Monday 23 January 2017
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Non-recyclable and Non-compostable Packaging
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 167596 relating to the banning of non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. The petition’s aim is clear. Regardless of the potential challenges posed in achieving it, I am sure we all support its aspiration. The environmental impact of packaging is a significant and growing concern for consumers, Government and retailers. It is not an issue only here in the UK, but I believe that the people of the United Kingdom have an especially keen sense of responsibility towards our environment and the finite resources of the islands we call our home.
The challenges in achieving the aim set out in the petition break down to a number of key areas: innovation in packaging materials to increase recyclability; the incentivising of manufacturers and retailers to use a larger percentage of recyclable and compostable materials; greater uniformity from council to council on the materials that can be recycled; and a general reduction in excess packaging.
Manufacturers and traders have a legitimate need to ensure that their products reach consumers in a satisfactory condition and that perishable goods are adequately protected to prevent them from spoiling. It is important to recognise that protective packaging plays an important part in preventing damage to the goods that people have purchased, which they rightly expect to find in a good condition. None the less, there is agreement among consumers, legislators and industry that the total use of recyclable and compostable materials is a goal that should be pursued.
Personally, I am concerned about the excessive use of packaging. I am sure we have all at times been baffled by the amount of unnecessary packaging that fills up our recycling bins; I will not be the only person here who is frustrated by that as a consumer. Although there has been a general improvement over the years as the public’s sensibilities have changed, producers could do much more to limit further the use of packaging materials. Of course, consumers also do not want to see any increase in price, and that is a challenge.
We all, I am sure, actively engage in delivering leaflets in the run-up to local and general elections, which usually fall a few weeks after Easter. I am always struck by how much Easter egg packaging there is in recycling bins, and the situation is similar shortly after Christmas. We have to question seriously the excess packaging used in many products.
The recent introduction of the 5p charge for plastic bags was an example of a Government initiative that has worked well to reduce the use of non-biodegradable carrier bags in the UK. That was a consumer-facing initiative, however, and it may be that similar initiatives could be introduced to help encourage the same sort of changes in the manufacturing and packaging industries.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that producer responsibility is at the heart of this issue? The very best suppliers of anything, from fresh vegetables to the most complex white goods, do very well on recyclability and the way they think about the end use of packaging and wrapping. Is it not time that we made producers conform to the highest standards, not the lowest?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The issue will be driven by consumers, and producers need to take a role, but we as legislators also need to look at the issue and debate it from time to time. I look forward to the Government’s response later today.
As the petition states, there is a specific problem with the amount of plastic being used. In some parts, it cannot be recycled. Almost all types of plastic can or should be recycled, but some are less likely to be recycled because of the issues of cost and the local sorting infrastructures in place. An example of that is black plastic, which for technical reasons is generally discarded as landfill. Industry estimates suggest that that amounts to between 26,000 and 60,000 tonnes each year.
Although the packaging and retail industries are already making efforts to modify materials to improve recyclability, significant improvements can clearly be made if retailers are incentivised to use alternative materials. I understand that the packaging industry is developing new materials that will increase the number of options open to manufacturers. I am pleased to note that much of that work is being driven by retailers. The packaging and retail industries are working together to push those innovations forward. Initiatives such as Pledge4Plastics, the “New Plastics Economy” initiative and the industry-led Plastics 2020 Challenge and plastics industry recycling action plan are playing a key part in that. It is encouraging that major brands, including Coca-Cola, Danone, Mars, Unilever and Sainsbury’s plc, are leading by example and supporting such initiatives. Government at all levels has a responsibility to encourage progress, not least in these times when local government needs to look for cost savings and efficiencies.
The media also have a role to play. I am pleased that tomorrow, Sky will be launching an initiative right across the corporation known as Sky Ocean Rescue. Tomorrow, it will be showcasing the documentary “A Plastic Tide”, which looks at the amount of damage caused by the plastics in our oceans. There are some startling facts. It is estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, with 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean every year. The average UK household uses one rubbish truck’s worth of single-use plastics each year. Every minute, an equivalent amount is dumped into our oceans. Some 40% of all plastic in Europe is used only once. A plastic bottle is estimated to take 450 years to break down into microscopic pieces. Plastic bottles are the third worst plastic polluter of the ocean. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calculates that by 2050, the plastic in the world’s seas will weigh more than all the fish.
The Government are clearly committed to an increase in recycling and a reduction in the amount of waste going to landfill. It is positive that targets for plastic packaging are set to increase until 2020 and that the Government are consulting on increasing targets for other materials. Through the Waste and Resources Action Programme, the Government are supporting the sort of material development and usage that I have just mentioned. The guidelines issued in October regarding what can and cannot be accepted for recycling were a helpful step forward.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we were working at the highest level of the best local authority in terms of recycling achievement, we would be in a much happier and more successful place? Has he looked? I own up to this: my constituency of Huddersfield is under Kirklees Council, which has a terrible record on recycling. Many local authorities are poor recyclers. Is it not time we took action against underperforming local authorities?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that the difference between levels of recycling under different local authorities across the country is shocking. It makes it hard for people to understand the regimes involved, and it lets off the hook those retailers or producers that say they do not have to conform because some local authorities do not conform.
I know from my experience as the leader of a local authority that councils are committed to increasing recycling and are already under huge pressure to reduce landfill. As the hon. Gentleman said, recycling does vary across the country. Recycling policy is set at local government level, and there are a number of legal and financial obligations that make it central to the policies of all councils. Will the Minister pledge, when she sums up later, to raise the matter with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government so that we can look at the issue right across Government?
Inconsistency in the types of materials that can be recycled by councils is clearly an issue. If that was resolved, it would give greater clarity to the manufacturers and to those local residents who wish to recycle more. When I raised the matter over the weekend on my social media pages with my constituents, I was pleased by the level of support people gave to doing more to recycle and to looking at how we can ban non-compostable and non-recyclable waste in the future. In fact, a Twitter poll that I carried out showed 80% in favour of banning those materials.
The main issue is one of infrastructure and cost. It may be that proper analysis of how individual councils recycle across the whole of the UK would provide valuable information that could help to identify the best and worst performing areas and inform the Government of possible solutions. There has to be a reasonable balance between reducing the use of non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging to an absolute minimum for the benefit of our environment and still allowing manufacturers to adequately package their goods to prevent damage and spoiling, and to keep costs down.
As well as reducing landfill, the petition talks about non-recyclable and non-compostable rubbish that ends up in waterways. As we have already heard, that can include our oceans. As an MP with both the River Nene and the Grand Union canal running through my constituency in Northampton, I often see the awful situation in which waste is dumped into waterways. Keeping them tidy and clearing them up involves huge difficulty and cost.
My hon. Friend is making interesting points. Recycling is one thing, but reuse is the next step. We have seen some great initiatives such as the 5p carrier bag charge, which has meant more people reusing them and fewer bags going into landfill and the sea. Would he welcome a similar scheme for plastic bottles, with consumers encouraged to reuse those in supermarkets?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know he does a lot of work in this field in his own constituency and he works incredibly hard to raise the issue here in the House. He raises an important point and I am sure the Minister has listened to that. As he said, we saw the impact of the plastic bag charge; the 5p has made a huge difference. Clearly, we should look at other measures and other opportunities moving forward.
When rubbish has been dumped, the blame lies with the people who dumped it into the waterways and other places in the first place. However, different types of packaging would go some way to helping to compost or break it down, and it is right that we look at the issue today. There is agreement across Government, industry and retailers to move towards increasing recyclability, and those elements are already working together to move that forward. I hope we can consider today how that work can be encouraged further, and even accelerated, in a way that prioritises our environment while remaining sensitive to the specific needs of manufacturers and retailers and the challenges faced by local authorities.
The petition was signed by 75,000 people. They care about this issue and want it looked at again to protect our environment—for us, and for future generations. I look forward to the Minister’s response and what we can do to make improvements for the future.
I was not going to speak, but I am a passionate parliamentarian; if I may say so, Mr Bone, you and I both are pretty passionate in the Chamber. You know that I have been a long-time supporter of recycling, reuse and remanufacture. It is important to get the Opposition on the record as being absolutely positive about what we are discussing today.
I have been an honorary fellow of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management for some years. I also chair Policy Connect, where we have a very special focus on the reuse of resources. For many years, I chaired a charity called Urban Mines. Everyone who worked for it was an urban miner: what people used to regard as rubbish flowing from our towns and cities was seen as a new resource that could be mined, rather than digging holes in the earth’s crust and taking virgin material. I have a long history on this issue.
I am passionate about the misuse of our planet’s resources. Not only do we misuse the stuff that we use in packaging, but, as the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) said in an excellent speech, we then pollute our urban and rural environment and kill animals. We kill hedgehogs and badgers and all sorts of rare breeds by our misuse and by casting plastic and metal and all sorts of packaging on to our countryside. Even more importantly—this was brought out beautifully in the hon. Gentleman’s speech—we are now polluting our marine environment to such an extent that our grandchildren will probably live to see the end of fish as a regular part of our diet. That is the truth. How dreadful!
It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for securing this important and timely debate. I am chairman of the all-party group for the packaging manufacturing industry. I spent 25 years in the industry supplying packaging items, mostly to the food service industry. I agree with some of the points made by my hon. Friend, but I regret to say that a great deal of what is contained in the e-petition is not practical.
On a day when the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is in the main Chamber launching the Government’s industrial strategy policy, it is important to remember the importance and magnitude of the packaging industry in the UK. It employs 85,000 people, makes up 3% of all manufacturing that takes place in the UK and achieves sales of £11 billion. It is a highly innovative industry that responds to consumer preferences, and it takes its responsibilities very seriously.
I will mention various bodies and publications, but I want to draw attention to the Industry Council for research on Packaging and the Environment—INCPEN—a research organisation that brings together food manufacturers and packaging companies to ensure that policy on packaging makes a positive contribution to sustainability. Its members include food manufacturers such as Britvic soft drinks and Diageo; food retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco; and packaging manufacturers such as LINPAC and DS Smith. I recommend to all of those who are interested the INCPEN publication that explains why products are packaged in the way that they are.
I referred to the packaging industry’s innovation, which leads to a discussion about why we need packaging. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South drew attention to some of the reasons, but it is important to state at the outset that the demand for packaging arises purely from the demand for the products contained within. Nobody goes to a retailer looking to buy boxes, cartons and cans. What is in the containers is important and generates demand—the packaging is simply a delivery mechanism for food and the other goods.
Packaging has to do a lot of tough tasks. First, it has to protect the contents from hazards, particularly in respect of food items. We have gone from the era when much food was served in open packs and the traditional grocer cut slices of ham and put them in a paper bag, which could then be taken home and exposed to the atmosphere. Most of the food that we buy these days is sold in sealed packs, which protects the food from whatever hazards may be in the environment. Even if the food falls out of the carrier bag on to the floor, the food is protected from the hazard of contamination.
Importantly, packaging should provide easy access to the product. We have all seen examples of poor packaging that makes it difficult to access the product, but we have gone to an era of peel-back labels so that people can get hold of the products. We also ask our packaging to tell us all about what we are buying. There is a mass of information on the packaging that arises because our food is packaged in the way that it is. When people bought slices of ham in an old-fashioned retailer, they did not know the nature of the product unless they asked the retailer, whereas in the supermarket we can easily and readily see exactly what we are buying. Finally, packaging needs to make the product that we intend to buy attractive at the point of sale so that the consumer will be interested in buying it.
Within that, we ask packaging to minimise the amount of food waste. We have very low levels of food waste as a consequence of the very effective packaging our food is sold in. About 3% of our food is wasted. Some may say that that is 3% too much. Not only might that food otherwise have gone to those in need but, more importantly, the disposal of food waste presents real problems for the environment—if it goes into landfill, it unavoidably generates methane gas. Therefore, it is worth pointing out just how effective a tiny amount of packaging can be in preventing food waste. We waste some 3% of our food, but in economies such as Russia or India, levels of food waste are as high as 40%. Only 1.5 grams of plastic—a tiny amount—wrapped around a cucumber will keep that cucumber fresh for 14 days by preventing moisture loss. The item of packaging therefore performs an incredible task, preventing the need for the cucumber to be disposed of in landfill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South gave the example of Easter eggs as a product that might sometimes be thought of as over-packaged. That arises, however, because of how we want to give one another chocolate over the Easter period. If we wanted simply to give one another so many grams of chocolate, we could buy a slab of chocolate and hand it over. We do not do that. We choose to buy an Easter egg. That is where consumer choice comes in.
We are asking a huge amount of such packaging. The thin chocolate egg is itself very fragile, so in addition to making the product attractive, the packaging has to prevent the Easter egg from being broken.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good points about good packaging, but many of the people I represent are furious about bad packaging. What does he have to say about innovations in packaging such that we now have those coffee things for a Nespresso which cannot be recycled at all, or coffee cups that are totally unrecyclable—totally unnecessarily, because they could be recyclable, but no one knows what to do with them. What are his packaging friends going to do about that?
The hon. Gentleman could start me off on coffee cups, but I will deal with them later in my remarks. We are talking about consumer choice, and we need an informed consumer. To go back to the Easter egg example, if we wanted only to give people a bit of nice chocolate, we would simply give them a chocolate bar. We do not do that; we choose to give them an Easter egg. In the same way, people choose to buy the Nespresso-type coffee because that is how they like their coffee. We need to find alternative delivery mechanisms that do not give rise to the same level of packaging waste.
The packaging industry is doing that. It is highly innovative and the amount of material that goes into the average Easter egg pack has been reduced. The process, which I will talk about later, is called light- weighting: using the least amount of material necessary to keep the products safe.
Frankly, from the packaging manufacturers’ point of view, because their material is relatively expensive, there is absolutely no point in over-packaging, and no point in creating too much or in making the plastic or board out of too thick a gauge—that would add cost unnecessarily. I acknowledge, however, that over-packaging exists. There are interesting pictures of internet delivery companies that have delivered something the size and shape of a ruler, but it has been wrapped, put in a box and put in another box before being delivered. There is some crazy over-packaging, but my point is that there is no incentive to over-package because of the cost of the material. Many of the internet delivery companies look hard at their policies to ensure that they do not over-package.
My favourite example of what, on the face of it, looks like over-packaging is orange segments in a plastic container on a supermarket shelf. I remember seeing a photograph of that with a little Post-it note stuck on to say, “Wouldn’t it be really nice if nature were able to make some kind of outer skin to make the plastic packaging unnecessary?” I thought that was witty and clever, and it made a point. Another interesting point about that product is that it might be targeted at a consumer without much manual dexterity who would find it difficult to unpeel an orange and for whom it might be much more convenient to buy the pieces of orange in a plastic container. If there were no demand, that product would not be there, but it is a good example of over-packaging.
We often talk about the resource that goes into packaging without thinking much about the resource that goes into manufacturing the product contained in the packaging, and which could therefore be more efficient. INCPEN itself drew attention to the fact that packaging accounts for only 10% of the average energy resource used for food products, although some items are less efficient. Meat, for example, which is probably the least efficient method of food manufacture, could have much better figures. Nevertheless, the packaging element as a proportion of food cost is relatively small.
I hope I have set out some ways in which the industry acknowledges the existing situation and is therefore innovating and effecting change. I will now move on to the content of e-petition No. 167596, which starts with this country’s recycling record, although this country actually has a very proud one. In 2000, just a little more than 10% of all household waste was recycled; by 2016 that figure had risen to 43.9%. It is certainly true that between 2015 and 2016 the recycling rate fell away slightly, but a bit of that was because we have done the easy stuff. We have picked the low-hanging fruit, such as Coke cans and plastic milk bottles, which are being recycled, and we now have to deal with much harder things.
An example of a sector in which recovery and recycling are difficult is plastic film. When we buy our microwave meal, we have the moulded plastic container with a film on top. The film represents a relatively low proportion of the waste—about 10%—but it is not as easy to collect. The other problem with laminates, or plastic films, is that they are often contaminated with food. If we clean our waste before putting it out for recycling, it is relatively easy to clean the container—we can easily clean the food residue out of a container of, for example, lasagne, but it is difficult to get the food residue off the film. We will therefore probably find 10% of plastic material very difficult to recycle, although the e-petition assumes that we will manage to get to everything.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) mentioned paper cups. A multilaminate is difficult for the industry to recycle. It is made up of various levels of different materials—a paper cup is made up of an outer of board with a plastic lining on the inside. When we are recycling, we put paper in this bin and plastic in that bin. Where do we put the paper cup, which has a plastic lining on the inside? One of the challenges for the recycling industry is to separate those two materials before they can be recycled.
The industry takes seriously the low rate of recycling for paper cups. Therefore, in recent months the coffee companies and retailers, the cup manufacturers and the people who make the board have set up the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group. They are doing very good work in bringing that together. In fact, as I am sure the Minister will be interested to hear, one of the pieces of advice I have given them is: “You need to get your house in order. If you don’t, and you don’t demonstrate that you can do more work to get more cups recycled, lots of people in Parliament will get on their high horses and make life difficult—you will be obliged to do it. So you have got a choice: either do it through voluntary agreement, or be told to do it.”
The producers have the responsibility for recycling—that is in legislation—but they are also happy to do it. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, they accept that that is their responsibility.
There is obviously a benefit to incentivisation. That used to happen with glass bottles, which people got 10p for returning. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the coffee companies that sell reusable cups in the hope that people will bring them back and fill them up should similarly incentivise the use of those cups by reducing what they charge? That might encourage people to change their mindset and not discard everything that they are given but retain and reuse things.
In certain instances, that is the right thing to do. For example, where a coffee company serves coffee for consumption on the premises, a reusable cup that is then properly disinfected and washed is entirely the right thing to use, but not many coffee companies are happy to serve their coffee in a cup that has not been cleaned properly. If someone takes a reusable cup around with them, how does the coffee company know that that cup has been cleaned properly? What happens if a consumer, having presented a dirty cup and been provided with coffee by a coffee supplier, falls ill because the cup had not been cleaned properly? One of the great things about disposable packaging is that people use a unique, fresh product every time. It is the most hygienic way to serve coffee. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of a restaurant environment, but I will not carry a cup around with me for takeaway coffee, and if I were to present a cup to a coffee supplier, I would want to be satisfied that it had been properly and thoroughly cleaned.
The e-petition refers to packaging that goes to landfill. We need to understand why goods collected by local authorities that were intended to be recycled sometimes find their way into landfill. That is in part to do with poor communication between local authorities and waste providers. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South referred to the variation between local authorities. As waste collection is a devolved matter, we leave it to local authorities to determine the right thing to do in their area. As a Conservative, I am a great believer in devolving power down to the lowest available level. That engages people more effectively, but recycling rates vary as a consequence. In 2014-15, South Oxfordshire had a recycling rate of 67.3%, but the rate in Hammersmith and Fulham was 20.7%. That may reflect the different challenges in rural environments, where people are perhaps more likely to comply, and more gritty urban areas.
When we recycle plastic, it has to go through a sorting system, because there are various grades of plastic, and it then has to be cleaned and disinfected and put into granular form so it can be reused. One problem with the relatively low oil price is that virgin material has been less expensive than recycled material. What incentive has there been for manufacturers to use recycled material? As oil is traded in dollars, the recent fall in the value of the pound may mean that the economics change somewhat, but those economics exist. Why would a manufacturer take the risk of using recycled material, which may contain contaminants, when virgin material is available at a lower price?
The petition also refers to packaging making its way into our waterways. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who is no longer in his place, is concerned about the marine environment. The question that we need to address is: how does that packaging get where it does? Litter is simply packaging that happens—usually after it has been used—to be in the wrong place. It should of course not be in the waterway, at the side of the road, on the footpath or on the football field. How does it get there? It gets there because of human behaviour—because as a mass of people, we do not do the right thing. I did some travelling last summer. I went to Japan, and I was astounded at how clean the city of Tokyo was, despite it having no bins. There is a culture in Japan that if someone consumes something in disposable packaging, they take that packaging home with them and put it in their household waste. This is a behavioural issue; clearly, we need to effect a change in our behaviour. That really starts at school with getting a message across to our young people.
Lots of innovative projects encourage people to reduce their litter. A social action organisation called Hubbub carried out a five-month experiment to reduce litter in Villiers Street here in London that included different types of bins. Hubbub wanted people to put drinks cartons and cans in the appropriate containers, and one of the innovative ways it got them to do that was by encouraging them to vote. It put two footballers’ names on the bins and asked, “Who’s the best footballer?” People put their rubbish in one bin or the other, thereby casting a vote for their favourite soccer player. We need more innovation like that. I know of a bin that has been used to encourage young children to put more litter in the bin. It is in the shape of an animal, it has an opening on the front and when packaging is put into its mouth, it burps. The children find that funny, so they are encouraged to use it. We must effect an attitude change. Notwithstanding what the petition says, it is not the packaging industry’s fault that packaging often ends up where it should not be. We can all agree that it ends up in the wrong place.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall mentioned the 5p levy on carrier bags. That has certainly reduced the number of carrier bags in circulation—of that there is no doubt—but Keep Scotland Beautiful recently conducted a survey and found there were more carrier bags littered on the streets than there were before the introduction of the 5p levy. Some people talk about a levy on coffee cups. I am not at all certain that that 5p levy has been particularly effective.
What are the solutions? The first is to ensure that we deal properly with packaging waste and make it easier for people to recycle. But recycling is a good thing only if it delivers a net gain. It concerns me that we often drive material around the country to recycling centres without sufficient regard for the environmental impact of those journeys. The hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to packaging as a resource. It can of course be a source of energy. Household waste is used to generate the heat that enables the cement company based in my constituency to manufacture cement. That strikes me as a much better use of the calorific value of packaging than sending it to landfill.
I have spoken about the challenges of using recyclable material, and I want to address what the petition says about compostable packaging—packaging made from material that might at some point in the future break down. Over the past 10 years, compostable packaging has been used in the food service sector by operators that believe they are doing the right thing, but compostable plastic—if I can use that term—looks exactly the same as PVC material, so how do people know which bin to put the compostable material in? If that material ends up getting into the plastic waste stream and being sent for recycling, it is effectively a contaminant. The reverse also applies: we do not want plastic to find its way into the compost stream. Clearly, there needs to be effective separation in the waste stream. Compostable material can work in closed environments such as schools and colleges, or even festival sites, but ensuring that people put used products into the right container across the board is a real challenge.
If composting is to be the solution, we need to understand the process by which the compostable material breaks down. There are those who think that a compostable bag can simply be put on a compost heap or in the compostable waste stream and it will break down in days. That is not the case. It will hang around for some time. The time taken for it to break down depends on the composition of the material and the temperature of the composter in which it is put. Some litter groups are concerned that the attitude of, “This product is compostable and will break down,” will lead to even more litter being thrown from the car window, because of users’ belief that it does not matter as it will break down and return harmlessly to nature. It does not.
The petition refers to “big business” but, as I have said, both small and large packaging companies respond to consumers’ needs and what consumers want. If we want change, we need to get the message across to them. The call for action in the petition is to “ban all non-sustainable packaging”. I do not know what the authors have in mind by that, or how it would be banned. If we do not know what it is, we cannot do that. I have already spoken about the challenges of using compostable materials.
We need to make sure that alternatives are available, and the industry has done a huge amount. I have mentioned light-weighting. There is now significantly less resource in a plastic Coca-Cola bottle made of PET; it has been reduced by 25%. The advantage is that through the weight reduction, Coca-Cola has saved $180 million over two years through the distribution chain. It has managed to reduce the weight of the glass bottle by 50%. There is no incentive for the manufacturer to put more material in the product than necessary.
The sentiments in the petition are well intentioned, and the industry is striving towards the same things, which everyone wants. I saw on a truck going around Parliament Square this morning the message, “Reduce, reuse and recycle”, and we certainly want more of that. The industry supports it and takes the issues covered by the e-petition extremely seriously.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bone. There may not have been many contributions to the debate, but they have all been relevant and informative. I thank the Petitions Committee for putting the debate forward and the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) for his opening remarks, including his stark comments about the future of the oceans and what our not tackling the issue will mean to future generations. We must agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is passionate and knowledgeable about every issue on which he speaks. It was good to hear his interventions challenging some of people’s conceptions about recycling. It is good to follow the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who chairs the all-party group for the packaging manufacturing industry, of which I am a member. He gave us the other side of the coin, and was very positive about why we have packaging.
The petition calls for a ban on the use of all non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging, but the Government, as shown by their response, clearly do not share that view and argue that it is ultimately for businesses to decide what packaging materials to use. My party takes a different view from the Government’s. We realise that the problem is complex, but believe that the Government could make more direct interventions. When the last Labour Government were in power, recycling rates quadrupled. It is worrying that the latest figures show that, across the UK, household recycling rates fell from 44.9% in 2014 to 44.3% in 2015.
As waste policy is a devolved issue, perhaps the Government could look for lessons from the Labour Administration in Wales, which is the only part of the UK to have met the EU’s 50% recycling target. In 2010, the Welsh Government committed to the principles of a circular economy in their “Towards zero waste” strategy. Since then, recycling rates in Wales have increased dramatically from 44% to almost 56%.
Regulations introduced in 2007 by the Labour Government placed a legal obligation on UK businesses to increase the amount of packaging waste that is recycled and reduce the amount that goes to landfill, but last year those regulations were substantially watered down, as the Government claimed that there was a need to reduce regulatory burdens on producer businesses. The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 and the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 have been important in ensuring that where businesses make or use packaging, a proportion of it can be recycled and the amount of packaging is not excessive for keeping products safe, hygienic and acceptable to the customer—something that the hon. Member for Rugby spoke about eloquently.
The regulations apply whether items are packaged in the UK or abroad, but there are plenty of examples, particularly in this age of online shopping, where it is clear that they are not adhered to. I am not a great one for shopping online, but in my limited experience of doing so, as well as shopping in stores, I have noticed how much excessive packaging there seems to be, which leads me to agree with Dr Colin Church of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, who, in recent comments on the fall in recycling figures, pointed out that perhaps the packaging recovery note compliance scheme is in need of revision.
Experts and organisations agree that the biggest problem discouraging the public from recycling is uncertainty and confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. Indeed, perhaps that is one of the reasons for the popularity of the petition, even if the public do not think its ultimate aim can be achieved. That confusion has already been discussed in the debate. I hope that different local authorities’ inconsistent approaches to what can be recycled will be addressed to some degree through the work done by WRAP, recyclers, waste management companies and local authorities on developing national recycling guidelines. Those were published last autumn. However, as with the plastics industry recycling action plan, which was launched in 2015 with the aim of co-ordinating action across the supply chain to improve recycling rates, it relies on a voluntary approach. It is not clear whether those initiatives will deliver the necessary improvements within the timescales required under the regulations. WRAP will keep the guidelines under review, but it would be helpful if the Minister commented on the progress of those initiatives.
Although 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions made at the design stage, there is little incentive for businesses to take environmental issues into account at that stage. That must change and a number of proactive steps could be taken to encourage businesses to make more efficient use of resources in designing new products. For example, to help make eco-friendly products more appealing, the Government could set variable rates of VAT based on recycled content.
Much more action is surely needed if the Government and EU target to increase the rate of plastic packaging recycling to 57% by the end of 2017 is to be considered realistic. As has been mentioned, a new global action plan announced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was launched at the World Economic Forum last week. It has been endorsed by industry leaders and aims to increase the global reusing and recycling of plastic packaging from 14% today to 70%. That and other initiatives are a welcome step forward. Given the involvement of companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Mars and the People’s Postcode Lottery, I sincerely hope that the work done under the global plan will have a great influence in the UK.
The impact of Brexit on much of the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is still not clear. The most immediate questions relate to the EU’s circular economy package, which will include updates to key directives on waste disposal and packaging. Some of the details of those changes are still to be negotiated, and once finalised, will need to be implemented at national level. While the Government have said that existing EU law will be carried over by the great repeal Bill, it is not clear what will happen to EU laws that have been passed but not yet implemented in UK law at the time of our leaving. Will the Minister give a specific answer on whether the circular economy package will be implemented before we leave the EU? Will she tell us how we will enforce those laws outside the current EU framework? Will she also say what additional plans the Government have beyond the circular economy package to bring the UK closer to those ambitious recycling targets?
Embracing the circular economy is something we should all agree on. We need to see more action from Ministers if they are genuine about recycling across the UK and if they take seriously the views of the people of the UK, as expressed in the petition.
It has been a very interesting debate on the petition, which was created by Teja Hudson and secured more than 74,000 signatures. It was chosen for debate by the Petitions Committee, and was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) with his usual aplomb. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) extensively shared his professional experience, which has helped to inform the debate.
Packaging is critical in allowing the sale and distribution of products in a safe, secure and hygienic manner. It allows us to eat a huge range of fresh food at any time of year and to extend the shelf life of products. As we have already heard, a cucumber can now remain edible for 14 days thanks to plastic wrapping. Packaging has also become key to supporting our lifestyles, in which we enjoy products in a convenient, consumer-friendly and appropriately portioned format. It allows retailers to provide us with a choice of products, and allows us to make choices about what products are right for us based on the information on the packet, through labelling and similar.
As a result of significant change in our lifestyles, and to both our purchasing and consumption preferences, the amount and types of packaging has increased dramatically in modern times, alongside the need for responsible disposal. Technically, most packaging is recyclable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby pointed out, the challenges are more evident for certain products than for others. Nevertheless, the essay question becomes, “Why is it that our recycling rates are not sky high?”
Businesses are encouraged to reduce waste in the first place by using appropriately sized packaging. Our regulations require businesses to ensure that packaging does not exceed what is needed to ensure that products are safe, hygienic and acceptable for both the packed product and the consumer. Those regulations apply to those responsible for the packing or filling of products into packaging, and to those importing packed or filled packaging into the UK from elsewhere.
Christmas presents and Easter eggs have been discussed extensively. While some of the packaging for Easter eggs is clearly for branding purposes, a considerable amount is functional. A hollow chocolate egg is somewhat fragile, and the packaging allows for a product to be presented to the consumer intact. Of course, many brands of egg are available, but the challenges of packaging, for example, a Dairy Milk egg are quite different from the challenges of packaging a Creme Egg, which is solid and has substance inside.
Our regulations already place a legal obligation on UK businesses that make or use packaging to ensure that a proportion of the packaging they place on the market is recovered and recycled. Each activity throughout the packaging supply chain, from the original producer to the packager to the retailers, carries a different proportion of the responsibility to reflect the potential impact that a producer may have. For example, sellers of goods have 48% of the responsibility for recycling packaging, with packers or fillers having 37%. Those regulations create an incentive for companies to use less packaging, and to ensure that their packaging can be recycled at the end of its life, because it reduces their costs of complying with the regulations. In 2014, almost £20 million of revenue from the obligations paid by businesses was used specifically to help plastics recycling. Our targets for plastic packaging recycling are set to increase by 2020, which should provide a further incentive.
Why is our recycling rate not sky high? Consumers need to be able to dispose of waste responsibly, and many do so at home, while on the move and while at work. As we have heard, plastics come in all shapes, sizes and formats. While all councils are required to offer recycling of plastic bottles, several councils inform us that it is not economically worth while for them to collect and recycle some formats, such as yoghurt pots or ready meal trays. They also inform us that local reprocessing infrastructure may be limited; that the type of reprocessing needed could create different environmental impacts that outweigh the resource efficiency benefits; and that there may be a lack of end markets for some types of recycled materials. There is also the problem of contamination, which can make the contents of an entire recycling bin unfit for recycling.
I agree with my hon. Friend. However, we both worked in industry for some time, and the idea that a strategy could be changed based on temporary changes in exchange rates is unlikely, owing to the required amount of capital investment. Nevertheless, if there is an opportunity appropriately to design products so that it does not matter whether virgin or recycled materials are used, I am sure companies will take advantage of those short-term measures to do so.
A great deal of work is being done by some local authorities to improve their recycling facilities and collection, and I congratulate those that are doing well, but I challenge the view that recycling in densely packed urban areas is difficult, or that local authorities cannot do more to improve recycling rates. We know that they can, and that many are delivering high levels of recycling and are actively exploring what can be done to extend services, even in challenging circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby referred to energy from waste. I caution against some of what he said. In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it. The opposite is true of food—it is better to burn it than bury it. We need to be careful about what incentives we push.
I will try to come to some of the shadow Minister’s questions—if I do not cover them in my speech, I will ensure I refer to them before the end. I reassure her and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South that a lot of work has been done over the past 20 years to improve the recycling, and the recyclability, of packaging. We have largely worked through the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—for many years to increase the quantity and quality of materials collected for reuse and recycling, including through campaigns like Recycle Now and through implementing the Courtauld commitment.
We continue to work through WRAP to develop and deliver activities to support the use of recycled materials in new products, and to encourage activities to stimulate its demand. Its industry advisory group recently published a framework for greater consistency in recycling. The vision is that, by 2025, packaging will be designed to be recyclable where practical and environmentally beneficial, and will be clearly labelled to indicate whether it can be recycled. Actions from that framework aim to identify opportunities for rationalising packaging, and for more and steady end markets for recyclable packaging, and to help local authorities to recycle a greater variety of materials, particularly plastics.
The hon. Lady referred to what is happening with that programme. WRAP is working with a number of local authorities. My top priority in the Department is air quality and my second is tackling urban recycling. It matters that we try to encourage more of our councils. She referred to Wales, which has taken a regulatory approach in this regard, but we are not yet persuaded of that. I do not want just to apply a stick to councils, but for all of us—it does not matter which party we represent—using fewer resources in the first place and being able to recover, recycle and reuse them is the right thing for our environment. There are other incentives and we want to encourage not only businesses to play their part, but councils to make the process as easy as possible for householders.
One of the biggest things I have learned since coming to my role is how much our recycling rates are due to organic waste. Much of it is due to garden waste. People do not think that putting their garden clippings out is part of recycling, but that is how it is counted, and it is where we saw a drop last year. Nevertheless, we want to continue encouraging councils to extend the number of products they will recycle by making it as easy as possible.
It is ultimately for businesses to decide what packaging materials they use to supply products to customers, and for customers to make choices on the products they buy. I am delighted to see the recent pledges by a number of multinational businesses to significantly improve the recyclability of their packaging. As has been outlined, more than 40 companies have signed up to a global action plan to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging. The recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation analysed the problem well and will help to galvanise companies into further action on this issue.
I used to work for Mars and I am pleased that it is part of this initiative. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) referred to coffee capsules. The report stressed that they are part of the 30% of packaging that is challenging to tackle. Nevertheless, I hope that Nestlé, which makes some of the finest products in the world, will apply some of the finest brains to make sure that it addresses the issue. Otherwise, we need to increase consumers’ awareness that Nespresso capsules, which are marketed by the gorgeous George Clooney—I know he is a married man, Mr Bone—are not recyclable today.
Unilever gave a commitment to ensure that all plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. I commend it on that and I note its commitment to reduce packaging weight by one third by 2020. It has made a commitment to use at least 25% of recyclable plastic content in its packaging by 2025. It would be good to see even more than that.
These commitments and future products will need to be matched with the right recycling infrastructure, the right consumer buying and recycling behaviour, and the right end markets for recycled materials. We will continue to work on our policies to encourage all these things, and to encourage others to do the same. I am pleased that waste is one of the six infrastructure priorities being focused on by the National Infrastructure Commission; I know that senior waste industry figures also welcome that. It will help to inform our longer-term policies but, most importantly, we should all be striving for less waste being produced in the first place.
Most of what I have discussed refers to packaging that can be recycled and I am conscious that the petitioners also referred to compostable packaging and the use of bioplastics. While attractive on the surface, this is a considerably more complex issue. Biodegradable materials must be properly disposed of if the benefits of such technologies are to be fully realised. If biodegradable packaging is put in the domestic waste bin, it is likely to end up in landfill and break down to release methane, which is obviously not good from a carbon emissions point of view. If biodegradable packaging is mistakenly recycled with other plastics, it has the potential to damage the quality and integrity of the new products made from the recycled plastic—for example, damp-proof courses in houses.
However, biodegradable or compostable plastic that degrades fully without causing harm in the natural environment would clearly be desirable. My colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are currently seeking input to help to shape a UK bioeconomy strategy, including how standards for new materials, such as bioplastics, could be used to help promote growth and innovation in the bioeconomy.
Reference has been made to litter, which is part of the petition’s message, by speakers today. The Government are developing a litter strategy for which my noble friend Lord Gardiner is the responsible Minister. As was indicated in the House last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is personally interested in the issue of marine litter, and I am sure there will be opportunities during the development of the strategy to address such matters.
Another question raised today was the EU and environmental law. I assure the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) that our intention is to bring existing EU law into UK law on the day we leave the European Union.
On the circular economy package, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid out several times, while we are members of the European Union we will negotiate in good faith; I am approaching the negotiations on the eventual outcome for the circular economy in a way consistent with that. On the timing, it is likely that we will still be in the European Union, which will mean that we are required by directive to introduce it into law, but we are approaching the matter in good faith while negotiating quite hard on behalf of the United Kingdom and what we think is achievable and realistic. First, we must agree a definition of “recycling”. There are many different views.
On additional plans for recycling targets, I have laid out some of the work by WRAP, but I am conscious that, as I visit more and more councils and discuss air quality regularly, another issue is their approach to achieving their recycling targets.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) referred to the coffee cup incentive. Several retailers offer an incentive for people to use reusable cups. I must be careful not to endorse one company’s products, but in my constituency a company, Frugalpac, which I have visited in my capacity as an MP, does well and there may be other sources of coffee cups for retailers. I am pleased that Frugalpac seems to have created technology to make recycling easier.
There are regulations on producer responsibility. We will be looking at that in future.
We have referred to the circular economy negotiations. The Government are absolutely committed to hit the 50% recycling target. When we leave the European Union, I genuinely believe that what the hon. Member for North Tyneside refers to as the circular economy and we call resource efficiency could be a genuinely competitive advantage for UK plc. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has referred to that. Some companies are already showing a lead. The best companies are achieving these things because it is good for the company, good for consumers and good for the environment.
We have seen a tremendous transition over the past decade from a throwaway mindset to one that focuses on extracting the value from resources more than ever before, but we must continue with this trend, finding new and innovative ways to extract even more value from our resource assets and protect the quality of our environment. Companies, consumers and the environment will benefit. That is the triple crown for which we all strive.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I will be brief. I thank you for chairing this debate and the 75,000 people who signed the petition. We have had a passionate debate, not least because of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). He is no longer in his place, but he is a passionate supporter of trying to change things.
We had knowledgeable input from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who is chair of the all-party group on packaging manufacturing. Although we disagreed on Easter eggs, I was pleased to hear from him—not least about the variation of rates of recycling among local authorities.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) touched on the reuse of coffee cups, which is a valid discussion. I am grateful for the input from the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), who talked about recycling rates in Wales particularly. I am grateful to the Minister for outlining her approach and continued commitment to developing this theme and the Government’s approach to the litter strategy. She outlined her approach to local authorities and their recycling rates, and even managed to mention George Clooney.
I am pleased that we have debated this issue today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 167596 relating to the banning of non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging.