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Plastics: Agriculture

Volume 649: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2018

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of plastics in agriculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

My constituents in North Cornwall are incredibly concerned about the environment, for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it is because we are a coastal constituency with a great deal of communities reliant on the sea, like the Minister’s constituency of Suffolk Coastal. It might also be because of the beautiful inland landscape of our countryside. Arguably the biggest threat to the environment, other than the ice caps melting, is the plastic in our seas and environments.

The invention of modern plastics transformed the world. It sped up processing and changed entirely how we store everything from food to medicine and how we wrap bulk items. However, with all the good that plastic has done in ease of use, it now poses an imminent threat. We all know that plastic is not biodegradable, and that is now coming at a price to our environment. The most noticeable damage being done to us in North Cornwall is undoubtedly plastic in the ocean. Around two months ago, I asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a question about marine conservation in which I congratulated Lewis Pugh on his mammoth swim from Land’s End to Dover. He did that to raise awareness of the tide of plastic we now find pouring into our oceans.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and raising this issue. Does he agree that quite a lot of the issues are caused by commercial waste collectors that do not make plastic recycling easy, particularly for businesses?

The hon. Lady makes an exceptionally good point. I will come on to talk about the environmental impact of industrial plastics later on. There needs to be a wider debate about not only residential waste but commercial waste.

Just last month, The Guardian reported that microplastic fragments are now finding their way into human stool samples. It is incredibly worrying that plastic is now entering the human food chain. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the plastics most commonly found. Although there is still little data on the long-term implications of those microplastics for the human body, it is causing serious concern.

Our food comes from our agricultural industry, which we rely heavily on. It relies on the use of plastics, and it is there that I believe we can make some progress. Plastics and the environment is a key issue in my constituency and for future generations. I am sure many Members have similar talks when they go into their local primary and secondary schools, but when I visit schools in my constituency, the first question they ask me, after my favourite football team—it is Plymouth Argyle, by the way—is always an environmental one. Often it is about plastics.

I certainly welcome the amazing progress that the Government have already made. We have made a commitment to leave the environment in a better place than we found it. We have seen progress in legislation to tackle the scourge of plastics in our environment. We implemented the ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads, and the coalition introduced the 5p carrier bag charge. At the time, I was slightly sceptical about that, but it has definitely changed behaviour, taking 9 billion bags out of circulation. There are the recent proposals for a bottle deposit scheme, which I welcome, and a ban on the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Most recently, the Chancellor has announced consultation on a world-leading tax on plastic packaging that does not include at least 30% recycled content.

Those policies are part of a cultural change in how the public view single-use plastics, and around the country we are seeing great examples of how that is coming about through grassroots organisations. Penzance recently became the first town in the country to go plastic-free, and was declared as such by Surfers Against Sewage. That was achieved by Penzance residents coming together and thinking of creative new ways of replacing plastics. For example, they have started to use food boxes made of starch. I commend the people of Penzance for their great achievement.

I welcome the nation’s action on the issue of plastics in the environment, but I want to focus specifically on plastics in the agricultural sector. In rural communities such as North Cornwall, plastics are used heavily on farms. In fact, PlasticsEurope, an association of plastic manufacturers, says on its website:

“A wide range of plastics are used in agriculture”.

Those include polyolefin and polyethylene, which tend to be used in mulch to protect saplings and conserve water. Polypropylene is used to make woven sacks for storage. Ethylene-vinyl acetate is used for sealing packaging. Polyvinyl chloride is used for plastic pipes for irrigation. Those are just a few examples of the plastics used in the agricultural space.

Those plastics provide innovative but not always sustainable ways of managing crops. Plastic irrigation pipes prevent the wasting of water and nutrients. Rainwater can be retained more effectively in plastic reservoirs. The use of pesticides can be greatly reduced by keeping crops in a closed space such as a greenhouse or by mulching under plastic film. Moreover, pesticide emissions into the atmosphere are reduced by having a fixed plastic cover in place.

At the end of their life cycle, agricultural plastics such as greenhouse covers can be recycled. Once retrieved from the fields, other plastics have to be washed to eliminate sand, herbicides and pesticides before they are ground up and extruded into pellets. That in itself is quite environmentally intensive, but the material can then be used again in the manufacturing of such things as outdoor furniture. When recycling is not viable, energy can be obtained from agricultural plastic waste through co-combustion. The recent call for evidence by Her Majesty’s Treasury on single-use plastics, “Tackling the plastic problem”, was intended to explore how changes to the tax system or charges could be introduced to reduce the amount of single-use plastics.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that dealing with plastics through incineration is 12 times less fuel-efficient than burning the original stock fuel?

I have learned something today. I was not aware of that. The whole principle is that reusing plastics rather than burning them is a much better way of dealing with the scourge we have in the environment.

I know the Government are keen to explore new and innovative measures in this area. The National Farmers Union recently said that it recognises the potential for new production opportunities in the industry and would like to see some Government action. It said:

“However, it is important that food safety and quality are not compromised”.

It wants

“to encourage the phase-out of single-use plastics. Agriculture is responsible for only a small proportion of plastic packaging waste.”

We clearly need to find a way to make agriculture more environmentally friendly without putting a heavy burden on our fantastic farmers. In some cases, farmers have taken the initiative. For example, plastic mulches took over from materials such as straw leaves and wood chips as they are more effective to install in large-scale indoor animal enclosures, but there are cases of financially viable modern-day farms that have turned their back on single-use plastics and have gone organic to cover crops. I was recently made aware by the Horticultural Trades Association that its new plant pots are recyclable and do not contain any carbon pigment. The Government need to get behind a move to organic materials, or at least material that can be recycled. A further problem to which we need a solution is that some farms are remote and struggle to get a private contractor to come in and collect waste. That sometimes leads to farmers burning waste, which has a huge impact on the environment and is not the right way forward.

I originally came up with the concept for today’s debate after visiting a constituent called Phil who runs Kernow Farm Plastics in Cornwall. His business is part of the national farmers recycling service, which operates across the whole of the south-west. Kernow Farm Plastics offers a service to farmers to collect and recycle their agricultural plastics. Phil took me round for half a day to show me his business and to educate me—it really was a bit of an education—on the different kinds of plastics in agriculture and their environmental impact.

One thing that is not made of biodegradable material, and which I am particularly concerned about, is net wrap, which is used to tie large bales of hay. It is not the plastic coating that goes around the outside—the black stuff. Net wrap holds the bale in place, and is made up of a very thin strand of non-recyclable plastic. It is terrible for wildlife and the marine environment, and ultimately could find its way into watercourses and then into the sea. That is my main focus in the debate.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand to let him know about an innovative scheme. My local council, Ards and North Down Borough Council, yesterday became the first in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to install a marine sea bin, which has the capacity to sieve 2 million litres of sea water annually and trap plastics in its mesh. The sea bins cost about £3,500 each, and use a low-energy motor that can be run for about £1 a day. Each bin can capture 3 tonnes of litter a year, and 70% of each unit is made of recyclable plastic. Does he agree that such initiatives can and must be recognised and encouraged? Ards and North Down Borough Council, as the first council in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to install a sea bin, is leading the way.

I absolutely agree. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great champion of his community, including his fishing community. Like me, he understands that our marine environment is vital. I hope that we see more of those schemes around the country.

We need to find biodegradable and organic alternatives to net wrap. The original alternative was binder twine. We used to see lots of twine used for tying bales, but that seems to be less prevalent now. Twine has traditionally been more durable than plastic, but is prone to rotting away. It is not nearly as suited to the job as plastic. In many industries, plastic has been seen as a much more effective alternative, but not necessarily for the environment.

Net wrap is a key example of where we need an alternative that is easy and safe to recycle. It is unacceptable for us to continue to use this stuff on an industrial scale when we could use something that is recyclable. My ask of the Minister and the Department is that they set up a research and development fund to try to find a way of ensuring that all plastic farming materials can be recycled, and to encourage viable alternative organic production methods wherever possible so that we do not end up with plastics in our environment, among our wildlife and in our oceans.

We need to make the debate on plastics as wide as possible so that we can get the best results, and I know that the Minister gets that. It has been a pleasure to take part in today’s debate, and I am really looking forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing the debate. I recognise the extensive introduction he gave to the marine impact of a lot of plastic getting into rivers and oceans. I fully share those concerns, and we are working exceptionally hard in a number of ways to tackle that important issue. However, I will mainly address his questions about the use of plastic in agriculture.

The Government share concerns about plastic waste polluting our environment from all sources, including agriculture. Our priority is to prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first place. My hon. Friend will be aware that the overarching ambition is to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25-year environment plan, but ideally sooner.

As a material, plastics are incredibly useful and versatile, as my hon. Friend mentioned. They are flexible and durable and have a multitude of uses in the agricultural sector. Plastic is used on farms for a variety of purposes, including wrapping hay and silage bales, transporting feed and fertiliser, and insulating soil and horticultural crops. Wrapping animal feed such as silage, hay and straw in plastic protects it from the weather and saves time while baling. It is a handy way to store valuable feed that is used to feed stock through the winter.

Removing the wrap from hay bales can be a burden for farmers. Failure to do so, and to dispose of it properly, means that animals can sometimes eat the plastic wrapping and injure themselves when it enters their rumen. We urge farmers and agricultural workers to take responsibility for their waste, and to follow guidance to ensure that they capture plastic waste and deal with it properly. A coalition of groups has published information to help farmers and land managers to do the right thing with agricultural waste as part of the “right waste, right place” campaign. That campaign was sponsored by the Environment Agency and supported by the National Farmers Union among others.

Plastic wrap used for hay bales can be recycled, and the infrastructure exists within the country to manage that. However, contamination levels, the relatively high costs of collection and other costs associated with cleaning plastic waste before it can be recycled mean that demand for farm plastic waste is very low. I recognise and welcome the valuable work of operators in the farming sector who are taking proactive steps to recycle farm plastic waste. For example, yesterday Grassroots Recycling organised a meeting that brought together the NFU, the Environment Agency and 10 farm waste collectors, including Kernow Farm Plastics Ltd, to which my hon. Friend referred, and Agri Cycle Ltd, to consider the challenges for recycling farm plastics.

As my hon. Friend laid out, it is important that such a service is available to the farming community right around the country in order to help farmers deal with some of their regulatory requirements. He will be aware that, if a farmer chooses to sell a bale of hay, they need to participate in the packaging recovery note system, although if it just gets reused on their own land they do not need to because it is just a transfer of product.

It is fair to say that there were concerns that the end markets are challenging at this time, particularly as recycling processes tend to take plastic waste from other sources, given the issues that I outlined. I must admit that today is the first time that I have heard somebody talk specifically about the problem of net wrap. After my hon. Friend’s eloquent explanation of the challenges in how it is used, I fully understand his concerns about how net wrap in particular could easily become part of the litter that ends up going into watercourses, having the impact to which he referred.

My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a research and development fund to look at alternatives. There is an opportunity for people to apply for funding from our plastics innovation fund, which is led by Innovate UK under the steering of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He will be aware that there are many producers, so this is a good challenge.

As we announced in the Budget, we are introducing what is effectively a new tax for plastic products that are not at least 30% recycled. There may be a possibility to apply such measures to wider plastic wrap as well as the net wrap. However, I am conscious of what my hon. Friend said about alternatives. I strongly agree that, just as we are looking at alternative uses for plastics industrially as well as recreationally, there may well be more we can do once the opportunity for innovation is explored.

The Minister mentions money for research into plastic wrapping, but there is also a problem with plastic mulching. We do not know what effect plastic mulch may have when it gets into watercourses, rivers and seas, but it is a potential source of microplastics and it may also go straight into the soil. It could be a widespread problem, but there is a lack of research into plastic mulching and a lack of knowledge about its effects.

I had never heard the phrase “plastic mulching” before either, but I am conscious of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Elements of plastic can end up in the natural environment in different and unintended ways. Some broader research has been done into the impact of plastics, but I recognise that there is more to do. I think Public Health England has been considering the matter.

I welcome what the Minister says about encouraging biodegradable fibres and bioplastics, but until those materials are available more widely, we will need a domestic solution to recycling. China is now refusing to take plastic waste, and other Asian countries may follow suit. Recycling plastic has recently become more complicated and expensive than ever before, so I hope that she will say what the Government are doing to encourage domestic recycling solutions.

The reality is that until now, China, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries have largely been happy to accept our plastic because they have seen it as a raw material that they can use to generate more products. Plastic recycling is technically possible and exists in this country already—it is just that it is not as economical. People have to pay to recycle various sources of plastic rather than getting a benefit from them, although that is changing. We recognise that China has reduced the amount of contamination that it is prepared to accept in plastic—it does not ignore all plastic, but effectively it has closed the market and made it less worth while. I am sure my hon. Friend is eagerly awaiting our strategy on resources and waste, which will appear in due course. Perhaps more can be revealed at that time.

I mentioned the measures in the 25-year environment plan we published in January, as well as the Government’s commitment to taking action against the problem of single-use plastics waste as part of our wider strategy. We have given £20 million to the plastics innovation fund, which is co-ordinated by Innovate UK and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and which aims to reduce the environmental costs of plastic and litter. I am pleased to say that, in the Budget, we announced not only a tax on plastic products that are not at least 30% recycled, but a further £20 million of funding: £10 million extra for R&D and £10 million to pioneer innovative approaches to boosting recycling and reducing litter. The fund will be made available during the 2019-20 financial year. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall that innovation is vital in supporting developments to tackle plastic waste, so we will continue to explore commercially viable options.

Beyond the farm, we have worked with retailers and with the Waste and Resources Action Programme to explore the potential for introducing plastic-free initiatives. At the end of the month, WRAP will publish a technical report on the evidence for providing fresh produce. Its purpose is to inform a dialogue on providing uncut fresh fruit and vegetables loose, and it will contain advice on how to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging without unintentionally increasing food waste. I am sure that the famous cucumber scenario will be mentioned many times in the discussions about whether plastic is a benefit or a horror. The opposite environmental aspect that we need to consider is food waste, especially in regard to carbon. The technical report will be available for consideration and discussion by signatories to the 2025 Courtauld commitment and the UK plastics pact.

The Government want to create a vibrant market for recycled materials in the UK, including plastic. We want to increase the quantity and quality of materials collected by local authorities in England and accelerate greater consistency. My hon. Friend referred to biodegradable materials, which may be seen as a solution that would reduce the impact of plastic waste. However, if disposed of incorrectly, they can be more environmentally damaging than non-biodegradable materials. We are concerned that, in the absence of standards, claims about the biodegradability of plastic-based products cannot be verified, which has the potential to lead to confusion in the marketplace, increased levels of consumption and environmental harm at the point of disposal.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on plastic. Some may see it as a niche issue, but he is fully aware of its importance and I congratulate him on all his work and campaigning. The issue needs to be tackled at the source in every possible way, and we need constantly to challenge ourselves, our agricultural industry and other similar industries to do so.

Question put and agreed to.