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Soft Plastic Recycling: South Gloucestershire

Volume 717: debated on Monday 27 June 2022

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

Protecting our natural environment is one of the greatest challenges we face. Doing so requires a global effort, from business, Government, communities and, ultimately, individuals. For many in our community, one of the most common ways people can play their part is to recycle so I am delighted to have secured this debate, which allows me to raise the important matter of soft plastic recycling in South Gloucestershire.

The Government’s 25-year environment plan has set an ambitious target of eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2043. However, it is vital that we move faster in those areas in which we can. Good progress has been made in meeting the ambition for all plastic packaging placed on the market to be recyclable or reusable by 2025, but we can see the benefits of packaging being recyclable only if systems are in place to allow people to dispose of such items in a sustainable way.

One of the most common forms of recyclable plastics used in Britain today is soft plastics, which are lightweight and include shopping bags, yoghurt lids, crisp packets, bubble wrap, bread bags and chocolate wrappers. They are generally the kind of plastics that can be scrunched up and will ping back out when we let go of them. However, soft plastic recycling facilities can be difficult to access, especially for those who live in rural areas or who have limited mobility. It is therefore vital that we take further steps to roll out soft plastic recycling options and facilities so that those plastics can be disposed of sustainably rather than sent to landfill.

The Government have made incredible progress on environmental protection. There has been broad support for the introduction of one of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads—I campaigned on that issue as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee when I was first elected to this place—and measures to reduce the supply of plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Usage of single-use carrier bags in supermarkets has been reduced by 95% since the 5p charge was levied—and, of course, that doubted to 10p and has been rolled out to all retailers. I am delighted that the Environment Act 2021 has given Ministers a framework for extended producer responsibility, plastic bottle deposit return schemes and greater consistency in recycling to help drive down plastic waste.

There have been enormous efforts to reduce our dependence on single-use plastic. Commitment has been shown by businesses, councils, schools and, of course, individuals in their own homes. The Environment Act also requires that all waste collection authorities make their own arrangements for a core set of materials to be collected for recycling from households. That includes plastic, card, food waste, metal, garden waste and paper. Many have welcomed the steps taken to boost the market for plastic recycling, including the plastic packaging tax that came into force in April, which will see a charge of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. However, we need to go further and start to introduce soft plastics into regular kerbside collections in South Gloucestershire and across the country.

There are many examples of where schemes to boost soft plastic recycling are already happening, with a number of retailers in the private sector having rolled out soft plastic collection points at their own expense. That includes Tesco, which has sites collecting soft plastic in Thornbury and Yate in my constituency, as well as Co-op. Walkers has also introduced a recycling scheme allowing it to recycle millions of crisp packets every year, and Hovis is doing a similar thing with bread bags. So good practice is happening, but in local authority areas such as South Gloucestershire, residents living in rural villages and those with limited mobility can find it difficult to access soft plastic recycling points, which are often located in towns and in hard-to-reach places. A wider-ranging initiative is therefore needed to ensure greater accessibility for everybody in the community. We need Government and councils to work together to take the next steps and to help tackle the problem.

I declare my interest not only as a Member of Parliament for South Gloucestershire but as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment. I thank my hon. Friend for calling this important adjournment debate on soft plastic recycling, because it is the future. We have done so much both as a Government and in local authorities on looking at how to recycle hard plastics, but my constituents in Kingswood consistently ask me why they cannot recycle plastic bags and plastic material, which make up an overwhelming proportion of our waste. It seems so futile to be throwing it into landfill. We have the opportunity for every local authority—not just South Gloucestershire —to take this forward. I really believe that we should not just have a pilot exercise. The Government must up their ambition nationally as well as by helping South Gloucestershire to achieve its ambition of becoming a net zero council by 2035 through measures such as soft plastic recycling. On the third anniversary of the Government signing up, in law, to net zero, what could be better than the Minister committing to introducing improved soft plastic recycling facilities in South Gloucestershire? Perhaps we could also tease out a commitment to additional soft plastic recycling opportunities not just in the private sector but in the public sector, and ask the Government to take a critical role, as they did with net zero three years ago. We could lead the world in recycling soft plastics. So many countries would follow our lead, as they did with net zero.

My right hon. Friend is being incredibly modest. He talks about the Government signing net zero into law three years ago; I seem to recall that he was the Minister of State who did that. I am grateful to him for backing this campaign, and for his work in driving this agenda forward, both in South Gloucestershire and nationally. He is absolutely right that speed and scale of ambition is so important—not just from Government, but from businesses, individuals and local authorities.

In April last year, the Government brought forward a consultation, which suggested that local authorities should collect soft plastics at the kerbside by the end of the 2026-27 financial year. The Government say that a response to the consultation will be published “shortly”. My right hon. Friend and I have both served in Government, and we know that the term can mean different things, so we would be grateful for an update on when we will hear more information. We are desperate to see this measure rolled out, and are so passionate about it.

I am pleased to say that South Gloucestershire Council leads the way on general recycling in the south-west; it has one of the highest recycling and composting rates in the UK. Since the Conservatives took control of the council in 2015, the recycling rate has increased year on year to record levels, reaching a high of over 59% in 2019-20. Last year, South Gloucestershire Council was ranked fifth of 92 unitary authorities across the UK for recycling, so I pay tribute to it. I also put on record my thanks to the amazing local refuse teams and council officers for the incredible work that they did during the pandemic to keep things moving, and to keep delivering that core, essential service.

I am pleased that that the council is investing heavily in the local services that really matter in our communities. A new recycling deposit site is being built in Mangotsfield in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and substantial renovation work is being carried out at the recycling deposit site in Filton. Of course, improving recycling rates requires leadership in the community—from Parliament, Ministers and MPs, but also from councillors and council leaders. That is why I was so pleased to see the leader of South Gloucestershire Council, Toby Savage, leading from the front, and volunteering with refuse teams during the pandemic to make sure that we could keep them going.

Although we are delivering locally—we have a good track record in South Gloucestershire—there is an issue with the number of local authorities collecting soft plastics. Only 17% of councils provide a soft plastic waste collection service. There is a need to do more. I absolutely support the ambition and aims of last year’s consultation, because there is a need for further standardisation, and there should be further incentives for councils to take action to stop plastic going into landfill needlessly.

In South Gloucestershire, we are supporting efforts to protect and improve the natural environment; it is a priority for us. I surveyed every elector in swathes of my constituency earlier this year—those in all the rural villages, including Frampton Cotterell, Chipping Sodbury, Old Sodbury, Horton, Rangeworthy, Tytherington, Iron Acton and Hawkesbury Upton—about the environmental issues that are important to them. The issue that came out top in every single village was the need to do more on plastic recycling, and particularly soft plastic recycling.

Alongside councillors, fellow local Members of Parliament and campaigners, I worked with the council to submit a bid to take part in the Flexible Plastic Fund’s FlexCollect project, a pilot scheme that is being run alongside the Minister’s Department, in collaboration with SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, to roll out soft plastic recycling facilities and services in the community.

On 6 May this year, I wrote to the Minister to request that DEFRA include South Gloucestershire Council in the scheme. I understand that the Flexible Plastic Fund has confirmed that a detailed categorisation and benchmarking process is being undertaken to select suitable councils and to consider factors such as socio-demographics, geography and the existing collection systems that different councils have in place that have applied to be in the scheme. It wants to make selections that reflect the whole United Kingdom as quickly as it can.

South Gloucestershire is leading the way in recycling across the west of England. We have record rates being delivered and a range of urban and rural communities, which makes us perfect to conduct the trial. This is the most pressing environmental concern for my constituents. The demand is here, because whether we are talking about fruit and veg packaging, crisp packets, films on yoghurts, pasta packets, cling film, salad packaging, bubble wrap or pet food pouches—you name it; South Gloucestershire wants to recycle it. I ask the Minister for her support for South Gloucestershire Council’s bid to be in this vital pilot scheme.

Environmental protection is one of the most important issues facing our planet. We have made incredible progress in leading the fight. We were the first major economy to set a net zero target in law, which was signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. We hosted the COP26 summit last year. We led the way in arguing for the Glasgow climate pact to speed up the pace of climate action. Of course, there is always more to be done. That is why we are here this evening to call for an achievable, tangible change that can improve the amount of recycling that we do in South Gloucestershire and reduce the amount going to landfill. It is vital that we are included in the pilot scheme as part of the FlexCollect project. I would be grateful for the Minister’s support for the bid, and I look forward to her response.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for securing this debate on the important issue of soft plastic recycling—he was ably aided by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) in pointing out how important this is—and I begin by saying what a champion he is on this issue. He knows that the Government are committed to tackling plastic pollution. As he outlined, we have a range of ambitious policies to do so. Plastic film makes up a third of all plastic packaging placed on the market, so driving better recycling is particularly important.

Plastics often get a bad name, but they are incredibly important and useful because their strength and versatility make them a very valuable material in many areas of life. For example, the plastic packaging that challenges us when we try to get rid of it also preserves our food and plays a key part in extending the shelf life of some items and in reducing food waste. However, plastics cause problems when they leak out of the system into the environment. As my hon. Friend said, they can pollute our waterways and oceans and harm our wildlife.

The ban on microbeads—which my hon. Friend referred to—in rinse-off personal care products will help to stop billions of tiny pieces of plastic potentially entering the aquatic environment every year. We are reforming the waste system to ensure that we reduce, reuse and recycle plastic. By ensuring that more plastic is recycled, we will cut the amount of that valuable resource that is sent to landfill. We can also achieve carbon savings from reducing the amount of plastic waste that is sent to incineration. Arguably, the driver there is to reduce that consumption.

On consistency in recycling—my hon. Friend mentioned the different streams—through our landmark Environment Act 2021, which the House passed last November, we will ensure that all homes and businesses get the proper recycling service to which he referred. That will ensure that the same set of materials are collected across England, making it easier for our councils to deliver and making it clearer to the public what they can and cannot recycle. He spoke about our working together and, arguably, that will make it much easier from the get-go. Plastic film makes up a third of all plastic packaging on the market, yet, as my hon. Friend mentioned, only about a fifth of local authorities in England—17%—currently collect plastic film. Just 5% of plastic film put on the market is recycled. That is a woeful figure that we need to drive up.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said that we need to be ambitious. I assure him that we intend to be ambitious. We recognise that there are challenges with the collection and sorting of material, but doing more is absolutely at our heart. We have received a clear message from industry that it requires early signalling of the intent to require the collection of plastic film and flexible packaging for recycling to stimulate the necessary investment needed to improve infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate is right that it is better in some parts of the country than in others.

To provide that early signal, in our recently published consultation on extended producer responsibility for packaging, we announced that plastic film would be collected from every home and business in the UK by 2027, so the starting gun has been fired. Including plastic film and flexible packaging in kerbside collections will make things much easier and much more convenient for our householders and businesses. Until then, supermarkets and others in the private sector are performing a key role by providing further opportunities for in-store collection of plastic film for recycling. My hon. Friend mentioned one or two companies that are really beginning to push for suitable and sufficient facilities, very often because customers are demanding it.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point about access to wider retailer collection schemes for soft plastics. I agree that a wider-ranging initiative such as kerbside collections is needed to ensure that people in rural as well as urban areas are able to access facilities and recycle their soft plastics.

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in the collection and packaging reforms. We will publish a response to the consultations on consistency and the deposit return scheme shortly. We received a wide range of views from stakeholders. Building a large, complex system obviously takes time, but we want to make sure that we get it right.

Extended producer responsibility for packaging ensures that packaging producers, not the taxpayer, cover the cost of disposing of packaging that they put on the market, powerfully encouraging them, along with the plastic packaging tax, to make their products easier to recycle. Under extended producer responsibility, we are introducing modulated fees to drive producers to make more sustainable packaging designs. This will help to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging and incentivise the use of recyclable materials.

The Government have also invested £20 million into four new facilities to support the development of new plastic waste recycling technologies. We expect that private investment will continue and increase as we move towards legislating on the requirement to collect plastic film from households and businesses.

To support our ambitious goals to recycle plastic film, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, alongside the Flexible Plastic Fund, UK Research and Innovation and Zero Waste Scotland, is funding a multimillion-pound pilot project on flexible plastic kerbside collections. The FlexCollect project, launched in May, will provide financial support for selected local authorities to roll out kerbside collections in trials over a three-year period. Insights from the project will be invaluable in informing how councils can best collect plastic film.

I encourage all councils to express their interest in the project. To ensure that the project is as beneficial as possible in informing the roll-out of plastic film collections on a national level, it will need a good cross-section of local authorities to make it a success. We need to understand the challenges and successes in rolling it out to all households and businesses so that people are able to recycle their plastic film, whether they are in a rural location or in the centre of a city. The selection process will help to identify whether local authorities are a good fit for the project and due diligence will be applied. Appropriate governance structures are in place to ensure that the selection process is fair and transparent; I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees and approves.

The project is being managed by a consortium of organisations including: Ecosurety, SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK Ltd, RECOUP and WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme. A cross-section of industry stakeholders including the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Environmental Services Association are also involved to ensure all parts of the value chain involved in the collection and recycling of this material are considered. I understand that announcements will be made about participation in the Flexible Plastic Fund’s FlexCollect project over the next few months. I am truly delighted that South Gloucestershire Council has submitted a bid for FlexCollect. I am sure that it will be carefully considered, and, like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to all those who work in the refuse and recycling sector. It is great to see councils such as his driving progress in recycling, and challenging themselves to do better and do more for their residents.

I thank my hon. Friend again for initiating the debate. I know that he is a tireless champion for the environment as well as the people of Thornbury and Yate, and that he builds on the excellent work of South Gloucestershire Council across a range of areas. The Government are committed to leaving our environment in a better state than the one in which we found it, and fighting plastic pollution and providing easy systems for our residents and businesses are a key part of that legacy.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.