Monday 24 June 2019
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 14 May 2019, on Plastic food and drink packaging, HC 2080, and written evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Plastic food and drink packaging, reported to the House on 8 May, 14 May, 21 May and 12 June 2019, HC 2080.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 232684 relating to unsustainable packaging.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir George.
I welcome both Front-Bench spokespeople: my good friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. When I entered this place, he was the Minister responsible for cycling, and since then he has held a number of important positions. I am tempted to say that although we might be debating single-use plastics today, there is no such thing as a single-use Minister. I wish the Minister well when the recycling period comes round soon, and I wish both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich success in their search for a solution to reusable packaging, which is a subject I am pleased to raise on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
Let me start by reading the petition:
“Ban the use of all non-recyclable and unsustainable food packaging. Today the Earth is at a crisis point due to our plastic consumption, and as a result, people in the UK are more willing than ever to engage in recycling. Yet so much food packaging remains completely, frustratingly unrecyclable. Let’s aim for the UK to lead the world with a 100% recycling rate. Every day we send to landfill, to decompose over thousands of years: cereal box inner bags; peel-off film (fruit and veg punnets/ready meals/yoghurt pots); almost all plastic supermarket fruit and veg packets; crisp packets; sweets wrappers; chocolate bar wrappers; Styrofoam; vacuum pack plastic, to name a few. The British public WANTS to recycle but we can’t get away from the vast amounts of waste that poorly designed packaging creates—appoint people to design alternatives and the UK will thank you!”
What an uplifting petition. The sentiment behind it speaks for itself. It has been signed by 247,048 people—nearly a quarter of a million people—illustrating the strength of feeling. That includes nearly 1,000 people from my Cambridge constituency, where this is a matter of great interest and concern. It is clear that the public mood about packaging, whether it goes to landfill or pollutes our oceans and rivers, has changed over the past few years. We have woken up. There is genuine public recognition of the climate crisis and concern about the natural destruction caused by non-recyclable waste.
Over 14 million of us watched Sir David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”, which revealed the impact waste is having on our seas and wildlife. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “War on Plastic” found UK plastic waste abandoned all the way in Malaysia.
As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which the Minister served at the time when we had the inquiry, we heard from groups in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand that they had UK plastic on their shores. Is it not time that we stopped exporting plastic waste and reprocessed it all here in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I am about to amplify. He is absolutely right that we have international responsibilities. As the public watched, listened and participated, it so grabbed society’s consciousness that a constituent wrote to me saying that there should be “regular showings and reshowings” of those programmes, as they are so convincing and powerful. I suspect in Cambridge they are rewatched on a regular basis already.
Attenborough calls plastic waste an “unfolding catastrophe”, and, sadly, the evidence backs that up. A report from charities Tearfund, Fauna and Flora International, and WasteAid has warned of a public health emergency, claiming that between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year because of preventable diseases linked to mismanaged plastic waste in developing countries. These diseases include diarrhoea, malaria and cancer, all of which researchers have linked to plastic waste building up near people’s homes or being burned, which can result in damaging fumes.
I am pleased that in my local authority of Lewisham, recycling rates have rapidly increased in recent years and that there will be a consultation looking at continuing barriers to recycling in the area. I am also aware that many local authorities find it difficult to find solutions for certain types of black and low-grade plastic. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government are to reach their stated target of eliminating plastic waste by 2042, the Minister would need to better regulate the type of plastic businesses are using and to do more to establish suitable sites for recycling?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will come on to and which I suspect will be brought out in the wider debate. The black plastic issue is very real, and we need to ensure that our recycling systems are consistent across the whole country and can deal with these more difficult issues.
To return to the international significance of where our waste sometimes ends up, the reports I referred to suggest that one person dies every 30 seconds because of diseases caused by plastic pollution in developing countries. Such a statistic brings home how significant this is. What we do in our local recycling has global consequences. It is not simply waste in the United Kingdom that we must consider, and our ability to recycle.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the debate. He is of about the same vintage as I am, so he will remember fish and chips in newspaper. Does he welcome the commitment made by some chip shops and fast food outlets to focus on paper rather than plastic? That should be praised. Does he also agree that there must be more focus on packaging for online businesses and they should work with the Royal Mail to determine what level of packaging will protect goods, as well as the environment? Chip shops and fast food outlets are doing their bit, but more can be done with the Royal Mail and online packaging.
We are already diverting into a range of issues, and I will mention some examples. The hon. Gentleman gets there first on fish and chips; I am of an age that I can remember fish and chips in newspaper, so I agree with him on that. The point about the Royal Mail is not one I intended to make, so he has added an important point to the discussion.
To back to the wider issues, it is clear to me that public pressure for action on all these issues is growing. We saw from the Extinction Rebellion protests, which have happened nationwide and are strongly supported in Cambridge, that these issues have seized the public policy agenda. The school climate strikes, which I found magnificent, uplifting and inspired, show that the next generation demands change. I am sure we all have examples in our local areas. Last Friday, I was at the Spinney Primary School in Cambridge, and I was impressed not only by the quality of the questions the young people asked but by the fact that they had held an “empathy for earth” day a week or two before, and one could see the young people’s enthusiasm.
We can see the public’s desire for meaningful change. The question is, what can we do? One area that we can start with is the food we eat. When options are given to people to avoid non-recyclable packaging, they can be popular. There are good examples of that, which we have begun to touch on.
I thank the Petitions Committee staff for their excellent work surveying more than 20,000 people on their attitudes to food packaging. For fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, apples, potatoes and onions, more than 99% of respondents said that, given the option, they would choose to buy the items without plastic packaging—that is, almost everybody. A large majority said that they would buy bread without plastic packaging—94.6%—whereas 94.9% said they would buy breakfast cereal without it, and 97.1% said they would buy nuts and dried fruit. Nearly 80% said they would choose to buy meat or fish without plastic packaging, so there is considerable public appetite for change. I will come to some issues around that later.
Last Friday I welcomed the Petitions Committee engagement team—I thank those involved for their work—to Cambridge. We held a roundtable discussion with various organisations that are working hard to improve sustainability in how we eat and live our lives. In that discussion I heard from owners of sustainable shops, cafés and businesses, such as BeeBee Wraps, the organic reusable food wraps business; Cambridge Carbon Footprint, which promotes sustainable living, local resources and services; and Cambridge Sustainable Food, which focuses on partnerships, projects and campaigns that capture the imagination and increase the sustainability of local eating.
It was an illuminating discussion, and many complex issues arose. For example, inventing new types of potentially sustainable packaging seems to be easier than putting in place the infrastructure and processes to deal with them. There was a concern about the proliferation of new so-called sustainable packaging products and different recycling schemes. Jacky Sutton-Adam described the situation, saying
“we’ve broken all our eggs into a bowl, mixed them up but haven’t made the omelette yet.”
While the Government ought to be investing more in solutions and incentivising people to try new things, Irina Ankudinova and others believed that manufacturers should be required to show that a system was in place to deal with the waste before new packaging products were brought to the market.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the packaging surrounding the goods we buy, but there are also the goods themselves. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of plastic waste, I note that we have weaned ourselves off natural products and fibres and on to plasticised ones. Many of our clothes and carpets are polypropylene. We are wrapping plastic in plastic, and that is a real concern. Does he agree that we need to look at the whole big picture and have a shift back toward both more natural packaging, and more natural fibres within the packaging?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes a powerful point; I will touch on it a little later, but I suspect that others will want to amplify it further. When I look around the world, there are other countries that have perhaps not gone so far down this path, and some of their lifestyles are very attractive—dare I say it, but even some European lifestyles are very attractive indeed.
On Friday, I was also able to visit the Cambridge Cheese Company, which cycles its cheese deliveries around the city and presents gifts in recycled wooden cheese boxes. I am grateful to a very helpful assistant in its shop, Jade Tiger Thomas, who showed me the amazing aforementioned BeeBee Wraps and explained a scheme that allows customers to bring their own Tupperware or reusable boxes to carry cheese home, and reusable jars for olives and deli items. The company is a long-established Cambridge gem. Many hon. Members find themselves in Cambridge from time to time, and I thoroughly recommend that they pay it a visit.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. A long time ago, when I was a student in Cambridge, I remember going to the legendary Arjuna Wholefoods and buying spices measured into brown paper bags. That was happening long before it became fashionable, and Arjuna’s has proved itself a long-term Cambridge institution committed to sustainability and reducing food waste.
Buying food without throwaway packaging is becoming increasingly popular across the country. At the start of the month, Waitrose began a trial in its Oxford Botley Road store of a new “Unpacked” model, with a dedicated refillable zone of products from wine to cereals, frozen pick and mix and a borrow a box scheme. It also has refillable cleaning products and sells plants and flowers without plastic. Most of us have probably read the stories in the newspapers. It is too early to have solid statistics on the success of the trial, but Waitrose tells me that the reaction on social media to the announcement of the trial was 97% positive and the store sold out of some products within the first week of the trial. I was told that,
“customers have bought into the concept readily—they arrive with their own containers ready to fill with the loose cereals, pasta, fish and more. This started to happen within just a few hours of us announcing the trial”.
It put me in mind of happy times past in my life, in places such as Venice, where the wine shops allow people to take bottles to be refilled on a regular basis. Now, perhaps, we can extend that to washing-up liquid, even if it is slightly less enticing.
When these schemes are well advertised and communicated and efforts are made to help people to get acquainted with new ideas, such as the borrow a box scheme for those who may have been unaware or do not have their own, behaviour and culture change are possible. That can also be done on a smaller scale: the University of Sheffield students’ union has its own Zero Waste Shop, which sells a huge range of spices, herbs, grains, legumes, dried fruits and nuts by weight, so people can buy as much or as little as they need. Customers simply bring their own container, buy one from the shop or use one of the recyclable paper bags.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the University of Sheffield students’ union Zero Waste Shop. That is a well-established initiative, and I join him in celebrating the groundbreaking work that it has been doing for some time now.
Will my hon. Friend also celebrate the work of the university’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, which is looking at a range of approaches to eliminating plastic waste, recognising that, while we should be doing everything possible to minimise the use of single-use plastics, there will be some areas in which that is difficult? For example, we need to explore whether there is an opportunity to reuse single-use plastics currently used by medics. Similarly, the carbon emissions of recycling single-use plastic bottles could be more damaging than developing reuse. Does he agree that those areas are the innovations we should be looking at?
True to form, my hon. Friend raises the more profound points of the debate. Those are exactly the trade-offs that must be considered in depth and detail, and I will come on to some of them in a moment. He makes a powerful point that sometimes, the more obvious routes to doing the right thing might not have quite the consequences that one understood them to be liable to have.
I suppose the argument I am making is to encourage the zeal of the public to embark on this path, and the conclusion I will draw at the end is that they must be given help to ensure that they are indeed achieving the good outcomes that they are intending to achieve. This is a subject littered with potentially difficult trade-offs, and I am sure both Front-Bench speakers will refer those in the debate.
I will complete my tour of some of the great initiatives—
Or perhaps others might help me in that.
I am stimulated to get to my feet by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is associated with the University of Sheffield, as I was some time ago, through the Sheffield students’ union. One of the things I learned at the university was that if we cannot measure it, or we do not measure it, we are unlikely to make progress with it.
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) agree that some of the Government’s statistics are extremely dodgy in this area, particularly on recycling? When waste is exported, we assume that it is recycled, but that is unaudited. The best way to deal with these things is, first, to deal with them domestically and, secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central says, to reuse things rather than recycling them—glass bottles rather than plastic being an obvious example.
Once again, my hon. Friend introduces the gravity that I would expect of him, and he makes serious points. I am sure others will refer to the need to reduce, reuse and recycle in the correct sequence. The measurement issue is important. I am trying to adopt a non-partisan tone in today’s debate, because I suspect we are all trying to get to the same place, but he makes a very fair point about the need to ensure that the statistics on which we make decisions are reliable, and an even more important point that we cannot just export our waste and pretend that that is not having an impact somewhere else.
My final resting-point on my tour of great Cambridge places is Cambridge’s Daily Bread Co-operative, which is launching its zero-waste scheme this week. My point is that wherever we turn, we find people wanting to bring forward new and welcome initiatives. That brings me to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; I am standing opposite its Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), and I am grateful to him for being in the Chamber this afternoon. The Committee is in the midst of an inquiry on food and drink packaging, which has allowed me the delight of reading through both its proceedings and its evidence.
I suspect the hon. Gentleman will want to comment on some of that, but the experts consulted by the Committee tell us that while changes can be made, we must temper our enthusiasm with realism, because there is probably no easy answer or quick fix to the problem. Packaging plays an important role in keeping food fresh, safe and affordable, so although moving away from pre-packaged foods in shops, restaurants and cafes is probably possible, the question becomes more difficult and complicated when we consider freight and production.
Despite that, it definitely seems possible to me significantly to reduce the amount that we use here in the UK, but it would be simplistic to assume that we could just transfer that way of producing and transporting food all over the world, when in some places the same level of technology is not yet readily available.
It is important to remember where the most environmental damage is done. In evidence to the EFRA Committee inquiry, Peter Maddox, from WRAP UK, explained that
“when you look at a piece of meat, a nice eight ounce beefsteak in a package with a film on top…the carbon impact of the steak is over 100 times bigger than the carbon impact of the packaging. That packaging is providing extremely innovative barrier properties, which enables that meat to last a lot longer. If you did not have it in that pack, that meat might last three days. If you have it in a really good sealable pack, it will last 10 days. You start then thinking about what consumers want, reducing food waste and the fundamental economic value of that piece of meat. You need to think about it in terms of the whole product.”
Having read through the evidence, that message comes through loud and clear. The whole product and the whole life-cycle analysis are key. We must recognise that as we continue our efforts to reduce non-recyclable packaging. There is so much we can do, but it is realistic to admit that we cannot eradicate its use completely overnight.
However, we must not lose our ambition. The Royal Society of Chemistry, based in Cambridge, highlighted in evidence to the inquiry that, although bio-derived and biodegradable plastics will play a role in addressing the challenges caused by conventional plastic waste, they should not be used to legitimise a throwaway culture; they are not necessarily more environmentally benign than conventional plastics; and their impact as a replacement for conventional plastics must be considered on a life-cycle basis. This suggests that despite technological advancement, cultural awareness and change are still crucial. The UK cannot absolve itself of responsibility for mass corporate and personal behaviour change just because technology is advancing.
At the roundtable in Cambridge last week, Seigo Robinson and others were concerned that reducing non-recyclable plastic packaging was not necessarily compatible with the drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. For example, it was said that “carting around loads of refillable jam jars” would use “loads of CO2”; we may not have been precise or measurable on this occasion, but hon. Members will get the point. Alternatives to plastic packaging, such as paper, steel, wood and glass, could sadly have far worse carbon footprints. People said that plastic pollution of the oceans and carbon emissions needed to go hand in hand, and argued that recycling ought to be a last resort; people should look at using reusable containers for many years before thinking about the need for recycling.
Continuing my spirit of generosity towards the Government—I have no idea why I am in this generous mood, but I am—
He is a generous Minister.
Perhaps, and perhaps I have some sympathy with the Government’s current travails. However, it is fair to say that we have seen progress. The Government have looked at banning plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic cotton buds, but I fear that they have so far been rather reluctant to introduce the fiscal measures that we now know do work. The plastic bag charge was discussed over many years, and it has now taken 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation. Imagine what proper fiscal incentives and taxes could do to change the way our society considers waste and how committed we all are to recycling.
The drink stirrer announcement grabbed headlines, but we need to seize this moment to make the “rapid”, “unprecedented” and “far-reaching” transitions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report called for in October. In evidence to the EFRA Committee’s inquiry, the Green Alliance recommended moving away from piecemeal action and approaching plastic, packaging and resource use in general in a much more systemic way. This means viewing plastic as just one resource among many used in our economy, all of which have environmental impacts of some sort.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the general public need to have a good look at how they perceive foods? I am always aware of this issue when it comes to the general public buying potatoes. What they want to see in Asda, Tesco and all the big superstores is a nice wee carton of half a dozen potatoes, washed, cleaned and ready for the pot. Potatoes as I and others in the Chamber know them come in a half a hundredweight bag bought from the farmer. You know something? That is real potatoes.
I am grateful for the intervention, but I think it leads us into a slightly broader discussion about people’s view of the world. I have to say that I rather hanker after a less homogenised culture in general. In a discussion we had last week, I recalled a time when we respected the seasons. We did not expect peppers to be available for 365 days a year, which perhaps gave us something to look forward to. There is something in the human spirit that we could look into. However, the supermarkets will say that it is what people want. That is the dilemma that we face.
Returning to the Green Alliance—I am on the way home from the supermarket—its overall recommendation is, to coin a phrase, to go back to basics: reduce the amount of unnecessary plastics used, reduce dangerous chemical use and rationalise the number of polymer types that go into plastic production to improve recycling, which is really important. That is all while promoting systems for reuse and ensuring that we use recyclable and recycled materials. It argues that this requires a more strategic approach to infrastructure, not simply leaving it to the market. I suspect this is where some of the political disagreements may emerge. However, I very much agree. I wish the Government would accept that challenge and develop a framework that advocates system change.
As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said when chairing the inquiry, reducing non-recyclable waste
“is going to be quite difficult to do…but it is how far we go and how wide we go…it is down to the big retailer as well as the consumer. It is going to be an interesting education for all of us”.
I very much agree. This is the point: we must take people with us, rather than being punitive, which is why education and making change easy for people are crucial. Essentially, if we make it too much of a faff for people to change their behaviour, people will be turned off and will not do it.
I believe that people want to do the right thing—to be environmentally conscious and to live sustainably—but time and resources dictate that we have to make this the easy choice, in a socially just way, and not simply for those who can afford the time or money to change their consumption habits. I hope the Minister will tell us how the Government might go about making this happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for securing this timely debate and for his favourable quoting of me as Chair of the Select Committee. We are very much on the same page: I think we have to reduce plastics, and we have to get more compostable plastics, but we also have to be quite sensible in how we go about that. Let us use some carrots as well as sticks to try to persuade people to change their attitudes. I very much welcome the debate, which comes on the back of the petition on stopping the use of non-recyclable, unsustainable food packaging.
I would be told off by my Committee Clerks, if they were here, if I went into too much detail of what I thought the Committee might or might not decide after taking our evidence. However, naturally, I will go through the evidence that we have taken so far. We have really seen that we can actually reduce a great deal of the plastics we use. Whether they are recyclable or not, do we actually need the amount of plastic that we have? Some people here are younger than others, but most of us have grown up gradually using more and more plastic. I still remember glass bottles and things like that, which were recyclable and came with a deposit on them—Corona bottles and the like. I used to go around collecting them as a boy, especially if they washed up in the river, because I could then get the deposit back. All these things are useful, because people not only returned them but they collected them as well.
I was at an event last week where Water UK suggested having more fountains, and making sure that we carried a reusable water bottle around with us. Millions and billions of plastic bottles are used for mineral water. We probably have some of the best tap water in the world. Do we need all this bottled water? It has become a real fashion. I know it is very difficult to tell people that they are out of fashion, but they may well be now, if there are so many unnecessary plastic bottles.
Some time ago, I had lunch with Eddie Stobart—I may have got this figure slightly wrong, because it was a long time ago that we had lunch—but I think he said that at any one time on the motorways he had 40 lorries carrying nothing but water. It is an extraordinary waste of energy making the bottles and, as the hon. Gentleman says, we have high-quality water in virtually every corner of this country. I have tried at different times to persuade the House authorities to use tap water, not bottled water. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could make a small contribution by not having bottled water at our Committee meetings?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The House could of course lead by having bottled tap water instead of mineral water. As a farmer and previously a dairy farmer, I can say that dairy farmers often joke that they would be better off if, instead of milking cows, they could find a spring on their farm and bottle the water, because more money can be made from bottling water than from keeping cows and producing milk. It is fair enough if people really want mineral water; perhaps some people need mineral water for health or other reasons, but we certainly do not need the amount that we consume and we do not need to have it in plastic bottles.
Of course, if we are going to have plastic bottles, let us ensure that they are properly recyclable. Some of the big companies—Pepsi and Coca-Cola—are looking at reverse vending machines. That is where someone takes a plastic bottle, puts it back through the vending machine, gets a deposit and another bottle can be made from that plastic. Of course, only 70% of that plastic can be used and it can only be recycled about twice. With everything in this world that we look at, we find, when we drill down, that it is not quite as recyclable and reusable as we believed it to be.
On the recycling of bottles, I took the APPG to the Veolia recycling plant in Dagenham. A problem that we have is that a lot of plastic cannot be used more than once. That plant had empty machines because it needs to feed those machines. It is a dilemma: the more we take plastic out of the system, the more recycling becomes too expensive to do. That is something we have to think about.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We can recycle plastics, but if we recycle a mix of different plastics, we find that we get a very low-grade reusable plastic. If compostable plastics are mixed with the non-compostable, we have another problem. Everything in life is not simple; as with every inquiry that one does, the more one looks into the issue, the more complicated it becomes. I am a practical farmer, and the one thing that I want to see is that we really do good by reducing the amount of plastic, having properly compostable plastics and doing something that actually works. We have to be careful. Governments of all colours will naturally say, “Let’s tick this box. We’ve recycled this; we’ve done this; we’ve done that.” But does it actually work? Does it improve the environment? That is the issue.
Moving on to compostable plastics, we have to be certain that they will decompose properly so that the molecules break down and we can grow plants in our garden or put the material on to our fields and grow our crops and it does not leave tiny little particles of plastic that has not broken down. Most of it will compost, but it has to be composted in a certain way. If I put the beaker that I have with me in the Chamber in my garden with a whole load of other beakers and leave them together, that will never decompose, or it will take a very long time to do so. If we mix it with garden waste and other organic materials and can get the temperature up to 60°, it will break down, probably within 12 weeks to six months, so that can be done. It will break right down, but as I said, it has to be done properly. We do not want the plastic in these beakers mixing with other plastic that is not compostable. That is why the collection of plastics and the recycling of them are vital. We have local government all over the country—I was in local government before I came to this place—and local authorities are fiercely independent, but of course we have lots of different ways of collecting and recycling and so on.
The Government will probably have to be braver on this issue and give stricter advice to local authorities on how they recycle and on having a similar system across the country. For example, I do not have the patience that my wife has to sort things into every tiny little thing. I think that we need to make recycling a little bit more idiot-proof for people like me, dare I say. Do not smile like that, Minister. I was going to say something nice about you in a minute, but I may not now.
Order. As a farmer, the hon. Gentleman should know that when you are in a hole, it is best to stop digging.
Yes, I will carry on with my speech, Sir George; I apologise. On compostable plastic, we need to ensure much better public awareness. We also have to ensure that we collect the material separately and do not mix it with plastic that is not compostable.
I think that if we were to bring in a tax at the source, where plastics are made, that would raise the cost, but those plastics that were genuinely compostable could be made exempt or there could be a reduction in the amount of tax put on that particular plastic. That would ensure that the compostable plastics were more competitive in the marketplace.
The hon. Member for Cambridge rightly went into quite a lot of detail about what we actually need to wrap in plastic. When it comes to meat, fish and things that we want to keep for a long time, we can improve the shelf life by using plastic. We do not want to waste food; that is the last thing we want. We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so we need to be a little careful. As I have said, we must ensure that we do not waste food. When it comes to those vacuum packs, let us ensure that it is those foods that require a longer life that we concentrate the plastics on.
Other hon. Members have made this point: do we really need potatoes, carrots, onions and all those things wrapped in plastic? Do individual bits of broccoli need to be wrapped in plastic? When we go to the supermarket, the food is almost pre-digested and pre-eaten, before we actually eat it, because it has been prepared so thoroughly. We wash our potatoes, carrots and all those things and then put them in plastic bags. That is all very convenient, but I was told as a boy, “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die”. I think people would have a job to eat a peck of dirt today, because everything is washed so clean. Carrots, potatoes and all those root crops grow in the ground, believe it or not. They get soil on them, and a little bit of soil—well, I will not diverge from the subject too far, but there is iron in soil. All these things are part of life.
Without getting too romantic and reminiscing too much, we could look a lot more at how we used to eat our food. Not everything will work, and as I have said, we will still need some plastics, so let us make them compostable. Take cheese, for example. Does all of that need to be wrapped in plastic, so that it seems to be made of rubber, and delivered to us? We could have some really good flavoured cheese that is done in a more traditional way; perhaps we could take it home in some greaseproof paper or whatever. Do we need all the plastic and cardboard packaging that is used to package strawberries? For all these things, do we need it?
Another issue that we have not looked at is the glossy leaflets that we receive through the post. They are all plastic-coated. I do not think that the Select Committee will look at this in our inquiry, but when we start looking at something, we suddenly start looking at everything that arrives with different eyes. One of the agricultural merchants sent me a whole thing to do with cattle drenches and goodness knows what, and it was all in a very glossy leaflet, all plastic-coated. That is not necessary. In fact, if we use something that looks more old-fashioned, with old-fashioned print, and put it on some proper paper, instead of a plastic-coated leaflet, it might work a lot better than carrying on with more and more plastic.
We have all become used to seeing huge bales of hay in fields covered in plastic shrink wrap. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?
If my hon. Friend could guarantee the weather, so that we did not have to wrap the silage because of the rain and could make it all into hay, we could do away with a lot of plastic. She is right that we could use less plastic.
My issue—I will get into trouble with some farmers now—is the amount of plastics in the fields used for growing crops. We are all chasing the early market. We put down more and more plastic, but I wonder whether that is right. The plastic used to wrap those silage bales needs to be properly recycled. I suspect that we could look at the type of materials used, to ensure that they are properly compostable. Of course, one has to be careful to ensure that the acids released in the fermentation of the silage does not dissolve the wrapper. I think that more can be done. Farmers will have to look at that quite seriously. I am sure that the Minister probably does not want to talk about that today, but the farming industry will have to look at that seriously.
I will not carry on talking all day—although I probably could. The hon. Member for Cambridge has brought a very important issue to the Chamber. The real way forward is for the Government, industry and consumers to look at everything we do—the way we live—and ask whether we can carry on with this lifestyle. Do we need as much plastic? Can the plastic we use be properly compostable? If it is not compostable, can we ensure that it is properly recycled? Can we ensure that we collect that plastic in a way that retains the value of the plastic for recycling, rather than turning it into a low-grade plastic?
We can do a lot more. The Government need to consider taxation. I am not a great lover of taxation, but we could tax the overuse of raw mineral plastic made from oil and move people on to compostable plastics. Let us ensure in the future that we use half as much plastic as we do now, and not less than that, that most of it will be compostable and that we genuinely recycle the rest. That way we can use it for good purposes, such as making plastic fencing stakes, which would last forever, rather than rot out. That would be a good use of plastic.
There are many ideas out there. I look forward to the Minister’s response, as well as that of the shadow Minister, who is a good member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The Minister is making, and will make, an excellent Agriculture Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and the Petitions Committee for securing this important debate.
By 2050, some 34 billion tons of plastic will have been manufactured globally. The waste might be shipped around the world and will blight many countries—many of which do not contribute to the waste, but host it. That is a wicked thing that some countries impose on others. It seems inexplicable that we have come to produce and rely on a material that is potentially detrimental to our future—but indeed we have. This material is allegedly cheaper to produce new than by recycling existing products. If it is subjected to fire, it will, in most circumstances, give off a potentially deadly cocktail of toxic gases, and if it is discarded in watercourses, it will continue to pollute our oceans. Neither of those outcomes are welcome.
The UK Government have confirmed that their strategy, as part of their new 25-year plan to improve the environment, aims to eliminate avoidable plastic waste—a worthy aspiration. Having spoken previously in debates on this subject, I am well aware of bans on microbeads, straws, stirrers and cotton buds, together with plastic bag charges and refill facilities for plastic bottles. I commend Scottish Water for its promotion of such facilities throughout towns in Scotland. Eventually, these measures will all have positive impacts on the environment.
Those actions alone are not enough and we need to do much more, but from that beginning I understand that the UK Government are consulting on proposals to incentivise producers and retailers to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of the packaging that they choose to use. Added to that, the Government have committed more than £60 million in funding for global research and to assist Commonwealth countries in preventing plastic entering the oceans.
A constituent of mine recently highlighted to my office staff that receptacles have been placed on Turnberry beach in South Ayrshire, into which the public can place plastic waste washed up on the shoreline. That is a good local initiative. I also commend the local rotary clubs in Ayrshire for their effective annual beach cleans. I am sure that that goes on all over the United Kingdom, and I commend the work of rotary clubs throughout the UK and Ireland. These beach cleans remove tons of potentially polluting plastic each year. Although I am not always there, I am happy to join them, when I can, on a Saturday morning.
I understand that another of the Government’s aims is to work with retailers to explore the introduction of plastic-free supermarket aisles. Of course, as has been mentioned in previous debates, other more traditional forms of packaging—such as glass bottles—might have a similar cost to the environment in their production and transport, even if disposal and recycling can be easier. As glass is heavier than plastic, transporting it carries a higher carbon footprint. As with all things, we need to strike a balance.
I want to commend a local initiative, whereby reusable glass milk bottles have been introduced by the Kerr family of South Corton farm near Ayr. Their customers secure glass bottles, which they take to the farm to get fresh milk for themselves straight from that wonderful dairy farm. They get the freshest milk and reduce the use of plastic bottles, which are so commonly used for the conveyance of milk.
In the meantime, I note in the media that Asda, like Waitrose, plans to make its packaging 100% recyclable by 2025, and is encouraging local primary school children, including those in Girvan in my constituency, to take part in a series of interactive activities to learn about plastic use and recycling.
The dangers of plastics are clearly being recognised by the younger generation. Pupils at Belmont Academy in Ayr have recently taken part in the “Full Cycle 2019” connected world challenge at Dumfries House in Cumnock. I am pleased to report that they received a pupils’ choice award—well done to them and their teachers.
The hon. Gentleman mentions that people are moving towards the use of milk bottles as opposed to plastic containers. There was an interesting article a couple of weeks ago—in fact, it was on television in the midlands—which showed that more and more people are going back to their local milkman, because they use bottles rather than plastic containers. Does he agree that that is a good thing?
Yes, exactly; that is a good thing. Many if not all in this Chamber will remember the wee phrase on milk bottles: “Rinse and return”.
I used to deliver them.
Yes, it is a good step forward. It is a small step, but a step in the right direction.
The pupils’ choice award was won by the pupils for their innovative project on plastic pollution, and I commend them for their efforts. Let us hope that the politics of plastic proceed with the same enthusiasm.
We must not fail our future generations. As has been mentioned, this might be one occasion when we should turn the clock back to the days of our parents and grandparents. They managed daily tasks, and to sustain themselves and their families, without the same reliance on plastic. The fish-and-chips wrapping of that era has been mentioned, and we all remember the days when fish and chips seemed to taste that wee bit better in yesterday’s newspaper.
Finally, will the Minister provide an update on the consultation that closed last month, and can he confirm that the introduction of a new plastic packaging tax in April 2022 is still on target? A quarter of a million signatories to the petition cannot be wrong, and they have to be listened to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and to participate in this timely debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the prevention of plastic waste, I must put it on the record that, as a society, we cannot turn back the clock. I recognise that there is nostalgia for days past, but I really believe that the public would struggle if we tried to get rid of plastic altogether. What we need is to minimise waste from plastic by reusing it wherever we can and ensuring that it is not a throwaway, disposal commodity.
We have got addicted to plastic—we even have chocolates with plastic toys inside. It is so important to slim down the plastic agenda, but we must recognise that some things need to be made of it; I really stress that point, because, if we are not careful, in our desire to take a messianic approach we might end up swapping one problem for another, much as we did when we all embraced diesel cars. We do not want to increase food waste or the number of heavy bottles being transported around the country; we need to decide whether we actually need that packaging, rather than replacing it with something in a different form that might be just as damaging.
St Albans cares deeply about environmental issues and I am grateful to the 464 people from St Albans who signed the petition, because we all need that pressure. I hosted an event on the Terrace with the Coalition for Global Prosperity, which wants to take plastic out of the environment. David Attenborough was the chief guest and was enormously impressive, inspiring the audience in a way that no one else can. One thing he said that stayed with me was that when he was a little boy, his science teacher said, “Boys, you are at the cusp of something really exciting. We have had the ages of stone, iron and steel; now we are in the age of plastic—and it will never, ever go away.” That is our Midas curse: plastic does not go away, so we will have to come up with formulations that make it truly compostable.
We must also ensure that packaging is not mixed. I visited Tesco in my constituency a couple of weeks ago, where the composition of some packaging is so mixed that it makes things very difficult, whether that is the little windows on sandwich boxes or Pringles packets—unfortunately for poor old Pringles, it is seen as one of the worst, with plastic at the end, metal at the bottom and cardboard down the middle. We need to tackle that composite packaging and ask ourselves whether we can work smarter to ensure that our packaging is truly compostable.
We must be realistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), whose constituency is a lovely place, mentioned the concerns of farmers. We have moved so far away from natural products that sheep farmers tell me it costs more to shear a sheep than the fleece was ever worth, yet it was not so many years ago that wool was an extremely valuable resource. Now we have plastic in insulation materials, and we put plastic carpets on the floor because they are scrubbable and durable—all the things that we value about it are the flipside of the plastic curse.
We need to look at how to encourage the public to demand less plastic. The plastic that we cannot see is often more injurious than the plastic that we can see. We can be virtuous about seeing bottles and packaging, taking them along to recycling and feeling that we have done our bit, but it worries me that people are washing their Polartec fleeces—sorry; that is a brand, and I know that some fleeces are made from plastic bottles now, but fleecy jumpers and even polyester clothes knock off little bits of plastic into the environment, where it goes into the sea and is ingested by fish, filter feeders and so on. Our beaches are littered with nurdles, which are little tides and drifts of coloured plastic. Because it is indestructible, so to speak—I know that there are compostable variations now—and has been there for such a long time, we have a legacy of plastic. That is what I would like the Government to look at, as much as anything: the legacy of plastic from Governments of years past.
We, the countries of the modern age, have been the worst polluters. Our plastic piles up on shores or beaches and drifts around. That was the focus of David Attenborough’s wonderful “Blue Planet”: people may think that they can scoop up the floating bottles and the job is done, but the reality is that a lot of plastic has become a soup, which is very hard to remove. I would like to see more of our investment in international aid spent on clearing up that soup made from the plastic of years ago. I am all for improving the environmental impact that we are having now, but we cannot rebalance the scales without taking into account the damage that we have all done over the years.
We have become a throwaway society. We throw away clothes that may have been worn only once, which have been produced incredibly cheaply and are often wrapped massively in plastic when they come through the door. We are addicted to online retailing, which often comes with huge amounts of polystyrene around the more delicate items. We have to start looking at how we are shopping as consumers and at how we are living.
This is a massively important debate, but it can make you feel as if your head is going to fall off, because there are so many strands to the plastic story. I am keen to avoid a silo mentality. I applaud the petition for its genuine interest in packaging, but we must also look at the composition of packaging and help businesses to have a much better recycling rate. It seems perverse that in St Albans there are recycling boxes and cartons outside houses, yet businesses have to deal with the waste themselves. We need to incentivise big companies about their packaging and ensure that there is a market for it.
To my shame—although it is nothing to do with me—my constituency has one of the biggest waste tips for supposedly compostable and recyclable wood. The Appspond Lane site has been a disaster over the years because there is plasticised paint on most of the wood that is left there, so there is no market for it; it has sat there as a wet, rotting mountain that catches fire when it exceeds the allowed level. That means that we are kidding ourselves when we put packaging on our doorstep and think that it is being dealt with properly elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) mentioned Tearfund, which I hope to do some work with in Bangladesh in September. From the work that I do in Bangladesh, I know that it has an awful lot of plastic packaging but does not have a good recycling industry. We have exported our waste, but not the technology for recycling. When the Department for International Development puts money into countries like that, I would like to see us doing more than trying to stop the tide of waste. There is so much legacy plastic—when we go to those countries, we see rivers, lakes and beaches polluted with it. We need to help countries to increase their recycling, but we also need to cut down our thirst and hunger for plastic in goods and packaging, as well as the legacy plastic that our society has put there.
I welcome today’s debate, which I think will be the first of many. We need to look at how we have got addicted to plastic. At the event that I mentioned, David Attenborough left us with the words that plastic is with us forever. Every time even the smallest bit gets thrown away, we have to remember that it will be there somewhere, and the fact that it may not land on our shores does not mean that it will not land on someone else’s. I really hope that we will hear some joined-up thinking from the Minister today about weaning ourselves off plastic goods, including gratuitous plastic toys given as freebies to small children with meals at certain restaurants, as well as polystyrene foam wraps from fish and chip shops or other outlets.
We have to wean ourselves off plastic, but we cannot expect young mums to do away with disposable nappies. I have met the Nappy Alliance, which is trying to get people to use less plasticised nappies, but there is a huge amount of plastic that we have welcomed into our lives because it stops leaks or protects against things. The amount of clingfilm that we use, some of which is putting gender-altering phthalates into the environment, has concerned me for years. That is why it is thought there has been a rise in the hermaphrodisation of fish, and so on.
Our contact with plastic is huge and in the future people will ask why on earth we did not realise quite how injurious this was, not only to the environment but to those people and animals and plants in the environment that suffer as a result of plastic toxicity. I hope that this debate is part of a joined-up debate, Minister, and that we will all be encouraged today by hearing about lots of different avenues that will be open to us. We should not just be picking up our plastic waste, but cutting off the stream.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) spoke about the mood of the public changing—he noted that—and this petition is a testament to that, as is the quality of the contributions to the debate today; that quality has really shown that change, as well. There has been a great deal of passion and commitment to real change shown by the speakers in this debate and I commend everyone who has taken part for that.
The hon. Gentleman also paid tribute to those programmes, such as “Blue Planet II”, that have brought these problems home to each one of us; indeed, they have brought them directly into our homes.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the impressive work of the Petitions Committee staff, with some 20,000 people having been surveyed. That is a huge number of people whose views we have taken into account and the survey has given us some incredibly useful statistics. I thank him for listing some of those statistics and look forward to looking up the rest of them, because that was obviously a really valuable exercise. It was interesting to hear exactly what packaging—or rather, the lack of packaging—remarkable numbers of people seem prepared to accept.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted what is something of a Catch-22 situation, with companies increasing production of genuinely recyclable packaging while we still lack the necessary infrastructure to properly deal with it. I suggest to the Minister that extra investment is urgently needed in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman made a very useful point about the importance of remembering to consider the whole lifecycle—that analysis of what is being packaged. It is also important to remember that items need to be reused considerably more times than they are now before they are simply thrown away, or indeed recycled.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) brought back happy memories for me of hunting for returnable bottles and exchanging the extra cash for sweeties, I am afraid to say. However, he also called for an end to Government box-ticking exercises, a proper appreciation of what is recyclable, and proper co-ordination between different local authorities. That issue exists in Scotland too, and I know that the Scottish Government are keen to try to iron out some of the differences in recycling approaches.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the compostable cups that are now in use in Parliament. It is perhaps worth pointing out for the record that they are for commercial composting—they are not really for household composting—and the company that produces them also provides a collection service to enable that commercial composting to happen. I know that because the company’s HQ is located in my constituency; I will say more on the company later.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) mentioned the excellent initiative of Scottish Water, which I would love to see being rolled out throughout the UK by different water companies. It involves installing free water fountains, like the Victorian fountains that were once so common everywhere. They are fountains for residents and visitors alike throughout Scotland, and it is a pleasure to see them after so many of the older, mainly Victorian water fountains fell out of favour.
The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) quoted David Attenborough speaking of “the age of plastic”. She rightly pointed out that plastic was once very enthusiastically welcomed, but also spoke of the flipside of the “plastic curse”; she mentioned nurdles and micro-fibres and many other things that I have certainly become aware of through some of my beach clean-up days with the Wardie Bay beachwatch in my constituency. She also spoke of other very serious legacy issues for plastic. She called for the Government to address those and to commit to actions to deal with that “plastic soup”, which is a phrase that I think will stick forever in my memory; it is very unfortunate that we even have to think of such a thing.
The hon. Lady also called on us all to show joined-up thinking, saying that we should aim for that truly circular economy. She also mentioned clingfilm, so I should mention the fact that my mother still washes clingfilm and drapes it on the kitchen taps. She has done so for many years and was a very early recycler.
The phrase “horrors from the deep” took on another significance recently, when a plastic bag was found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, along with sweet wrappers of course. We also heard that “there ain’t no mountain high enough”, when 11,000 kg of rubbish, including plastic, was removed from Mount Everest. Still, plastic keeps fruit clean, right?
The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke of TV programmes that helped to create the increasing pressure for action. The recent disclosure that nations in other parts of the world are refusing to continue to accept waste from the UK, and plastic waste in particular, also brought that issue into the public consciousness with a bang. I am sure that many of us here muttered a wee profanity in relief as we realised that this news was being laid out clearly on the public agenda—hooray, indeed. But it must not just be a press story that is here today and gone tomorrow.
It was no surprise perhaps that we were foisting our problems on countries that we regard as “developing” while we think of ourselves as “developed”, which is to our shame; there is perhaps no surprise either that we are happy to leave it to someone else to clean up after us; and there is perhaps no surprise that we did not think about the consequences before we made the mess.
The sheer volume of waste that cannot be recycled and that represents a hazard to other life on this planet is as mind blowing as the scale of our idea that it can all simply be swept under the global carpet. The task of cleaning up this mess, and the job of getting some semblance of order back, is of similar measure to that of sending people to the moon after Kennedy made that declaration in Houston in 1962.
We need to have a similar belief in our ability to achieve. We need to think that it is not only necessary but within our reach to take action; that this action is not only possible but desirable. We have to set our collective human mind to the task of setting right what we have made wrong. I do not think that anyone has all the answers yet, but at least we have started asking the questions.
We need to clear the backlog of waste that we have created, but we also need to do more to stop creating the stuff in the first place. I find myself going backwards and forwards, between praising supermarkets—as some speakers have done, quite rightly, today for developing products and packaging that can be composted or recycled, or that are even biodegradable, which are moves in the right direction—to thinking that if those supermarkets spent a fraction of their advertising and promotion budgets on this issue, we might see some real differences.
Since each supermarket watches all the other supermarkets and twitches at the smallest possible movement, smart supermarkets that find a way to market some real moves to sustainability will not only gain a commercial advantage, which they will keep, but trigger a chain reaction in the other supermarkets. It is good to hear that the first, somewhat tentative steps are being taken in that respect and that that opportunity is finally being grasped.
However, it is not enough simply to find ways to use a bit less packaging. Where packaging is desirable or necessary, we should make sure that it does not cost the future. We must make the packaging sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable—making it properly biodegradable would be even better.
In my constituency, there is a company called Vegware, which produces foodstuffs packaging that, as can be seen by looking at this cup, people might take for plastic, but it is not. Instead, it is made from plants and can be recycled with food waste, where it composts—commercial composting, yes, but that becomes nutrients for plants. That is a virtuous circle that is simple and rather beautiful.
Vegware has been in business only since 2006, but it has operational bases in the UK, the US, Australia and Hong Kong, and it distributes throughout Europe, the middle east, South America and the Caribbean. It has corporate clients the length of the UK and, indeed, in this very Parliament. It has demonstrated onsite compositing at Dundee and Angus College that produces horticultural compost from waste in just two weeks. It is showing the way forward, and that is not unusual in Scotland, either. The Scottish Government are showing leadership within their restricted scope for movement.
I am delighted to see that the deposit return scheme is coming in Scotland. I have often wondered why there has been so much attention on plastic straws, important though that matter is, and not enough on plastic bottles—as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee mentioned— especially when we can get compostable straws from Vegware, a company in my constituency that I might have mentioned previously.
Scotland’s recycling rates are high. More trees are being planted each year and communities up and down the country are taking action. I mentioned Wardie Bay beachwatch and I will also mention the fantastic Leithers Don’t Litter, a completely voluntary organisation that has been making a huge difference for years now to the Leith community with its clean-up days. I particularly pay tribute to Gerry and Zsuzsa Farrell, who have been utter champions in that regard.
Schoolchildren have become the environmental activists that our generation failed to be, and the future is brighter than it might have been as a result. But that is not enough; much more needs to be done. Governments need to go beyond strategies, plans and visions to some actual actions, and I will be delighted to see the Minister getting on with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his excellent speech introducing the debate. As he says, the public determination to deal with the scourge of plastic packaging is overwhelming, and MPs and the Government need to take heed of those concerns and act now.
I also thank all hon. Members who spoke and intervened, and I am delighted that there is a high level of agreement across parties on the issue. I will pick out a few points. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) said that any recycling solutions we introduce need to fit with local authority capabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned that there is no point trying to prevent plastic pollution in this country if we do not manage to prevent it in other countries and in their oceans.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), in his substantial speech, made the strong point that we can reduce plastic packaging—that that is eminently achievable—but that we need to ensure that the correct plastics are treated in the correct way. He also made the case for a coherent national system, a case with which I very much agree. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) pointed out in his speech the importance of enabling communities to combat plastic litter. The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said that we need to recognise the difference between items for which plastic packaging is unnecessary and those for which it is a sensible solution, and the importance of ensuring that compostable plastic really is compostable.
The petition calls for an end to non-recyclable and unsustainable food packaging, and goes on to call for a 100% recycling rate. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge made the point that it is not enough to call for packaging to be recyclable—it has actually to be recycled. Virtually every form of waste could be recycled if the public were able to separate it out, the local authorities were able to collect it, the plant were there to process it, and the manufacturers were willing to use the resulting recyclate rather than cheap raw materials. Some materials are clearly far more easily recycled than others, and when materials can be and are being recycled people need to know that.
Thinking about my Appspond Lane heap of wood, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has to be a market, some incentivisation to use the recycled goods? Otherwise, they become a valueless commodity; they might be recycled but no one wants them.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. That is clearly an important part of the entire recycling cycle.
There is no point allowing manufacturers to claim that a package is recyclable when they know that the facilities do not exist, and even less so when the cost of doing so would be ridiculously prohibitive. For instance, it is theoretically possible to recycle the traditional crisp packet, but I believe it currently costs more to recycle it, taking into account the collection costs, than the original cost with the crisps in it. The Government’s strategy paper “Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England” acknowledges that to a certain extent, but it still refers to targets for making packaging recyclable, so my first ask of the Minister is whether the Government will measure recyclability in future by whether the material is actually recycled, or simply on the basis of a theoretical claim by industry?
My second ask of the Minister is whether the Government will consider a graduated tax on plastic packaging, rather than a flat-rate tax on that which contains less than 30% recyclate. Many manufacturers are already pledging to move well beyond 30% recycled packaging, and I would submit that any regulation that aims to persuade people to do less than they are already doing voluntarily is either pointless or window dressing. Major multinational companies, such as SC Johnson, the American cleaning products company that makes the Ecover brand among others, are already aiming for high percentages of recycled material in all their packaging, and it would be a travesty if the 30% flat rate allowed other less ambitious companies to undercut their prices simply because the tax regime did not incentivise higher rates.
The plastics packaging industry makes various claims trying to minimise the perception of its impact. Plastics do not make up the majority of waste, measured by weight, but neither the climate change impact nor the pollution impact of waste are dependent on weight. Yes, of course, we want a sustainable solution for construction hardcore, but the environmental impact of a tonne of inert mixed rubble is negligible in comparison with the enormous problem that would be represented by a tonne of polystyrene foam or polythene bags.
The feedstock for most plastics is still fossil fuel, and the absolute necessity eventually to bring to an end the consumption of fresh fossil fuels, if we are to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, must include an end to the use of fossil fuels to create plastics as well. The industry proudly insists that 78% of plastics are currently recovered, but that mainly refers to recovery through incineration in energy-from-waste plants. The exact efficiency of the electricity generation varies from plant to plant, and depends on the mix of waste being incinerated, but we can be sure that plastic incinerated in an energy-from-waste plant will generate significantly less electricity than the oil it was made from would have done in a conventional oil-fired power station.
We do not use oil-fired power stations any more, as a rule, because of their unsustainable climate change implications. How much more unsustainable is it to incinerate plastic in an energy-from-waste plant? My third ask of the Minister is whether the Government have any plans to ensure that the proposed extended producer responsibility for packaging production will simply be allowed to subsidise more energy from waste plants, or whether they have any plans to ensure that the money is used to incentivise recycling instead?
As the petition makes clear, the public want to be able to recycle their packaging, but the best way to deal with unwanted plastic waste is to not create it in the first place. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned all sorts of imaginative ways in which mainly small retailers are avoiding the use of plastic packaging, all of which are laudable. However, we need a consistent, across-the-board step change in the way we purchase goods, the way packaging is designed, the materials it is designed from, and the way it is dealt with at end of life. Only a coherent national strategy from Government can achieve that, so my final ask of the Minister is this: will he pledge to ensure that all the good intentions, suggested actions, aims and targets in “Our waste, our resources” are pursued, accelerated where possible, and not shoved into the long grass under the next Prime Minister?
Dealing with our waste will be a crucial part of our ability to deal with the environment and climate emergency that we face. We need to reduce the amount of waste we create, and to reuse our packaging wherever possible and recycle or compost what is left, if we are to achieve zero net emissions by 2050 or stand any chance of maintaining any quality of life on our planet, for ourselves or any other creatures.
I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—he represents a city that leads the world in many ways, including cycling—for securing this debate, as it comes at a time of significant public interest in plastics and concern about their environmental impact. Plastics used in food packaging, which generates a considerable amount of waste plastics, are a great concern. The number of signatories to the e-petition—almost 250,000—is testament to the public’s concern, and I welcome a debate on the issue, not least because I was involved with it as a former member of the Environmental Audit Committee. Having heard the contributions of Members across the Chamber, I think we are all pretty much on the same page, and I hope I am paying the hon. Gentleman a compliment when I say that I could happily have read out his speech.
The Government share the public’s concerns about the environmental issues surrounding plastics and have set out ambitious plans to address the problem. When plastic use cannot be prevented or plastics cannot be reused, they should be recycled wherever possible. However, managing plastic waste that cannot be reused or recycled is complex and depends on a number of factors, including the type of plastic, the overall environmental impacts of landfill and the efficiency of energy from waste facilities. As we have heard, it is not just Government-led initiatives that can push this agenda, but consumer-driven progress in places such as Sheffield and Cambridge. Indeed, in the meal I ate last night, the spinach and the strawberries were picked in the garden without any need for packaging; the potatoes were in a 25 kg paper sack from a farm less than 10 miles away, not using any plastic; and the beef was produced on the estate where we live.
Bans or restrictions on international export markets for waste, such as China’s bans on typical types of paper waste and plastics, present us with a longer-term opportunity to focus on the quality of recyclate we provide and ensure there are end markets for it. The Government have therefore set out ambitious plans to address the problem of plastics. A key commitment in our 25-year environment plan is to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years, and we want to move faster for the most problematic plastics. In our resources and waste strategy for England, published last December, we committed to work towards all plastic packaging on the UK market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
I stress that we currently have no plans to ban the use of food packaging that cannot be recycled. Most food packaging is technically recyclable, although as we have heard, the current market does not make all recycling economically viable. Our general approach is to help people and companies make the right choice and develop alternatives, rather than ban items outright. There are circumstances in which a ban is appropriate as part of a wider strategic approach: we have already banned the inclusion of plastic microbeads, and Members might be aware that we will be banning the supply of plastic drinking straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England from April 2020.
The European Commission recently published its single use plastics directive, which includes a ban on cups, food and beverage containers in takeaway packaging made of expanded polystyrene, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out—all products made of oxo-degradable plastic. We will, of course, consider that requirement in the context of our work on eliminating unnecessary plastic waste. However, in the case of food packaging, we are of the view that alternative measures would provide strong incentives for businesses to move away from using packaging that is unrecyclable or environmentally damaging and towards more sustainable packaging. We therefore made a commitment in our resources and waste strategy to reform the current producer responsibility system as an immediate priority, in order to incentivise producers financially to take greater responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.
Our priority is to prevent or reduce waste in the first place. The system already requires businesses to ensure that all their packaging does not exceed what is needed to make sure that their products are safe, hygienic, and acceptable for both the packed product and the consumer. The regulations apply to those responsible for the packing or filling of products into packaging and those importing packed or filled packaging into the UK from elsewhere. It is a market-based system that has succeeded in ensuring that the UK has met its wider packaging recycling targets at the lowest cost to producers. The UK reported to Eurostat that 64.27% of UK packaging waste was recycled in 2018, surpassing the 55% recycling target set in the European directive.
The current system does not, however, sufficiently incentivise design for greater reuse or recyclability, and less than a tenth of the cost of managing household packaging waste is covered by producers. In February, we published a consultation setting out our proposals to reform the system. That was one of several Government consultations published on overhauling the waste system, including a consultation on introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers and increasing consistency in recycling collections—in that regard, we look forward to drawing lessons from the Scottish experience.
We also consulted on introducing a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled content. The proposal is for that tax to apply to all plastic packaging manufactured in the UK and to plastic packaging imported into the UK with less than 30% recycled content. It will be charged on plastic packaging that manufacturers place on the market, and the consultation sought views on the precise tax point. Imported unfilled plastic packaging—packaging that does not yet contain goods—will be taxed when it is released on to the UK market, and unfilled plastic packaging that is exported would not be chargeable. The tax will be charged at a flat rate per tonne of packaging material. We plan to introduce that tax in 2022; in its consultation, the Treasury asked whether it should be at a flat rate of 30% or should vary for different purchasing formats, and whether the threshold should increase over time.
The proposals for reforming the packaging producer responsibility regime tie together the broader set of principles for extended producer responsibility included in our resources and waste strategy and our ambitions for the packaging sector in future. Those include the reduction of unnecessary packaging, the reduction or elimination of materials that are difficult to recycle—for example, composite products such as coffee cups, made of cardboard material with plastic applied to it—and the increased recycling of packaging waste. A key proposal is that producers fund the net cost of managing the packaging that they place on the market once it becomes waste. That creates an incentive for companies to use less packaging, as that will reduce the cost of complying with the regulations. A further proposal includes adopting approaches to incentivise producers to adopt recyclable packaging along the way.
In conclusion, I stress that the Government see the elimination of avoidable plastic waste as a priority, and we look forward to introducing further measures to make this country greener still. We are already the greenest Government ever, and we plan to build on that. I will allow a little bit of time for the hon. Member for Cambridge to respond.
I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to this interesting and useful debate, which has been conducted in a positive and constructive spirit. The contributions from all the Front-Bench speakers were very welcome. I was particularly enthused by the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), and his passion for change, and I was very much taken by the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and her talk of a plastic calamity or crisis.
I will conclude by returning to the petitioners. When they say:
“The British public WANTS to recycle but we can’t get away from the vast amounts of waste that poorly designed packaging creates”,
they are putting out a plea to us to get this right. When they say,
“appoint people to design alternatives”,
I am not sure who they have in mind, but if we do get it right,
“the UK will thank you!”
That is something with which we could all agree.
I will end on a slight note of difference: I do not entirely agree with the Minister that we are in exactly the same place. I suspect that in the end, the Opposition are a touch more interventionist—in fact, we are much more interventionist.
Let me take the slightly unusual step of saying from the Chair that this subject, which is hugely important to the people we all represent, has been covered so well that I am hugely impressed. I do not think that a single word was wasted in any speech made by anybody, on whichever side of the House. It has been a privilege to chair the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 232684 relating to unsustainable packaging.