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Packaging: Extended Producer Responsibility

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Jack.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of extended producer responsibility for packaging, and may I thank colleagues for staying so late after a very busy and exhausting day?

This may sound like a technical debate, and we can make it as technical as we want, but to me the principle of extended producer responsibility is pretty simple. It means that producers of packaging—manufacturers and brand owners—are responsible for the products, and any associated packaging they make or sell, from the beginning of their lifecycle until the end.

Plastic and packaging is everywhere. It is in our oceans, in our rivers and even in our food. We are waking up to the scale of the problem, but we still need to do so much more. With retailers, brands and supermarkets producing far too much plastic and packaging, it is time for an overhaul of the system and for holding those who do not take responsibility to account. The world has seen the horrific footage of trapped turtles and pregnant whales washed up on the beaches of Sardinia with stomachs full of plastic. This is what plastic and packaging are doing to our environment.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will she pay tribute to producers like Buxton Water in my constituency who are seeking to use recycled plastic as much as possible? Does she also agree that we need Government and local government to do a lot more to make sure we can sort plastic so we get enough fully recycled good quality plastic that can be used by such producers?

I thank my hon. Friend for making an excellent point. We do need to see that systemic change across all levels of Government.

I saw on a recent visit with the Environmental Audit Committee to the Arctic the impact plastic waste is having there, with bottles and plastic waste on those pristine shores.

I also went on that Committee visit. In the Arctic in 2017, a new garbage pile was discovered to rival the one in the Pacific. That is our waste going north. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to improve collection, as provided for in her Bill, and introduce a mandatory deposit return scheme?

I completely agree and it is imperative that we in the UK take that action because it is our waste that is ending up on those pristine shores.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate; even at this late hour the importance of this issue cannot be underlined too strongly.

Local councils have a very important role to play, as has been said. My local council of Ards and North Down Borough Council, and Ards Borough Council before that, brought in the blue bin recycling project. It was extremely successful not just because the council brought it in, but educationally at school level where the children went home and said to their parents, “Let’s do the recycling.” So there are two ways of looking at this: through the councils but also through education.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but this needs to come from more than local councils; it needs to come from the Government as well, and that is what we are addressing here.

I am glad my hon. Friend has secured this debate. Having gone plastic-free during Lent, plastic is now just staring at me everywhere, and I have started working with manufacturers in York. Does she agree that we must start through the food supply chain in particular and work with manufacturers to see packaging change?

I agree: we need to see that change everywhere, but there is a broken system at present, and that must change.

We have seen this not only in the Arctic: in the Antarctic too there is that changing climate and environment. It is having an equally horrifying effect. Almost 90% of the glaciers have retreated since the 1960s when my father spent two years there with the British Antarctic Survey, but I am hopeful that the McMorrin glacier, which was named after him, will still be there when my children are older. The natural world and his time in Antarctica shaped him, and I remember the stories he told me about that vast and beautiful landscape when I was growing up. They have instilled in me his passion and determination to help to change things.

When I was an adviser in the Welsh Government, I saw the impact that waste pollution was having on wildlife and natural resources, and the effect that it was having on climate change. I was lucky then to be part of a Government who acted quickly and helped to ensure that Wales was the first country to introduce the 5p charge on single-use plastic bags, which has resulted in a 71% reduction in their use since 2011. Unfortunately, it took the UK Government four years to follow suit in England. I have watched the statistics on waste get worse and worse, and this is even more worrying when studies have shown that the UK Government figures have been known to drastically underestimate how much plastic packaging waste Britain generates. A study by the specialist organisation Eunomia estimates that just 31% of plastic waste in the UK is currently recycled.

I completely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying and I commend the Welsh Government for the excellent steps that they have taken on this issue. Does she agree that it is shocking that some of the plastic we think we are sending to be recycled often ends up in landfill sites thousands of miles away in developing countries on the other side of the world, where it causes pollution by leaching into the surrounding ecosystems?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. That is absolutely what we are seeing, and we have to stop it by fundamentally reforming the system.

We have seen growing public awareness of the problems with waste, especially since the broadcast of David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”. Three quarters of a billion people worldwide watched that harrowing footage of albatross parents feeding their chicks plastic, mother dolphins potentially exposing their new-born calves to pollutants through contaminated milk, and the whale with a bucket caught in its mouth. Those images were hard-hitting, but necessary to bring about change.

My hon. Friend is making important points on this critical subject. I, too, want to pay tribute to the BBC natural history unit, which is based in Bristol, for its extraordinary work. Back in 2007, it highlighted this problem in the Midway Islands in the Pacific, where we saw the plastic debris that was being found among the dead birds there. I should also like to emphasise the point that things can be done. Companies such as Fortress Recycling in Leamington recycle a great deal of plastic, but black plastic is a real problem for them.

My hon. Friend is completely correct. We have to find ways of recycling all waste, or of limiting its use. That is at the heart of the change that we need to make. “Blue Planet II” has inspired changes up and down the nation, with people increasingly moving from single-use plastic bottles to reusable bottles, increasing their use of travel cups and moving away from plastic straws and cutlery.

Straws can provide examples of extremely good practice. A company in my constituency has won a £1 million contract to provide paper straws to McDonald’s. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good example?

That is a fantastic example, and I hope that businesses in my own, neighbouring, constituency will be able to follow suit. We have had some fantastic local campaigns in the constituency. The initial plastic-free Rhiwbina campaign has now spread to plastic-free Llanishen, plastic-free Pontprennau and plastic-free Whitchurch. Those are all local communities with worried residents and children who are keen to make a difference in their own way, but this only goes so far. The brilliant “Packet-in” campaign from Rhiwbina and Coed Glas primary schools has seen the children collect packets that cannot be recycled and send them back to the chief executives of the manufacturers, accompanied each time by a letter demanding to know why they are not doing any better. However, we know that the reason why is that the issue needs structural, systemic change at Government and industry level. To do that, we need to legislate to incentivise big business and packaging producers to take responsibility for their waste and to ensure that the right infrastructure is there. That is why I introduced my Packaging (Extended Producer Responsibility) Bill which, if passed, would require producers of packaging products to assume 100% of the responsibility for the collection, transportation, recycling, disposal, treatment and recovery of those products.

My Bill would be a much-needed reform to the broken UK waste system, which is not fit for purpose. Introduced by the Conservative Government in 1990, this piecemeal and disjointed system sees a few large companies benefit and masses of waste shipped overseas out of sight, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, and in all probability dumped into our oceans.

There are two main problems with the current system. First, waste collection is based on a producer responsibility note or PRN scheme. Under the current provisions of the producer responsibility obligations, businesses that handle packaging must fund the recovery and recycling of packaging material in proportion to the amount they have placed on the market. In other words, the more that packaging producers make, the more they pay, which sounds quite fair.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the PRN scheme is far from fair and disproportionately places the burden of waste collection on local councils. PRNs and PERNs—packaging export recovery notes—allow companies to comply technically with the law, as opposed to following the spirit of the law. What I mean by that is that if companies are in possession of a PRN or a PERN, they have the legal evidence needed to state that they are complying with the law, but PRNs and PERNs then become a substitute for businesses meeting their obligations through their own recycling efforts. That then places the burden of big business’s waste squarely on to local councils and the British taxpayer. There are no financial incentives for businesses to stamp out the bad practice, because the current costs in the system are so disproportionately low compared with the cost of recycling waste.

To put that in context, the UK’s PRO fees are among the lowest in the EU and leave British taxpayers to cover around 90% of the costs of packaging waste disposal. The way that PRNs and PERNs are sold on an open, fluctuating market means that the price can fluctuate based on supply and demand. Due to market volatility, the growth of UK recycling capacity is then restricted. Instead of investment in UK recycling, much of the growth in the waste disposal sector has been achieved through exporting waste and through a growing dependence on export markets.

To put things bluntly, between 2014 and 2016, the average revenue from compliance with the system was about £60 million a year, but the estimated cost of recycling services for a local authority was nearly £600 million. That is not sustainable. We cannot continue to export our waste abroad to countries such as China, which has taken 60% of the UK’s plastic waste over the past decade. In 2017 alone, the UK’s waste exports had the same CO2 emissions as 45,000 cars. China stopped all mixed-grade plastic imports from other countries in 2018, so vast quantities of mixed-grade plastic UK exports no longer have an overseas market.

Our councils cannot keep funding the costs of the broken system, especially when they are reeling from the austerity agenda of successive Tory Governments. Due to local government cuts, more than half England’s councils have had to cut budgets for communications and collections for kerbside plastics recycling. We need to act now to make our waste collection systems fit for purpose, and many producers agree.

Since I introduced my Bill, I have built a coalition of industry around the positive change that is needed. This has included producers, manufacturers, supermarkets, industry bodies and non-governmental organisations. They all acknowledge that the system needs to change and that they need to take more responsibility for their own waste, but they need several things to happen.

First, any new extended producer responsibility scheme must have transparency at its core to ensure it is clear where the fees collected from producers and retailers are being spent. The fees should be put back into the UK’s recycling and reprocessing infrastructure, and into any communication programmes surrounding it, to make it work. Funds raised within the system must stay in the system, and a single not-for-profit organisation could be established to make that happen.

Secondly, local authorities should not be out of pocket for any recycling or waste collection they undertake. Thirdly, charges on producers should be modulated, varying based on the recyclability of packaging, and with higher fees for using more environmentally damaging materials.

Fourthly, any new scheme should encourage innovation in packaging design and be capable of responding flexibly and swiftly to improvements in packaging production. Finally, local authorities should be supported to improve the consistency of material collected for recycling.

I welcome the much-awaited resources and waste strategy, which was recently published by DEFRA.

With the much-awaited legislation expected in 2021, with implementation in 2023, does my hon. Friend share my concern that we heard over the weekend that two thirds of DEFRA staff have been transferred to work on Brexit matters? This must not suffer as a result.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. I am very concerned about this, and it seems this legislation has a long lead-in time. We have been waiting for it for a long time. The system needs systemic change now, and we are all waiting for it. All our constituents are waiting for this.

I am pleased to see my suggestion of a single body to implement fundamental reform, as outlined in my Bill, has been included in the consultation. DEFRA acknowledges that a “producer pays” proposal to cover 100% of the costs would

“incentivise producers to think carefully about using less packaging, and to switch to using packaging that is easier to recycle.”

I am also glad to see modulated fees included in the consultation, but I believe it can go further and faster.

We need to get rid of one of the big flaws of the current system: the huge range of PRN and PERN compliance schemes. There are 52 such schemes, creating a market within themselves. It has been proven that having a vast array of schemes has led to the breakdown and abuse of the system, which needs to stop. A single centralised body could play that role in implementing the new EPR reforms, in ensuring that industry plays a key role, perhaps by sitting on the body’s board, and in ensuring accountability within that structure.

We must introduce higher targets so that at least 80% of packaging can be recycled, with the target moving upwards as schemes become more successful. There must also be clear reporting of recycling rates. A broader range of materials should also be included within the scheme. Materials being considered for EPR could and should be expanded to include, for example, the soft plastic around frozen food. The scope could change in future, being flexible as the system becomes more sophisticated.

We must not forget the devolved Administrations. While the Welsh Government will be working with the UK Government on implementing these EPR reforms, the Scottish Government are storming ahead with their own proposals on a deposit return scheme. It is vital that England and Wales catch up and work together across the UK, avoiding any disruption to producers, consumers and business.

In conclusion, several things in this DEFRA consultation have a lot of potential. Again, I encourage the Minister to look to my Bill. In the light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent damning conclusions on climate change, radical proposals are desperately needed, and the Government can afford to be far more ambitious. How many more dying whales do we need to see before we take the radical action we need? What will it take for Governments to listen and for us to clean up our climate? We cannot just leave this for our children to sort out. It is our duty to take the action that is needed now. We must use our positions to do that, and I hope the Minister and this Government will use theirs.

Our 25-year environment plan, published last year, committed us to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. In line with that, the plan includes a commitment to ensure that resources are used more efficiently and kept in use for longer, in order to minimise waste and reduce its environmental impacts by promoting reuse, remanufacturing and recycling. This is explored further in our resources and waste strategy, which I note several Members welcomed and which was published in December. The strategy sets out how we will preserve our stock of material resources by minimising use, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy.

A central element of the resources and waste strategy is a core set of principles that will act as a framework for reviewing our existing producer responsibility schemes and developing new ones. These include producers bearing the full cost of managing their products at the end of their life in line with the “polluter pays” principle; and using modulated fees or other measures to encourage producers to make more sustainable design, production and purchasing decisions. In accordance with those principles, we made a commitment to reform the current packaging producer responsibility system as an immediate priority, and in February we published a consultation on how we propose to do that. We are consulting jointly with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as our preference is to continue with a UK-wide approach to packaging producer responsibility. But, of course, it has been open to any devolved Administration to develop their own regulations and their own new systems if that is what they wish to do.

Why do we want to reform the current packaging producer responsibility system? In the current regime, packaging producers are obligated to provide evidence that they have met their share of annual packaging recycling targets, which they purchase from accredited re-processors and exporters of packaging waste. As the hon. Lady pointed out, this is a market-based system, and it has succeeded in ensuring that the UK has met its wider packaging recycling targets at the lowest possible costs to producers and, therefore, to consumers. The UK has reported to Eurostat that 64.3% of UK packaging waste was recycled in 2018, surpassing the 55% total recycling target set within the European directive. However, the Government recognise that the current system does not sufficiently incentivise design for greater reuse or recyclability, and that less than a tenth of the costs of managing household packaging waste is covered by producers.

In the consultation our proposals tie together the broader set of principles for extended producer responsibility and our ambitions for the packaging sector going forward. These include the reduction of unnecessary packaging, the reduction or elimination of materials that are difficult to recycle and the increased recycling of packaging. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) referred to elements of black plastic being involved, but plenty of black plastic is perfectly recyclable. A particular brand called carbon black plastic is trickier to do that with, which is why the industry is working, under our guidance and also with the Waste and Resources Action Programme, to produce further designs, and we are seeing significant changes happening on that already. There are reasons why certain kinds of black plastic will be used, often in ready meals and other kinds of meals: they simply will not melt when they are heated, whereas other sorts of plastics may be easier to recycle on the initial phase but do not fulfil the purpose for which they are intended.

A key proposal is that producers of packaging waste that comes from households and similar packaging waste from commercial and public sector outlets should cover the full net cost of managing their packaging at its end of life. Our definition of full net cost includes: collecting and transporting household or household-like packaging waste for recycling; sorting and treatment of household or household-like packaging waste, where required, for recycling—the income obtained from the sale of recyclable materials would be netted off—treating or disposing of any packaging disposed of in the residual waste stream; providing information to consumers on recycling packaging waste and anti-littering; clean-up of littered and fly-tipped packaging items; and the collection, collation and reporting of relevant packaging and waste management data, including litter and fly-tipping.

The consultation seeks views on two alternative approaches to incentivise producers to make better design choices: modulated placed-on-the-market fees, where producers pay more if their packaging cannot be recycled readily or is difficult to recycle, and less if their packaging is readily recyclable; or a deposit fee, where producers pay a deposit which is redeemable if they are able to prove that the equivalent of the packaging that they have placed on the market has been recycled.

The consultation asks which producers should pay for the cost of managing the packaging at the end of its life. Should producer responsibility be shared across the packaging chain, or should there be a single point of compliance where 100% of the producer responsibility obligation is placed on one business? The consultation also seeks views on how producer fees should be spent to improve infrastructure and increase recycling, including payments to local authorities and councils, and a mandatory UK-wide labelling scheme that provides clear information to help consumers recycle.

The consultation document therefore includes a proposal that producers would label their packaging with wording to the effect of “Recyclable” or “Not Recyclable”. We are consulting on proposed new packaging waste recycling targets for 2025 and 2030. Those are broken down into targets for specific packaging materials and for total packaging recycling. We are seeking views on four options for governance of the reformed packaging producer responsibility system. One option includes having competitive compliance schemes with oversight provided by a central board. A second option, similar to that suggested by the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), is based on a single market organisation. A third option is a hybrid version of the first two. The fourth option involves a single market organisation to manage a deposit return scheme.

Finally, we are seeking views on proposals for ensuring that packaging waste exports are managed fairly and responsibly, and for how a reformed system can be more transparent and the changes to the current compliance monitoring and enforcement regime ensure that a reformed system operates fairly, transparently and to reduce the opportunity for fraud. The consultation closes on 13 May. As of last Friday, we had received 73 responses, and I expect many more to come in. We will carefully review them, and we intend to hold further consultation on our final recommendations in early 2020.

The hon. Lady’s speech took 22 minutes, unfortunately, if understandably, because many of her hon. Friends intervened, so it is difficult for me to answer several of the points made. She will, however, be aware that we absolutely can come up with the proposed new system while working together as the four Administrations. It will be a significant change that I believe will lead to great additions to improving the opportunities for recycling and the circular economy.

As the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) has said, the 30% recycling tax mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor could be a game-changer. The problems of plastic and packaging elsewhere, in particular in export markets, were referred to. Our biggest export to China for waste is through paper. I am conscious of the changes that have happened to plastic and paper, but other markets have appeared. It stimulates the opportunity for secondary markets to develop further in this country.

On the litter that ends up in the marine conservation areas that we all cherish, I want to place it on the record that I was delighted that the Prime Minister asked me to present a Points of Light award to Jason Alexander recently for his work on improving littering and bringing that issue to wider attention. It is also Great British Spring Clean Month, Mr Speaker, and I am sure that you have been out in Buckingham, working with people there. We should pay tribute to the litter heroes.

I assure the hon. Member for Cardiff North that we are working on the proposals, as she recognised. I am confident that together, across the House and indeed across the UK, we can bring those elements to reality.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.