I beg to move,
That the draft Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 19 May, be approved.
Before I begin my remarks, I want to address the issue of why the draft regulations are being brought before the House now instead of earlier in the year. Originally, the regulations were laid in March this year and set to come into force in April. However, in light of the unprecedented situation that this country has faced due to covid-19, they were delayed to reduce the burden placed on industry and to avoid adding further to the demands placed on local authorities.
Many businesses should have been prepared for the ban, given that our plans have been widely publicised, but we received correspondence from many stating that supply chains had faced disruption from the widespread outbreak of covid-19, so sourcing alternatives to single-use plastics had been challenging. We were asked to delay entry into force for a short time while at the peak of this crisis.
Delaying regulations was only a temporary measure in response to the crisis. Our commitment to turning the tide on the widespread use of single-use plastics is as strong as ever, and we seek to limit our impact on the natural environment.
I spent my working career supplying food service packaging items, and I see today as a pretty sad day. Having sold many straws and plastic stirrers in my working career, I find it of concern that if I supply a plastic drink stirrer I am guilty of an offence and would be liable on summary conviction to a fine. I think that is a pretty disappointing state to be in. I thank the Minister for the delay, because for many of the suppliers of these products, their customers have not been able to use the products as a consequence of the hospitality sector being shut down. The delay that she has introduced is very welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know how much work he does with the packaging industry, which, it has to be recognised, is indeed an important part of our economy. I welcome the fact that he recognises that this measure is much needed. Indeed, we brought the whole industry on board with us, and we listened to it. That is why we are giving this slight extension in bringing in the regulations: it was specifically at the request of the industry.
Turning to the purpose of this SI, the Government are committed to eliminating plastic waste and the terrible effects that can result from plastic being in the environment. Single-use plastic items—products that are made wholly or partly from plastic and designed to be used only once—are increasingly common, and their use and inappropriate disposal continue to raise significant environmental issues. Unlike other materials such as paper or wood, plastic can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Therefore, if released into the environment, items such as plastic straws can endanger wildlife and damage habitats, and small pieces of plastic items can often be ingested by animals. Furthermore, plastic that escapes into the environment will eventually break down into microplastics, which are permeating our food chain as well as ending up in our soils and the sea. The full impacts of this are still being uncovered.
I understand exactly the logical reason why the Government are bringing this forward tonight. However, the Minister will realise that many businesses and companies have to find alternatives to plastic. Does she recognise within this SI the need for investment in research and development in emerging technologies that are producing biodegradable, single-use, plastic-type product alternatives?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, which is perceptive, because the Government are definitely encouraging research and innovation in this field. He specifically mentioned biodegradable products. There is a great deal of discussion about that. Consulting and taking advice on it continue to be very important. We have carried out a consultation, because we need to know what even those products break down into before they come into general use. We have to be just as careful.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not plastic that is the problem, but waste, and we should be doing all we can to tackle that? Will she join me in commending companies like ReNew ELP in my constituency, which is leading the way in chemical recycling?
I thank my hon. Friend. This is all part of the whole new world that we are moving into of creating a circular economy where we research what we are making and design it so that we can reuse it, repair it or make it last longer. That is why the Environment Bill is so important, because it will contain many of the measures to reach this stage through the resources and waste strategy. I must also praise the company in his constituency that he mentioned.
Does my hon. Friend agree that plastic is a problem and waste is a problem, but people are also a problem? People are not disposing of these products appropriately and they are getting into the wrong place. Would an education process to get people to put the right product in the right box and get it recycled be part of her endeavour?
I think you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is a wide subject and people are generally interested in this whole issue of waste and plastics. Of course, my hon. Friend’s point about people is absolutely right. Even with my own children, I still have to teach them what to put in which boxes for the recycling: it drives me absolutely nuts. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing forward measures to align all the collection services, which will, once and for all, I hope, sort out the situation to which he refers.
The proposed measures in the resources and waste chapter of our Environment Bill will transition us towards a more circular economy—I have mentioned that already—which will change the way we consume resources. However, there is much we can already do to address the issue of single-use plastics, so let us now look clearly at what this statutory instrument will do. It will restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds to end users in England, helping to reduce the amount of plastic that pollutes our environment. These new regulations will support the voluntary actions being taken by industry, led by the UK plastics pact, while ensuring that all businesses move to more sustainable alternatives. Our current data show that we use a remarkable 4.7 billion straws, 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds and 316 million plastic stirrers every year in England, which is a huge quantity. This intervention will drastically reduce the use of those single-use plastics by an estimated 95%. When taken in conjunction with our wider policy approach to move towards a more circular economy, this will be another landmark moment, following our carrier bag charge and our microbead ban.
These regulations will be coming in ahead of the EU’s introduction of such a ban. Taking advantage of our new-found freedom enables us to be more flexible and to have a more tailored approach, which will enable us to bring in our own exemptions—for example, the exemption for those with disabilities. Let us look at those exemptions. There is no doubt that plastic is an incredibly useful and versatile material. Plastic straws can withstand high temperatures, such as for tea and coffee, and can be moulded to bend or fit into a particular shape. That allows people suffering from certain conditions, such as motor neurone disease, who struggle to hold a cup to access hot and cold drinks, and liquid foods. My husband was seriously ill and we had to use straws as he got increasingly ill, so we can see why an exemption such as that is important. That is why we have included exemptions in these regulations for accessibility, forensic reasons, and medical and scientific uses.
Following the introduction of the regulations, plastic-stemmed cotton buds will still be available for purchase by individuals who need them. Plastic straws will be available through pharmacies, without any requirement for proof of need, which means that relatives, friends and carers could buy them on behalf of those who rely on the items. Similarly, we are allowing for catering establishments, such as restaurants and public houses, that supply food and drink ready for visitors to consume to continue to provide plastic straws on request—again, this is without proof of need, for the reasons to which I have just referred. In these instances, it will be against the regulations to display and advertise the fact that straws are being supplied, in order to limit the impulse for people who do not need them to request them.
The regulations allow business-to-business sales, for example, between a manufacturer and a catering establishment, to ensure that businesses can supply items to those who need them. We have also exempted other establishments such as schools, care homes and prisons from these regulations on plastic straws, so that they can be made available for anyone in their care who may need them. Finally, there is also an exemption for plastic straws that are classed as packaging. For example, some medicines in pill form are packaged in straws, to be dispensed one at a time. These exemptions for medical, scientific and forensic purposes will be reviewed and updated as we move forward.
We are determined to get this right, and it is vital that businesses and the public are informed about what they can and cannot do. Local authorities are obliged to ensure that guidance is published ahead of the regulations coming into force, and anyone caught still supplying the items against the rules set out in this legislation could face civil sanctions, such as stop notices or a variable monetary penalty.
Of course, we hope that the enforcement measures will not be necessary. Industry is already making good progress to remove the items from their shelves, and public demand for the items is falling. But the regulations need to have teeth to show that the Government take the issue of plastic pollution seriously. The new regulations send a signal to industry and the general public that we need to think carefully about the products we buy and the materials from which they are made. The regulations will help people to make more sustainable choices, and I commend the draft regulations to the House.
The Opposition will not oppose the regulation today, but we would like to place on record our disappointment at a number of missed opportunities. There are two elements to the statutory instrument—the plastics and the single use. This regulation deals only with removing the plastics and does not attempt to deal with or solve the problem of our single- use economy that we need to tackle. It fails to recognise the waste hierarchy of reduction first, and just aims at legislating, in a piecemeal way, one item after another.
Of course, we agree that plastics have become unsustainable. In 1950, we produced 1.7 million tonnes, and now we produce 350 million tonnes. The Minister has already talked about the number of items that we produce, including the 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds, of which 10% are flushed down toilets, with a devastating impact on marine life when some, inevitably, get out of the system.
My hon. Friend and I represent opposite ends of the same city. As a coastal city, we are at the receiving end of some of that rubbish and disposable plastic as it washes up on the beaches. Does he agree that this is a very important step forward, but it is only a step forward and there is a long way to go in order to clean up the beaches that he and I represent?
I totally agree, and we both will have been on beach clean-ups and seen the awful amount of rubbish that is either left there or has washed up.
With the work of nature documentaries such as “The Blue Planet”, and environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Keep Britain Tidy, Surfers Against Sewage and others, the public mood has shifted dramatically on plastics. I remember in 2002 at the world summit on sustainable development our talking about not being able to garner public support for action on plastics. How things have changed, and that is to be celebrated. That is why, of course, the Government have been able to pledge, in their 25-year environment plan, to eliminate avoidable plastics by 2040. Will the Minister set interim targets for this plan and will she bring forward further plans to demonstrate how she will achieve the overall target? Without milestones, there is a danger that we will not realise that we are off course before it is too late.
I would like to hear from the Minister what assessment her Department has made on the impact of covid on the use of plastics. Companies such as Just Eat and Deliveroo are reporting huge increases in sales. I have seen restaurants that were no longer using plastics but have returned to plastic items. While of course we recognise that there is a public health emergency, we need to do all we can to lower transmissions while ensuring that businesses have confidence in their knowledge about the risks of items, but let us return to the age-old—centuries-old—idea of a washable spoon, rather than a paper, plastic or wooden stirrer. It does not seem beyond the wit of man to return to something that we have used for a very long time—
Proper cutlery! I hear lots of support.
To highlight the problem of single use, in 2018, McDonald’s UK faced a huge public backlash after the images of their distinctive striped plastic straws on picturesque beaches around the world, and it made a move to paper straws—laudable, fantastic, we would all say. But today it uses 1.8 million paper straws a day and that is 675 million a year. The tragedy is that these straws cannot be fully recycled, so they end up being incinerated, adding to landfill or even getting into our seas—the very thing that they were meant to prevent.
Replacing one dangerous product with a slightly less dangerous product or energy-exhausting product defeats the point, when the reality is that most people do not need to use plastic straws. We can move away from the idea of unnecessary consumption. Huge numbers of supermarkets and food outlets have already moved away from plastics to wooden or compostable cutlery, but these too end up in incineration. As we know, incineration in this country has a particularly poor energy generation ratio compared with other European countries.
DEFRA’s own impact assessment on the regulations has assumed that plastics will be replaced on a like-for-like basis, so while we are pleased to see the Government trying to eliminate plastics, it is very disappointing to see this missed opportunity to tackle the problem of single use. The Government are patting themselves on the back because of a ban on three items of plastics, when we need to shift our throwaway culture. We urgently need the extended producer responsibility scheme that is being considered in the European Union, and we should be taking the lead. Such programmes put an obligation on the producer to create more sustainable products. They incentivise companies that are doing the right thing, as well as disincentivising the wrong thing. When will we see the plastic bottle deposit scheme actually introduced in this place, and when will we see it reflecting the material used, rather than just the one-size-fits-all model that, unfortunately, has been adopted in Scotland?
With fast fashion and the inability to repair, we have not just straws and cotton buds being thrown away, but almost everything we can consume being thrown away. We are creating and destroying at alarming rates.
It is. Actually, I was on a phone call with the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) earlier today, and many of the producers were saying they welcomed and wanted to move towards that sort of scheme, which I was very pleased to hear.
As I have said, we are creating and destroying at alarming rates, but we must design a more circular economy. Where are the Government on the right to repair? That is another issue now being talked about globally—the right to have items repaired, rather than throw them away, whether they be electrical or composite plastic items. The Government are also a signatory to the sustainable development goals, No. 12 being the implementation of a 10-year framework for programmes for sustainable consumption and production. It says that developed countries must take the lead, so what lead has DEFRA made on changing production patterns, rather than just these particular regulations? I contend that simply banning plastics, although a welcome step, is not enough in creating sustainable production patterns, as agreed under our international obligations.
I would like to ask the Minister some specific questions about the regulations’ implementation. What guidelines will be given to local authorities on the enforcement of these regulations? What resources will be given to local authorities to ensure that they are enforced? Will there be annual reporting on the compliance visits, on the problems found and on the responses to complaints from the public about unlawful retailing of straws and other plastic products? Finally, when will the Government bring forward their plan for extended producer responsibility, rather than piecemeal SIs?
As we face a climate and ecological crisis, we must stop making piecemeal changes. We must have some hard conversations about changing corporate and consumer behaviour. Our short-term convenience must not come at the cost of our planet and future generations.
It is a pleasure to speak in support of the measures before the House. I speak as the chairman of the all-party group on ocean conservation. The regulations mark another important step forward in our fight against plastic waste.
I take on board some of the comments made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle); we all recognise that there is more to do. No one is pretending for a moment that this marks the end of our fight against plastic waste, but it is an important step. It has been talked about for some time and generally has the support of the public. It is absolutely right that we introduce the regulations at this moment to try to address one source of a great deal of the plastic waste in our society.
There is an urgent and pressing need to get to grips with the issue of plastic waste. It is right to acknowledge the progress that the Government have already made: the charge on plastic bags has resulted in billions fewer plastic bags in the system, and the microbead ban is very welcome. I echo the comments made by colleagues about the deposit return scheme, which will be another important step forward in this fight. The Government have taken the issue seriously and have come forward, when appropriate, with measures to address it, and I am sure that will continue and that today will not be the end of that.
I put on record my acknowledgement of and thanks to a number of organisations in Cornwall in particular that have campaigned for measures to ban plastic straws and other items. I have the great pleasure of working closely with Surfers Against Sewage, which for 30 years has led the campaign in our fight against pollution in our oceans. The Final Straw Cornwall has also campaigned heavily on this issue.
In Cornwall, we see the impact of plastic waste right on our doorsteps, as do the tens of thousands of people around the country who take part in beach cleans every year. Too much of the plastic waste in our society ends up in our oceans and along our coast. The regulations will certainly help to reduce that and make the job of those of us who regularly participate in beach cleans an awful lot easier.
The statistic that I continue to cite is the prediction that if we do not take drastic action by the year 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. We cannot allow that to happen, and it is steps such as these regulations that will help to make sure that that does not happen. I very much welcome the sensible measures in the regulations, and I also welcome the sensible exceptions to allow plastic items to be used in medical and other appropriate settings when it is deemed appropriate.
While I have the Minister’s attention, I wish to mention something else. Although I absolutely welcome the measures that we are considering, now is surely the time to take a look at a couple of other things that we need to ban: sky lanterns and balloon releases, about which there is a great deal of concern. These matters were last considered in 2013, and I wish to put on record that now that we have banned plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, surely this is the time to ban sky lanterns and balloon releases. They do untold damage to our environment, they can damage property and they do a great deal of damage to wildlife and farm animals. Surely now is the moment, once the issue we are considering is put to bed, to come forward with further measures to take those items out of the system as well and stop them polluting our environment.
I thank the Minister for her work on the regulations. I very much welcome these measures and am happy to support them wholeheartedly.
I wish to make a few brief remarks in support of the introduction of these measures. I congratulate the Minister on bringing them forward. She and I campaigned on this issue on many occasions when she was on the Back Benches, so it is good to see her have the opportunity to bring them forward in government.
The territorial application of the regulations is limited to England and Wales, but as others have observed, much of this plastic waste ends up in the sea, and the sea joins us all, so we are as likely to find this waste on the beaches in Orkney and Shetland as we are in Cornwall. This concerns and affects my constituents substantially, and I am sure that they will be as pleased as I am to see this progress being made.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) made the fair point that this is just a statutory instrument, and we need to look at the nature of our consumption as a whole. He is right about that. I would add to that wider view the relationship between developed western countries and developing countries, because so many of these items put into the waste system are not dealt with in this country; they are exported. We find it difficult to control what happens, and it is effectively a case of being out of sight and out of mind. That is why it is infinitely preferable to cut off the use and supply of these items at source, which is the effect of the regulations.
I add my voice to those who have referred to the need for a deposit return scheme. That is overdue, and I would like to hear from the Minister—in so far as she is able to say, while remaining within the ambit of the debate—when we might expect to see some concrete proposals. I know that she has a personal and political commitment, so it would be good to hear what we can do to help her push that through Government.
These regulations are timely. I am sure we have all noticed that the great progress we have made on the removal of disposable coffee cups and the rest of it has faced a setback as a consequence of the covid-19 pandemic. In fact, I notice that we have plastic cups back at the Table at the front of the House. That is probably a consequence of the concern that people naturally have about transmission; I make no criticism. But we will have to deal with this, because the pandemic may be with us for months, but the damage done by plastic pollution and microplastics will be with us for decades, if not centuries.
Like others, I support this SI to ban the supply of single-use plastic stirrers, cotton buds and straws. I think the range of exemptions proposed is fair. I also believe that it is reasonable to have postponed implementation, so that businesses and local authorities did not have to deal with this in the midst of the pandemic.
As a modern economy, we will always need single-use plastic—the covid emergency alone will have seen the use of hundreds of millions of single-use plastic items—but as a society, we need to get much better at treating plastic as a precious resource to be used only where necessary, and reused and recycled wherever possible. It is plastic waste that is the problem, not plastic. Plastic as a packaging material is safe, secure, hygienic and cheap. It is also tough and long-lasting, which has a hugely negative environmental impact when it is not properly disposed of, because it can last centuries in the natural environment.
Tackling plastics pollution is one of the defining environmental challenges of our generation, which is why I welcome the energetic campaign run on this issue by the Daily Mail and Sky. There is an important place for bans such as the one we are considering as part of a wider strategy to address plastics pollution, because these regulations are an important means to push producers to switch to more sustainable materials and to push all of us to dispense with items that are not essential.
This will only be effective as part of a wider package of measures. I therefore join others who have spoken this evening in urging the Government to maintain progress on extended producer responsibility. We also need to see the long-awaited deposit return scheme delivered in accordance with the timetable set by the Government, and we need to ensure that both those schemes operate in a way that minimises costs for business at a time of turbulence in the economy. I also ask the Minister when we will see the carrier bag charge extended to smaller retailers.
It is important to emphasise again that domestic action alone is not going to solve this problem; if we are to address the scourge of plastics pollution in our oceans, we need to use our aid budget to support the developing world positively and energetically in dealing with their plastic waste responsibly. Significant steps have been made through initiatives such as the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, but addressing this kind of issue should be included in the UN convention on biological diversity, and preferably COP26, too.
Turtles choke on plastics, dolphins can drown if they get tangled up in it, seabirds can inadvertently feed it to their young, and marine life ingests millions of small pieces of it. Plastic is a tremendous asset for our society and our economy, but we must become much more responsible in how we use it, because of the terrible harm it can do when thrown away. We must act to prevent the environmental disaster of plastics in our oceans, and I welcome this statutory instrument as a helpful step forward in achieving that goal which we all share.
First, I must welcome the shadow Minister. I do not believe we have confronted each other yet. I look forward to working with him, on the Environment Bill in particular, and I thank all other Members who have joined in the debate today. That shows how passionate we are about plastic and getting rid of it, and I will address some of the points that were raised.
I was slightly disappointed that the shadow Minister referred to this as a missed opportunity and said he is highly critical of steps being taken. I believe he is unaware of quite how much is under way, and I look forward to working on the Environment Bill with him and exposing to him just how committed the Government are and how much is being done through not only that Bill, but the resources and waste strategy.
We obviously recognise how important this subject is, and I want to touch on a few of the things that are being done: we already have the microbeads and microplastics ban; there is a huge reduction in single-use carrier bag usage; we have launched the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, which was referred to just now, to stimulate global action; and we are delivering on our promises through the resources and waste strategy and seeking powers through the Environment Bill. Under those powers, there will be a charge for single-use plastic items, the deposit return scheme for drinks containers will be introduced, the packaging waste regulations will be reformed, and greater consistency in household and business recycling collections will be introduced—I touched on that earlier.
We are well aware of that and will let the hon. Gentleman know in due course when the Bill will be back, because we are all very keen to get on with it; he is absolutely right about that, and the commitment is fully still there.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned local authorities. Local authorities will inspect the businesses to check that they are following the regulations. They will be able to visit shops or stalls, make test purchases, speak to staff and demand records, and they will be given the full range of civil sanctions in order to ensure compliance, including powers such as being able to issue compliance and stop notices, as well as the ability to impose fines. They will also be obliged to publish guidance, because they will be the regulator, and we will give draft guidance before that comes into force. I hope that clarifies that.
The hon. Gentleman touched on targets, which was a bit naughty, because he moved away from the essence of the statutory instrument. I am surprised that he was not caught out, Madam Deputy Speaker, but he is new, so you were being very lenient. I just wanted to reiterate that, through the Environment Bill, we have put in place a whole process in which the targets are set, checked and then rechecked. I believe the whole system is very strong. We also have milestones in the resources and waste strategy, which sets recycling targets for packaging. All packaging will be recyclable by 2025. The hon. Gentleman talked about bringing back washable cutlery. I washed a spoon today by the way. Perhaps, we should go down that road—good suggestion.
I just wish to touch on a few comments from some other colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who, of course, has done so much work on this agenda, fully understands and appreciates how committed the Government are to this agenda and how we are introducing this strategy to reduce waste, to recycle, to repair and to reuse. I reiterate that all packaging will be recyclable by 2025. In particular, she mentioned the extension to the carrier bag charge. We have consulted, as she knows, on extending the charge to all retailers and increasing the minimum charge to 10p, and the Government’s response will be issued shortly. We have, of course, had a slightly different few months than we expected with the coronavirus, so we have had to allow people doing doorstep deliveries still to use carrier bags, but a charge is still being made in store, if one goes in store to do the shopping. That extension will be coming forward shortly.
I wish now to thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who is no longer in his place, for all his work on ocean conservation. He is absolutely right that these things affect Cornwall and its wonderful coast, and he is very passionate about his work. He welcomed the regulations, which I am very pleased about. He touched on sky lanterns, which are regulated by the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 and enforced by local authority trading standards and, as such, the local authorities could ban the release of them. Sky lanterns have recently sometimes been let off to thank our workers in the NHS. We should all be thanking them, but I plead with people not to let off sky lanterns, because they are a danger to nature and wildlife. With it being so dry, we have also had a lot of wildfires.
Finally, I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his support for the regulations, although I remind him that this and all other environmental issues are devolved. Scotland has banned plastics and cotton buds, but it has not yet decided what to do about straws, and we are waiting to hear what it will do.
In summary, in order for us to leave the environment in a better state than we found it for the next generation, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place that will have an impact on our effect on the natural world. Plastics are causing incontrovertible harm to the marine and terrestrial environment, and we need to act now. These measures are an important part of our wider strategy to tackle plastic pollution. They will serve as an important marker to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and I commend them to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 19 May, be approved.