. Hundreds of millions will litter the countryside, and many will end up in the oceans.

It is an appalling thought—I mentioned this to pupils at a school a few weeks ago—that if Columbus had dropped plastic bags over the side of his ship 500 years ago, there is a pretty good chance that they would still be floating around intact today. Thousands of sea turtles, whales and countless other species mistake the bags for food and, once ingested, they block the animal’s insides and cause a horrible death.

I am sure that hon. Members remember that in 2006 a Northern bottlenose whale swam past this very building. Unfortunately, it died. It was in serious trouble, for all kinds of reasons, but when it was cut open in the autopsy, it was discovered that its stomach was packed with plastic debris. Unfortunately, the bags did not have a logo on them, so we cannot blame the individual companies, but plastic was a major contributing factor.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. Does he agree that if the Government care about evidence-based policy, as I am sure they do, the evidence coming from, among other places, Wales, where the tax has already been implemented, shows that it has managed to reduce the use of plastic bags by up to 95%? It also has 70% support among the general population. If the Government care about evidence, there is a lot to support the tax.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I absolutely agree with her—indeed, she has taken the words out of my mouth. I shall come to the Welsh example very soon.

Just to continue on the basic statistics, a 2006 UN report estimated that on every square mile of ocean, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating around. They are not all plastic bags, but a great many are. The plastic does not disappear, even when eaten; it does not break down. When a creature has ingested a plastic bag, the creature itself decays faster than the bag. When the body of the creature breaks down after death, the bag is likely to be released back into the environment and can be reingested—recycled—continuously. The plastic bag has been described as a serial killer for that reason.

The Minister will know that many countries and regions around the world have already sought to address this appalling waste. We heard about the example of Wales, but there are many beyond our shores. California, Bangladesh, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, parts of India, Taiwan and parts of China have all introduced outright bans. Others have introduced levies. In Ireland, which is one of the best examples, a bag tax, introduced in 2002, has led to a reported 90% reduction in the number of plastic bags used.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being extremely generous. He spoke about the reuse of plastic bags and the fact that only a small proportion are recycled. Does he accept, however, that many plastic carrier bags are used by consumers for other purposes? Immediately after the tax was introduced in Ireland, there was a 77% increase in pedal bin liner sales because consumers did not have plastic carrier bags and an 84% increase in disposable nappy bag sales. The bags are being put to other uses. If we reduce the use of plastic carrier bags, we will simply encourage people to buy plastic bags from other sources to do the jobs that carrier bags are currently fulfilling.

I am just looking at the statistic; I anticipated that this might come up. There were indeed reports of a 77% increase in the sale of plastic kitchen bags as a result of the initiative introduced in Ireland. That equates to 70 million bags—a lot of bags—but the net effect is still a 930 million reduction, so the net effect is clearly beneficial in terms of reducing the use of plastic bags.

Yes, there would be some perverse outcomes. It is also the case that in Wales there are certain exemptions in relation to prescription drugs, raw food and so on. There are any number of ways in which the measure could be brought in. I intended to talk about Wales, but the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has already given the key stats. The initiative there is a work in progress—it is relatively new—but it seems to be working. It is wildly popular: 20% more popular now than when the idea was originally floated. There are varying statistics on its success, but no one can argue that it has not been a success. The question is how much of a success it has been.

We are, unfortunately, miles behind in this country. There are pockets of good news locally. In Kew in my own constituency, the majority of local shops have pledged not to use plastic bags and are doing everything that they can either to get them out of the shop altogether or to encourage people not to use them. Even Tesco—after some imaginative campaigning by local school pupils—eventually, reluctantly, was dragged into the campaign. That involved a gang of local schoolchildren storming the local Tesco, unwrapping all the unnecessary packaging and demanding that it never use another plastic bag. We almost ended up in jail—I was the only one of the right age—but it seems to have had an impact and it was a wonderful thing. I encourage hon. Members to go on YouTube and have a look, because it was all filmed. It was a lovely example of what can be achieved.

Nationally, we are still waiting for action. On 29 September last year, in an interview with the Daily Mail, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave the supermarkets an ultimatum. He warned that if stores did not deliver “significant falls” over the next 12 months, they could either be banned outright from giving out single-use bags or be legally required to charge customers for them. The Prime Minister said that it was “unacceptable” that the number of single-use carrier bags had risen in the previous year by 333 million—a 5% increase. In July this year, despite the Prime Minister’s demand for “significant falls”, the official figures showed another increase—a 5.4% rise during 2011 compared with the previous year. We are heading in the wrong direction and have been for some years, and the Prime Minister is clearly now under pressure to act.

As I said, my hon. Friend is being extremely generous with his time. I am grateful to him for allowing me to present the alternative case. One issue on which we might agree is the need for voluntary action. Does he accept that from a peak of 13 billion bags a year, the UK’s consumption has halved over time, that that has all happened through voluntary action and that this issue would be better dealt with by continuing that voluntary approach?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I believe that the position is that there has been a 36% reduction since 2006; at least, that is the figure that I was given by the British Retail Consortium. Nevertheless, that trend has not continued. There was a rapid downward trend initially, after the initiative was launched, but over the past three years the trend has been considerably reversed and there is nothing to suggest that it will not continue to be reversed. When we compare that with initiatives in other countries—we have heard about Wales, Ireland and many others—we see that we can do a whole lot better.

What line should the Government take? It boils down to three choices: a ban, a central tax or a Welsh-style charge. A ban is probably too crude; although there are strong arguments in its favour, it is not what we are asking for today. Despite the temptations for the Treasury, I hope that the Government will resist introducing a tax. There is no support or appetite for anything that could become a stealth tax. The alternative is a light-touch levy applied in the shops with the funds raised distributed to local causes, which could be identified, if necessary, by the shops themselves, the community or a combination of both. There are any number of ways to spend the money.

I will end with some questions. Can the Minister tell us the Government’s reaction to the first year of a bag charge in Wales? Have he or his colleagues met the Welsh Environment Minister to discuss how the charge has worked? According to the Welsh Government, the scheme has reduced single-use carrier bags by up to 96% in some retail sectors. A recent survey has shown that 70% of people in Wales are in favour of the new system following its introduction. Crucially, the proceeds go to charity. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Keep Wales Tidy have already received a total of £800,000 since the charge was introduced.

Will the Minister confirm that the introduction of such a charge would require secondary legislation only? What would the process be and how long would it take to get a charge up and running, using powers under the Climate Change Act 2008? The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), stated last year that we could expect the Government to decide in 2012 whether they would introduce a charge in England. What is the Government’s timetable for considering it now? The Government’s waste review states that there are

“a number of small levers which we can pull in order to deliver long-term change.”

Does the Minister agree that a bag charge is one such small lever? Will he commit to bringing forward legislative proposals? In short, does he agree that it is time for the Government to act?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this important debate and on how he introduced it. I found it useful that other hon. Members who wished to take part were able to intervene on him, so that there was a genuine debate rather than simply a dialogue between the two of us.

I have had form on this issue going back a long time—to before I was a Minister, when I worked for environmental non-governmental organisations. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that I am aware of the problem and eager to do something about it—and that goes for the Government, too.

The Government are committed to promoting a strong and growing economy in which all resources are fully valued and waste is minimised. That is good for business and good for the environment. To achieve it, everyone has a role to play. That is true across the whole waste agenda, but nowhere more so, I suspect, than in relation to single-use carrier bags. We all have the opportunity to change our behaviour to ensure that fewer bags end up in landfill or as litter.

Does the Minister acknowledge that plastic carrier bags are part of an important industry? The packaging industry employs 85,000 people in the UK, is responsible for a turnover of £11 billion and represents 3% of the manufacturing industry.

Of course I appreciate that, which is why I made the point in my opening remarks about the balance between the economy and the environment. We can secure a successful synthesis of the two.

I want to add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Of the bags used in this country, 90% are manufactured in Asia, not the UK.

This is a very instructive debate. Members have come armed with a huge number of statistics that they are happy to trade across the Floor, which is all to the benefit of the debate.

We all have the opportunity to change our behaviour to ensure that fewer bags end up in landfill or as litter. Notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), reducing the number of bags that we use would be a step towards more responsible living that also encourages people to think about the resources that we use. Aside from the potential ecological problems such bags cause when disposed of irresponsibly, it is incredibly wasteful to produce billions of them each year to be discarded after a single use. We continue to encourage the reuse of bags wherever possible.

All bags have an environmental impact, irrespective of their composition. Reusing them as many times as possible and disposing of them appropriately when they cannot be used any more minimises that impact.

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. I was being a little impatient, because he said that he encourages people to reduce waste and not use plastic bags. Could he concretely say how that encouragement finds its way down to ordinary people? It is true that they have the opportunity to reduce waste, but they are not doing it enough.

They are not, and I will return to that in a moment.

There are those who are clear about their obligations and will use reusable bags whenever they have the opportunity. There are some who it will always be difficult to reach, because they simply do not want to hear the message. Then there are what I call the “guilty middle”; they will use reusable bags, and want to do so, whenever they can, but they sometimes turn up—as, I confess, I occasionally do—at a supermarket and find that they have forgotten the bag that they intended to take and have to take a plastic bag. The sort of measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park proposes might affect that large, guilty group in the middle, who want to do the right thing and feel guilty when they do not.

We have had lots of figures already, so I will add a few more. In 2011, around 8 billion thin-gauge plastic carrier bags—single-use carrier bags—were issued in the UK. If you include reusable bags, such as bags-for-life, the total figure is about 8.4 billion bags issued in the UK. Obviously, that is a very large number.

We have made some progress in recent years. The first voluntary agreement with retailers between 2006 and 2008, which has been mentioned, reduced the overall environmental impact of carrier bags by about 40%. Signatories to the agreement encouraged the reuse of carrier bags, increased their recycled content and reduced their weight, among other measures. A second agreement with supermarkets between 2006 and 2009 focused on reducing the number of bags distributed, and achieved a total reduction of 48% against the 2006 baseline. That is progress. We should not forget that.

Supermarkets and shoppers pulled together to reduce the number of carrier bags they were using. Despite some evidence of a reversal in the trend, the latest figures, for 2011, show an overall decline in bag usage of 32% compared with 2006. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said about the contribution that carrier bags make to landfill. He is right that they are not a large part of the total waste stream, but it is not possible to argue that plastic bags, particularly when they litter our towns and countryside, are not an unwanted eyesore. They represent 72,000 tonnes of waste entering the waste stream.

Aside from the impact that carrier bags have on wildlife, marine environments and our countryside and coast, no one travelling around our countryside wishes to see carrier bags in the trees or floating down the lanes. It is all avoidable if we, the public and retailers do the right thing by reducing the use of single-use bags. We all have a part to play.

Some retailers are taking positive action, with initiatives such as voluntary charging, rewarding shoppers for reusing bags by awarding loyalty points, offering front-of-store recycling and increasing the amount of recycled content in the bags. Although recycling is further down the waste hierarchy, after prevention and reuse, it is still important to improve recycling rates for carrier bags, because it also helps to reduce the overall environmental impact and makes use of a valuable resource. I am pleased to see that the number of shops offering front-of-store recycling facilities for bags has increased, but I would like more to do so. I hope that more retailers, particularly the big ones, will be prepared to take up that challenge.

A number of stores, including WH Smith, Marks and Spencer, Ikea and Lidl, have already introduced charges for carrier bags. Is there evidence from their initiatives to suggest that there are any perverse or unwanted outcomes from such a charge?

I am not aware of any, but a lot of work is being done to look at all the evidence because we want to get the policy right and to make a really effective contribution. I will come back to the Government’s position in a moment, but may I just say that that is part of the evidence-gathering process in which we are engaged?

Let me go back to the point about how we behave. On average, shoppers take three to four new bags every time they go out shopping, and most of them have a large store of bags at home, often under the kitchen sink, which they could take with them and reuse. We need not only to reuse bags, but to reduce the number of new bags that we take and to use bags that have a longer life. All those things put together are the actions of a responsible citizen. None the less, I recognise that we are all fallible. I would hate to be accused of being a hypocrite on these matters, because I know that someone will spot me taking a bag in Sainsbury’s in Frome next week and say, “You said that we shouldn’t be doing that.” I will have to say, “Yes, and you are right; I shouldn’t be doing this and I wish that I had remembered to bring a bag from home.”

Let me address the specific points that have been raised. A question that was asked by my hon. Friend and echoed by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) was about the Government’s reaction to the first year of bag charges in Wales. The results so far look positive. I hope that when we have looked at the full year’s results we will see that they are very positive indeed. We are certainly monitoring the results. When we are clear that we have robust data, we can then base any decisions on them.

Will the Minister in his evaluation take account of the additional bag purchases that will take place in Wales as a consequence of people not having that stock of unused carrier bags under the sink? In resource terms, the fact that people will be buying other products should be taken into account.

It should be. My hon. Friend is giving an example of exactly why we need to look at the results in the round rather than at a simple indicator. Let us do that and let us be convinced, if convinced we are, that what has happened in Wales is the right way to approach the issue. We will also consider the Scottish consultation on change, which closed on 28 September, and discuss the matter with our colleagues in Scotland. We will balance the benefits of any change with the real, but avoidable, effect on household budgets to ensure that we get the right option.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked me whether I had met the Welsh Environment Minister, and the answer is that I have not, but my hon. Friend will accept, I think, that I would not be expected to have such a meeting because that would be the job of my noble Friend, Lord de Mauley. In fact, it was Lord de Mauley’s predecessor in the Department, Lord Taylor, who met John Griffiths in July 2012 to discuss the matter.

My hon. Friend asked me whether I could confirm that the introduction of a charge would only require secondary legislation. If we did take such action, it would be from powers that stem from section 77 of the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes provision for charges for single-use carrier bags. Therefore, in England, we could introduce such a charge through secondary legislation, but it would be subject to a consultation process because that is the mechanism of government.

Will the Minister say when we can look forward to a decision coming from Government? He has explained that it is right to evaluate the experience in Wales. Could we therefore expect some kind of Government decision early next year?

I will not give a firm answer to that, because we want to look at the data, but I hope that we will be able to make an early evaluation of the data. Once we are clear that we have a full-year set of data and we are convinced that the effect is beneficial, we can make a firm decision, and I do expect that to be sooner rather than later. Obviously, that falls short of the sort of commitment on timing that the hon. Lady wants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked about the small levers that can be used. He is right. This provision is one lever among many that we can take. If we find that it is efficacious to go forward on the basis of a proposal—it will be based on the evidence that the hon. Lady has asked for and that we are committed to securing—similar to what exists in Wales, we will use it as a lever to long-term change. There are other things that can be done as well. We would never want to rely on one mechanism and eliminate all others.

If, after studying the Welsh experiment, the effect is deemed to have produced a net good, both in terms of a reduction and the other considerations that have been mentioned today, is that the bar that we need to cross for our Government to pursue the same course of action? In other words, how much does this Government’s decision depend on the results in Wales?

It is one area of data on which we can base intelligent decisions. We do not only want to see whether there is a direct correlation between the activity there and the number of single-use bags that have been used. For example, has the initiative simply prevented people from using single-use bags and led them to buy a bag for life every time they go to a supermarket? If that was the consequence, that would be a worse outcome, despite the fact that the statistics on single-use bags would be beneficial. I am suggesting not that that will be the outcome, but that it is a slightly more complex picture, and we are genuine in wanting to examine the outcomes before we come to a policy decision. Such a decision will have an impact on the consumer, on retailers and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has said, on manufacturers, so we must get it right. We want to achieve a beneficial outcome for the use of scarce resources and for the environment. That is our intention as a Department and that is the basis on which we will finally reach a conclusion.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park for securing this debate and every Member for their contributions. I hope that I have responded to the points that have been made in a reasonable way. I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments to my colleague, Lord de Mauley, for his consideration. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s early-day motion will continue to attract signatures. We will take into account all the factors involved before reaching a final decision, which I hope we will be in a position to make once we have all the information at our disposal.

Sitting suspended.