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Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 18 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of reducing plastic pollution in the ocean.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate on plastic pollution in the ocean, ahead of the United Nations global plastics treaty second round negotiations next week. I also thank the Chamber Engagement Team and constituents who have responded to its survey on this important issue.

As an island nation here in the UK, we see first hand the effect of our plastic pollution washing up along our coastline. While plastic has been one of the world’s most valuable inventions, inappropriate waste recycling has led to a global crisis where microplastics are present in our waterways and food chains. Nearly 460 megatonnes of plastic were produced in 2019. That is expected to reach 1,231 megatonnes by 2060—a 267% increase—and plastic waste is expected to see a 287% increase.

As a nation, we have reacted to our increased knowledge of the effects of plastic pollution via fantastic societal change. The use of reusable products, such as coffee cups and shopping bags, has really cut down the amount of waste washing up on our shores. The carrier bag charge, implemented in 2015, has reduced the use of single-use carrier bags in supermarkets by 95%, while the ban on straws, stirrers and cotton buds significantly reduced the number ending up in our oceans. Following the ban, the Great British Beach Clean said that cotton bud sticks had moved out of the UK’s top 10 most common beach litter items. The 2018 ban on microbeads has also limited difficult-to-clear plastics in our water. The Marine Conservation Society’s Beachwatch project also found 11% less litter on our beaches in 2022 compared with 2012.

There are also fantastic community efforts, such as Plastic Free North Devon, which work in the community to organise clean-ups, educate hospitality businesses on reducing plastic use and—especially important in tourist hotspots such as north Devon—offer wooden bodyboards in place of the traditional polystyrene ones. National bodies such as Keep Britain Tidy are launching projects such as their Ocean Recovery project, which is the only UK-based trawl net recycling scheme. Since being established last year, it has already recycled 100 tonnes of trawl net and rope. We are making great strides in reducing the amount of plastic we use, but we also need to make it easier to recycle the plastic—for instance, the estimated 4 billion plastic bottles that are not recycled each year.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for initiating the debate. She may be aware that the World Wildlife Fund argues that some 8 million tonnes of plastic get dumped every year. While she rightly describes the progress made in this country in particular—but also in others—does she share my view that for the future, we actually need to see discussion of how we can toughen up product standards to increase the amount of plastic that can be recycled, and give consumers more information about which plastics used in products can be recycled and which cannot?

Yes, in many ways I agree. I will certainly come on to speak far more about the global implications of the situation. While we are doing so much on our own island, we need to do so much more. In particular, the upcoming deposit return scheme, confirmed in the environment improvement plan, will bring the UK in line with similar nations, and recycle 90% or more of relevant containers.

Alongside reducing use and recycling as much as possible, we also need to look at the hierarchy of waste and reusing plastic products where possible. I ask the Minister to look at setting a target for the reuse of packaging, alongside our work on recycling. By setting a target, we would incentivise businesses to invest in reuse schemes that reduce the amount of resources required in our packaging supply chains. A recent UN report on reducing plastic pollution found that proper reuse systems could reduce plastic pollution by 30% by 2040, compared with 20% for recycling. Investing in and facilitating a reuse system would also reduce the cost of waste management and increase jobs in the sector. Unfortunately, despite UK efforts, plastic has been entering the ocean for decades and continues to do so.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Microplastics continue to threaten our marine ecosystems, with research showing that fishing net pollution is deadly for sharks, seabirds and seals. Does she agree that the solution to this must be found through balancing industry productivity while increasing necessary regulation?

Of course, it is vital that we find a balance. Fishing materials continue to be an issue, which is why I think that some of the initiatives that are already under way to help the industry to recycle more are so vital.

As I was saying, plastics have been entering the ocean for decades and continue to do so. Between modern-day plastic and legacy plastic—the oldest piece of plastic that has been found is a buoy from 1966—there are trillions of pieces of plastic floating in our oceans. They affect our entire ocean’s ecosystem at every stage, from turtles getting trapped in nets to plastic breaking down into microplastics and slowly building up in our food chain.

Although we do not know as much about our seas as we should, we know that plastic has negatively affected almost 700 marine species. Microplastics also slowly sink down through our oceans to settle on the ocean floor, forming plastic deserts that kill wildlife and can stretch up to hundreds of kilometres. The largest floating patch is the great Pacific garbage patch, which contains more than 100 million kg of plastic over an area three times the size of France. It is the largest example of an ocean gyre where the currents draw flotsam to a point. As the convergence spot of the currents from the south Pacific and the Arctic, the zone is a plastic superhighway. It takes an average of only seven years for plastic floating in the ocean to reach the great Pacific garbage patch.

We know that the next generation care passionately about the planet, particularly their oceans and beaches. As a coastal MP, I know how engaged our schools are with this issue, and it often acts as an introduction to wider conservation work. Last year, I attended Greenpeace’s big plastic count, which almost a quarter of a million people took part in, including more than 9,500 school students. That shows just how seriously our youngest constituents take plastic pollution. Books such as “Ruby Rockpool”, which was written by the mermaid Hannah Pearl, suggest ways that youngsters can help. They bring the problems to life, but unfortunately solutions are not as simple as in Hannah’s excellent book, in which the ocean is healed with a sea star’s power.

Of course, no matter what we do domestically, this is ultimately a global issue requiring a global solution. The UK is responsible for almost 7 million sq km of the world’s oceans, and one of our overseas territories in the south Pacific demonstrates the challenge. Henderson island in the Pitcairn Islands is both uninhabited and thousands of miles from the nearest population centre. Despite that, an estimated 40 million pieces of plastic rubbish have landed on its shores. The island is home to the endangered Henderson petrel and the flightless Henderson crake, and is an important breeding ground for many other large seabirds. As we saw in Sir David Attenborough’s excellent “Blue Planet II”, the impact of plastic in the ocean extends to seabirds and can lead to parents feeding their offspring plastic instead of fish.

To limit the continuing impact of plastic on our oceans and food chain, we need not only to reduce how much plastic waste irresponsibly reaches our environment, but work to remove it. Fortunately, there are innovative start-ups such as the Ocean Cleanup, which undertakes the only efforts to remove legacy plastics from our oceans. It aims to remove 90% of floating plastic from the ocean by 2040.

As we know, tiny microfibres are entering the sea due to us washing our clothes. The company CLEANR is now turning to 3D printing technology to create microplastic filters for washing machines. Does the hon. Member agree that we must continue to use new technologies available to develop innovative solutions to this environmental crisis?

Indeed, I sponsored the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on that topic. Although there is much work to do on microfibres, the plastics I will talk about are significantly more dramatic, in terms of their magnitude and the skills that are needed to clean them up.

To remove the waste from the gyres, the Ocean Cleanup is using a combination of computer modelling, artificial intelligence and space-borne plastic detection to identify the densest areas of plastic to optimise clean-up. It has created a trawler-type solution that pulls a semi-circular 4 metre-high net system very slowly—half walking speed— through the garbage patch into a funnel called a retention zone, which takes the plastic on to ships to be taken back to shore. It sounds very simple, but it is in fact highly complex to work in the open seas of the Pacific and protect wildlife—it has several active systems to prevent bycatch—as it removes different types and sizes of plastic pieces. As it scales up the system, it is reducing the cost, and it aims to reach €10 per kilo of plastic waste.

As 80% of marine plastics are estimated to have come from land-based sources—the remaining 20% are from fishing and other marine sources—the Ocean Cleanup is also focused on preventing waste from reaching the ocean in the first place, predominantly from rivers. It has identified that 1% of the world’s rivers are responsible for transmitting 80% of those land-based plastics to the ocean. To prevent that plastic from entering the oceans, it has developed the Interceptor system, which is currently focused on the most polluting rivers. Its Trashfence system is used in the Rio Motagua in Guatemala, which currently emits approximately 20,000 megatonnes of plastic into the Caribbean each year, or 2% of all the plastic emitted into the world’s oceans annually. That is a key scheme for the Ocean Cleanup to be working on.

For the Ocean Cleanup to achieve its aims, it needs long-term, dependable funding. So far, it has raised more than $250 million from private donations. It is asking the UK to become the first Government to support it financially. At present, it needs $37 million to fund one of its new systems per year.

As a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, which called for a target in the UN global plastics treaty to stop plastics entering our oceans by 2040, the UK Government are leading the way in a global effort to clean up our oceans. They could signal a greater dedication to cleaning up the great Pacific garbage patch ahead of a legal obligation. They could also help with mapping the problems around the world, such as in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, where the UK has permanent naval bases.

The UK has an excellent capability in oceanographic research, and could work with the Ocean Cleanup to help it with the vital mapping of the gyres so that we know where to find the plastic, how much is there, what it likely consists of, where it is coming from and so on. The Ocean Cleanup has proven know-how, as it was the first to fully map the great Pacific garbage patch.

Although plastics have a significant impact on our wildlife, they also affect island nations smaller than our own. The Pacific island nations are not just on the frontline of rising sea levels; they are among those most affected by the increase in plastic in our oceans. China is working hard to court them and extend its influence and power projection, but the UK still has significant interests in the region. China is one of the world’s largest polluters, and the UK can strengthen its ties in the region by supporting measures to limit plastic pollution and help clean up other island nations’ waters.

The UN global plastic treaty second round negotiations next week are another opportunity for the UK to push for positive changes to our environment as a global leader. At COP26, we secured the Glasgow climate pact, and at COP15 in Montreal, we pushed for global protections of biodiversity and nature. We need to add our voice to negotiations to secure limits to virgin plastic production and unnecessary plastic use. With the fifth largest marine estate in the world, and a population dedicated to protecting our environment and wildlife, we are well placed not only to cut down on our own plastic waste but to lead global efforts in cleaning up our oceans.

We need to remove legacy plastics while they are retrievable. If we wait too long, they will break down into microplastics and we will have a far harder job of removing plastic from our environment. I hope the Government will not only continue to implement their environment improvement plan, but will lead support for projects such as the Ocean Cleanup.

Again we are debating the huge and growing threat of plastic pollution in our oceans. According to Recycle Track Systems:

“There is an estimated 75 to 199 million tons of plastic waste currently in our oceans, with a further 33 billion pounds of plastic entering the marine environment every single year. This constant flow of plastic production is simply too much for existing waste management and recycling infrastructure.”

Plastic makes up 85% of all marine pollution, and unless we reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce, it is simply impossible to meaningfully tackle this shocking and dangerous situation.

Fishing equipment makes up a huge quantity of marine plastic waste—currently 20%—and, at current rates, will be enough to coat the entire planet in just 65 years. Plastic pollution harms animal health disproportionately and impacts on the ecosystems of developing countries. It is estimated that across the UK, 5 million tonnes of plastic are used every year, around half of which is packaging and half of which is not successfully recycled, with only around 9% of global plastics recycled each year. Plastic waste often does not decompose and can last for centuries in landfill or end up as litter in the natural environment, which in turn pollutes soils, rivers and oceans, and harms the creatures that inhabit them.

We know that the scale of this problem is huge. It is a daunting and global challenge, but we can mitigate our throwaway culture, and the best way to reduce the amount of plastic entering our oceans is to reduce plastic waste.

The plastic polluting our oceans can largely be attributed to single-use takeaway items. However, such products are often relied on for food hygiene purposes. Does the hon. Member agree that we must work to establish a valid alternative to single-use takeaway items that meets food hygiene standards?

Yes. The hon. Lady tempts me, because I will say more about that in a moment.

Recycle Track Systems says:

“There are numerous initiatives to curb ocean plastic pollution at any one time, including everything from grassroots beach clean-ups to international agreements. One of the recent changes is the United Nations Environment Assembly’s agreement in March 2022 to develop a legally binding treaty to bring plastic pollution to an end. It will still be years in the making but is a considerable step forward according to many. What’s more, many organizations, such as Ocean Conservancy, are now calling for more dramatic changes to stop ocean plastic pollution, such as the reduction in production and consumption as well as outright bans on single-use plastics”—

as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned— “Many are calling for a shift to a zero-waste circular economy as the only solution to a plastic problem that we can’t recycle away.”

The Scottish Government aim to make Scotland a zero-waste society with a circular economy. They have a target of recycling 70% of waste by 2025, exceeding even EU targets, and they are matching the EU target for plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030. The Scottish Government are also a signatory to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new plastics economy global commitment, which will ban specified items of single-use plastics in EU member states. They have signed up to the agreement, even though there is no compulsion for Scotland to do so, as it is no longer a member of the EU, sadly. I hope the UK Government will follow the example of Scotland and the EU in that regard.

Scotland’s deposit return scheme works on the basis of the polluter pays, a principle that incentivises recycling, reduces litter and tackles climate change by reducing the amount of plastic going to landfill or ending up in our oceans. The scheme has been delayed because the First Minister is very keen to work with business to get this right. It is in all our interests, even if it is sometimes tempting to make cheap political points about this issue. The reality is that it is a fine and noble principle, and we should all work to make sure that it can do what it says on the tin. We all need to think about how we use, reuse and dispose of our plastic, because that is the problem that oceans face today.

Would the hon. Lady agree that, while the deposit return scheme systems that are being looked at across the UK are vital, is it not better—as we are talking about international efforts—that we all work together to ensure that the scheme runs across the whole country, rather than having different schemes in different parts of our own islands, making it more complex for everyone involved?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, but the point is that we cannot all move at the speed of the slowest caravan. We have to be bold and ambitious in what we seek our deposit returns scheme to achieve. What she proposes would be a better way forward, but the UK Government are slower and less ambitious. That is a pity, but we cannot be held back by that.

The scale of the plastic pollution in our oceans is catastrophic, and it is deeply damaging and deadly to marine life and habitats. It is difficult to know how many marine animals are killed each year due to plastic pollution. Many will go completely unrecorded. That said, some estimate that over 1 million animals, including many sea turtles, die each year due to plastic pollution in the ocean. The majority of animals that die are seabirds. Mammals are often more visible in the media and the public imagination, but they actually count for only around 100,000 deaths. That is still a huge number, but it does not tell the whole story. Those are just the marine animals that die as a result of plastic debris in the ocean. The toll would be much higher if other polluting factors, such as emissions from plastic production, were taken into account.

On a different tack, animals carry microplastics in their bodies, so when those animals are eaten those microplastics are also ingested. The process is called trophic transfer of microplastics. Since one animal eats another, microplastics can move through the food chain, ultimately reaching the human food chain. Some scientists have estimated that the average person might eat 5 grams of microplastics in a week, which is about the weight of a credit card. Another study breaks that down to being up to 52,000 particles annually from various food sources. According to the UN, there are over 50 trillion microplastics in the ocean, more than the number of stars in the Milky Way—that is astonishing. Due to the sheer quantity of microplastics in the ocean, it is difficult to find any marine animal without plastic particles in its gut or tissue. It is poisoning their food supply.

Whether or not microplastics impact human health is a relatively new field of study, but what we know so far is troubling, according to experts. Plastics and microplastics contain many harmful additives and tend to collect additional contaminants from their surroundings. Microplastic ingestion has been correlated with irritable bowel syndrome, while plastic-associated chemicals, such as bisphenol A, show correlations with chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. We are talking about serious contamination. Action on plastic waste in our oceans requires us to reflect very carefully on the price we pay for plastic pollution—and the price our oceans pay.

Traces of microplastics have even been found in the placentas of pregnant women and in human blood. The risks of microplastics for human health cannot be ignored any longer. Does the hon. Member agree that we must end the plastic pollution of our water for our own health, as well as for the environment?

It is the case that we are polluting our oceans, poisoning our marine life and, ultimately, poisoning ourselves. I do not think that is too stark a way of putting it. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct.

I am pleased we have had this debate, but the international community needs to take co-ordinated and serious action for marine and human health. I am looking forward to the Minister telling us what the UK Government will do, and what international efforts she believes can be made, led by the UK, in this regard. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing the debate, because it is important that we keep a spotlight on the issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for working hard to secure this important debate. As she and others have mentioned, visible signs of plastic pollution are everywhere. In preparing for the debate, I have been struck by the staggering scale of the problem. Each year, the world produces over 350 million tonnes of plastic—a mass that outweighs all living mammals on Earth combined. Projections suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic in our seas than fish. Over the past decade alone we have produced more plastic products than in the entire previous century. In the span of just one human lifetime we have inflicted an unimaginable level of damage to the global environment, particularly our oceans.

Is it not alarming that so much of our produce is packaged in plastic? A supermarket plastic bag serves its purpose for 30 minutes—the duration of an average commute. In a beverage, a straw is used for a mere five minutes, and the lifetime of a plastic stirrer is all of 10 seconds. Despite their fleeting use, those items outlive us by over 400 years. Regrettably, only 9% of all plastic produced has been adequately recycled. That is due in part to degradation of the recycling process. Plastic is functionally recycled often as little as once, meaning that recycling alone will not solve the immense challenges posed by plastic pollution.

For plastic to be recycled it needs to be free from food residue. Plastic bottles need to be crushed and their caps removed. Some containers use two or more different plastics, which must be separated either manually or by specialist equipment. That complexity creates a significant bottleneck in the recycling process. Most material recovery facilities do not even have the technology to process flexible packaging, leading those items often to end up in landfill or to be incinerated. Does the Minister agree that the sheer diversity of different plastic materials remains an issue that is yet to be fully addressed, and that we should aim for a zero-waste society, prioritising reduction and reuse over downstream interventions such as recycling?

Turning to the effect of plastic pollution on our natural world, we are all too aware of the devastation that it wreaks on marine life. Turtles choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Those who have seen David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” will have witnessed albatrosses feeding floating rice bags to hungry chicks, having found them in the remotest reaches of the South Atlantic. Our fishermen’s livelihoods are also suffering acutely from plastic pollution. North sea fishermen on average spend two hours each week cleaning their nets of marine litter. At a time when food security is of paramount importance, we simply cannot afford to neglect the health of our seas.

It is not only our oceans that suffer. Before it reaches the sea, plastic pollution affects our own health. With the convenience of food delivery apps, ordering food directly to our home has become easier than ever before. However, when hot food is placed in those containers, chemicals from the packaging can leak into the food, and subsequently our bodies. One article that I read citing research by World Wildlife Fund International suggested—I think the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) read the same research—that we may be ingesting up to 5 grams of plastic a week. It is shocking that it is the equivalent of eating a credit card.

Bisphenol A, or BPA—a hormone disruptor used in polycarbonate plastics—can mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body and interfere with the normal functioning of hormones. In high heat, or after multiple uses, plastic can degrade, releasing BPA into our food and water supplies. Plastic bottles with that chemical in them are everywhere. They can be found in rivers, on beaches and littering our streets. Fizzy drinks alone produced 90,000 tonnes of single-use plastic in 2019. I am glad that there has been a movement towards drinking tap water in restaurants as opposed to bottled beverages. Many products packaged in unrecyclable plastic do not form part of a healthy diet, so that shift is welcome from a health perspective, but what more can we do?

Interestingly, the majority of people are aware of our plastic waste problem. However, the extent to which different individuals, communities and nations are committed to addressing the problem varies hugely. In the UK, we are taking steps to tackle unnecessary plastic waste domestically, such as banning microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, and the forthcoming ban on plastic cutlery and plates from October is another encouraging development. It is heartening to see local government, as well as social and environmental groups, actively preventing, monitoring and collecting the plastics that cause marine pollution, yet there is much more we can do to lead the global response to this global issue.

Current commitments will result in only a 7% reduction in the annual discharge of plastic into the ocean by 2040. The increase in plastic production has not been mirrored by a corresponding increase in recycling rates. Once plastic enters the ocean, it is very difficult to retrieve. While new technologies can capture larger marine debris, small plastic items and microplastics are virtually impossible to recover, especially when they sink deep into the ocean, so prevention is the best solution. We need consistent rules for recycling. More importantly, we must shift the narrative to focus on reduction and alternative systems to traditional recycling models. Only then can we achieve meaningful change and a significant reduction in plastic pollution in our oceans.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this debate. I will spend a few moments thinking about the local, national and international aspects of plastic pollution in the oceans.

Turning first to local things, plastic pollution in my part of Devon is being dealt with by enthusiastic activists. We have a brilliant team of volunteers called Plastic Free Seaton, and while many of us were recovering from the King’s coronation celebrations on 8 May, they were celebrating the national day of volunteering. When some of us were perhaps clearing up disposable plastic plates or polystyrene cups, the group, including Seaton’s scouts and guides, were out there in the rain on Seaton beach doing brilliant work clearing up the waste that had been left behind.

Looking beyond Seaton, we have similar initiatives such as Plastic Free Ottery and Turn Lyme Green. Thinking about the point made about fishermen and our seas, the fishing fleet at Beer would desperately like us to deal with the issue better. I also pay tribute to Sidmouth Plastic Warriors and the excellent campaigning force that is Denise Bickley. She and others have gathered a group of 724 people in Sidmouth who regularly clean up our beaches, and they will be doing so at Sea Fest this Saturday afternoon.

As national legislators, we should be thinking global and acting local. The hon. Member for North Devon pointed out that 80% of marine plastic comes from the land, and that is not just true of desirable items—those plastic things we might want to use—but occasionally true of those things that we do not want. For example, anyone who finds a parking penalty attached to their car will see that it is wrapped in plastic.

The particular scourge that I want to discuss this afternoon is cigarette butts. Cigarette butts contain a filter that is made of a polymer called cellulose acetate, which breaks down in the sea and contributes to the microplastics that we have heard so much about. I have heard the argument that filters are there for a reason, and we might suppose there are health benefits to the smoker. However, the science I have read suggests that one of the reasons cigarette companies use plastic filters is to keep the cigarette rigid. In economics, there is a concept called moral hazard, whereby if someone is told that there is a mitigating factor in what they are doing, they might do more of it. I think that is true of smoking through a filter. If someone thinks the filter is protecting their health, they might be inclined to smoke more cigarettes. It might, therefore, actually be worse for public health than not having a plastic filter at all.

We have heard about the damage to our marine life, and cigarette butts also play a role in that. A cigarette butt will tend to float on the surface of the sea, and sea life will mistake it for a morsel of food and ingest it. We might think that vaping is the future and somehow the solution, but even single-use vaping products have hardened plastic and disposable cartridges. On the subject of smoking and vaping, we have to think about producer responsibility, where the producer has to pay.

We have talked about the local and national contexts. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a more ambitious target: the end of non-essential single-use plastics by 2025. We would like to see the ban on stirrers and cutlery to be extended to polystyrene plates and, in the fullness of time, cups as well. We would like to see the creation of an independent advisory committee on plastics pollution to advise the Government on policy and dates for the phasing out of various types of plastic. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a more ambitious target for addressing plastic pollution than that set out in the Government’s Environment Act 2021, which in many respects will not be enforced until 2037.

Above all, I would like to see an end to plastic exports. Although we can talk about what we would like to do on regulation and legislation in the UK, this is a global problem. Given that the oceans account for 70% of the surface of the planet, we need to ensure that we are not causing harm overseas as well as in our own country. I am curious to hear from the Minister whether the Government wish to introduce regulations on cigarette butts, given that I have heard from people working for a plastic-pollution-free east Devon that it is cigarette butts that are a particular scourge for our beaches in the west country.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this much-needed debate, as well as Members who have made valuable points on how the world uses plastic.

Plastic has been one of the world’s most valuable inventions. It is durable and flexible and has myriad uses. It has reduced product weight, increased the life cycles of materials and massively reduced waste, all of which have huge environmental benefits. However, its very durability and strength means that we have created a monster, as others have said. Having been on nurdle hunts on beaches and shores around the Forth estuary, I have witnessed the devastation that these nurdles have caused. I remember someone saying in a debate a while ago that seabirds are now picking up these plastic nurdles and feeding them to their young, which means that they are filled up but starving to death. That is an awful image.

Around the world, nearly 460 megatonnes of plastic were produced in 2019, and that number is expected to grow by 267% by 2060, which is not that far away. In parallel, plastic waste is predicted to increase from 353 megatonnes in 2019 by some 287% by 2060. The predictions are that mismanaged waste will increase and the number will grow to an alarming 533% by 2060. Meanwhile, the plastic waste emitted annually to the hydrosphere is expected to increase by 2060 from 6.1 megatonnes to 11.6 megatonnes, which is about 190%. It is nearly doubling. Eventually, 22% of the plastic entering the hydrosphere enters the ocean. That number will increase to 29% by 2060. These statistics are verified by the OECD global plastics report.

Trillions of pieces of plastic drift in our oceans. They eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean, killing life and, as has been said, creating ocean “deserts”, or they gather in vast floating patches of plastic hundreds of square kilometres in size. The largest one, the great Pacific garbage patch, is estimated to cover an area equivalent to three times the size of France. That is a very scary image. The plastic is then broken down into many millions of small pieces, which float down the water column, making it more and more difficult to remove.

The plastic has four main negative effects. First, it harms marine ecosystems irrevocably. Nearly 700 marine species are negatively affected by plastic in the oceans, including 100 listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered, such as the Hawaiian monk seal, the hawksbill sea turtle and the Galapagos petrel. Moreover, the plastic brings horrifically invasive species into the ecosystem. Secondly, as it breaks down into microplastics, it is eaten by fish and potentially ends up in our food systems, with the health implications that everybody has mentioned—I do not think this is in doubt; it is actually happening now—for humans and particularly for children and babies, given how they are fed. Thirdly, the plastic has economic implications, impacting shipping through propellor entanglement and other marine activities, especially fishing, and undermining tourist areas. Fourthly and importantly, there is a growing body of research showing that by reducing oxygen in the water and thereby the amount of life that oceans can sustain, the plastic almost certainly reduces the ability of oceans to store carbon and therefore combat climate change.

I wish to take this opportunity to compliment the Ocean Cleanup organisation, which has advised me and others on the worrying waste that we are producing. The Ocean Cleanup proposes undertaking what may be considered the largest high seas clean-up in history. Its mission is to remove 90% of floating plastic in the ocean by 2040. The whole project is based on scientific research. To efficiently address the issue, we need to understand where the plastic is, what it consists of and, crucially, where it comes from.

To reiterate what others have said, 26 academic partners on five continents are seeking to understand the ocean garbage patches, and numerous scientific institutions have produced 49 scientific publications in different peer-reviewed journals. There is great interest in this. Using computational modelling, the Ocean Cleanup crew estimates in which areas the circulating currents are creating plastic hotspots. As has been said, artificial intelligence is used while further research is conducted in the field of spaceborne plastic detection in collaboration with the European Space Agency, ARGANS Ltd and other spatial sector organisations. It is reassuring that people are tackling this huge problem. Research shows that it takes up to seven years for plastic emitted into the oceans to make it to the GPGP. The plastic there can survive for decades; it degrades by about 1% per annum.

To clean the oceans and address legacy plastic, Governments need to focus on areas where there is most recoverable plastic, which is in the ocean gyres—the permanent current systems, which trap plastic debris. As I said, the largest and best known patch is the great Pacific garbage patch, and that is where efforts are being focused. A trawler-type solution has been crafted. It pulls a semi-circular, 4-metre-high net system slowly, as the hon. Member for North Devon said, through the garbage patch and into a funnel—the retention zone—which takes the plastic on to ships to be taken back to shore. I have watched videos of that; it is very impressive, and very dangerous.

To protect our oceans, stopping the leakage of future plastic pollution from rivers is the best form of prevention. We are talking about interceptor systems to prevent plastic from entering the seas. With a focus on the rivers that research has shown pump the most plastic into our oceans, there has been work with national, regional and, importantly, local governments to create a range of tailored interceptor systems—suited to rivers that are tidal or not, have deltas or do not, are slow-flowing or fast-flowing, deep or shallow, and so on. There are 12 interceptors now in place in different types of rivers in south-east Asia and the Caribbean, as the hon. Member mentioned.

The encouraging news, which gives us all some hope, is that the Ocean Cleanup organisation has signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations development programme to collaborate on eliminating plastic pollution in our oceans and rivers around the globe. The goal of that partnership is simply to reduce leakages of plastic into marine ecosystems by boosting policies and, particularly, behaviour change aimed at advancing sound plastic waste management systems and reducing overall plastic pollution, and accelerating the deployment of interception technologies in rivers to end marine plastic pollution. Let us hope that they and their partners, and all Governments, are successful in their objectives to clean up our treasured oceans and protect them for our future generations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this hugely important debate, which is so well timed ahead of the treaty negotiations next week, and on the day that the water companies have listened to huge anger from the public and Labour MPs over sewage spills. There were 301,000 in the UK in the last year alone. English water companies have apologised and said, “More should have been done”. Many would say that that sums up the Government’s policy over the last 13 years—surely, more should have been done. However, it is heartening to see cross-party agreement this afternoon about the need to tackle plastic pollution and the damage that it does to our oceans. I thank all the Members who have spoken today.

This afternoon, I am speaking in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), who is attending to a family commitment in Newport. Given my campaigning on plastic in wet wipes, for example, and as a WWF ocean champion MP, I am hugely grateful to have this opportunity to talk about Labour’s commitment to preserving our planet and protecting our environment.

We have reached a critical point, and I am here today to impress on the Minister how serious the situation has become. The facts speak for themselves. According to the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance, 12 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year, where they become a hazard for marine wildlife and make their way up the food chain and on to our dinner plates. Plastic production is increasing. The carbon that that uses and the pollution that it causes is also increasing and damaging our oceans. Only Government action can counter the power of the plastics industry and do what our constituents want, which is to save and protect our oceans.

I welcome the calls for the UK to use its position on the world stage to deliver the UN global plastic treaty. It is imperative, however, that the treaty offers all workers across the plastics supply chain the opportunity to transition to sustainable jobs. Does the shadow Minister agree that the UN global plastic treaty must be inclusive and recognise the interests of indigenous people?

I absolutely agree. The writing needs to be on the wall for the plastics industry. We need to say that creating more and more virgin plastic is just not acceptable, and there needs to be a transition to a future and to a green jobs revolution across the world, as we hope to have in this country.

I thank all of the ocean activists who have campaigned for our oceans, including Surfers Against Sewage, the Marine Conservation Society, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WRAP, and David Attenborough and his “Blue Planet” programme, which several Members have mentioned. I also thank the Putney Tidy Towpath group and Thames21 in my constituency, who clean up our beautiful River Thames. I thank all the equivalent groups across the country who do so much work to clean up our rivers. They want to know what is happening at a Government level so that they do not have to keep coming back and picking up the plastic week after week. They are watching this debate very closely.

So many children in schools have asked me about this issue. I have been to many classrooms where there are ocean animals swinging from the roofs and pictures on the walls. We have had so many questions from children; we know that it matters to people across the country, but especially to children.

No one doubts the importance of plastic to the modern global economy, and it has transformed human life in many positive ways. However, this is the bottom line: our production and consumption habits, coupled with the current waste management systems, are totally unsustainable, and we are heading towards an irreversible environmental catastrophe if we do not take action.

If we continue on the current trajectory, the OECD estimates that global plastic production will double by 2040. In the UK alone, it is estimated that 5 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, nearly half of which is packaging. We cannot detach plastic from climate change. Plastic is highly carbon-intensive to produce. According to a study published in the journal, Nature, last year, plastics are responsible for 4.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing about 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually. Tackling plastic production means saving the planet.

We also know that 100 million marine animals die each year from plastic waste alone, according to the Marine Conservation Society, ranging from birds to fish to other marine organisms. It is a disgraceful state of affairs and we must all do more, go further and try harder to preserve our planet and protect our environment.

With recycling rates where they are and with most plastics single use, it is no surprise that plastic is oozing its way into our water at an unprecedented rate, and 80% of marine pollution originates on land. We cannot rely on beach and river clean-ups to keep our beaches tidy. We need to take holistic and co-ordinated action to end plastic pollution.

As many Members have pointed out, plastic pollution is far-reaching. It is found everywhere—in all parts of the world—from fresh Antarctic snow to the deepest ocean trenches. The pollution that we see on our streets and our beaches is just the tip of the iceberg.

Plastic pollution harms human and animal health. Plastic has been found in human blood, mothers’ placentas, whales’ stomachs and numerous fish, sea birds and other marine animals. The World Wide Fund for Nature believes that a human could ingest about 5 grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent of a credit card, just because of the way it moves through our food chain. We might literally be eating a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.

Plastic pollution of the ocean obviously crosses borders as well, so we need to do all we can in the UK. However, without leading successful global action, we will not save the oceans. Half measures from the Government simply will not wash.

One issue that the Minister will not be surprised to hear me mention is how Government action can protect our environment through banning plastic in wet wipes. In 2019, 11 billion wet wipes were used across the United Kingdom, and 90% of them contained some form of plastic. The use of wet wipes has increased enormously since then, because of covid and additional hygiene uses.

Wet wipes with plastic in do not break down; they pollute our rivers and oceans, harm wildlife and clog up our sewers. Tesco and Boots have stopped all sales of wet wipes with plastic in them. They have led the way on that and shown what can be done. A ban, however, would create a level playing field for businesses and make action go further and faster.

The Government promised to take action to ban plastic in wet wipes in 2018. They held a consultation on that and on other single-use plastics, which closed in February last year. I welcome the announcement that, from October, there will be a ban on other single-use plastics, such as plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, polystyrene cups and food containers, but we now need to know the date for the ban on plastic in wet wipes. It could have been included in the Environment Act 2021 or in the water strategy, with an actual date, but there is still no ban. I hope to hear more from the Minister on this issue later.

The Government should go further and faster to preserve our planet and protect our environment, as a Labour Government under my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) will do. In Labour-run Wales, the Welsh Government, under First Minister Mark Drakeford, have committed to banning a range of single-use plastics. Their long-standing commitment to reduce waste and unnecessary plastic is outlined in their circular economy strategy, “Beyond Recycling”, which aims to have a zero-waste Wales by 2050.

That is important, because it is about priorities, focus and action, and I am sorry to say that priorities, focus and action have not been the order of the day with this Government in Westminster. The Conservatives have been in power for 13 long years, but have left the agencies that should tackle waste and pollution underfunded and understaffed. No wonder we have not seen the action that we need. We have seen the mess that has been caused with sewage pollution. The Environment Agency has struggled to tackle waste crime and monitor waste exports, and councils are struggling to deal with waste effectively while cutting waste collections. Government Members shamefully voted against Labour’s amendments to the Finance Act 2021 on a plastic packaging tax, which would have required the Government to pay due regard to the principles of waste hierarchy and a circular economy. The Conservatives are weak on tackling the effects and causes of all waste. Labour would take the issue seriously. Action is a no-brainer, and we have to get on with it.

I have seven questions for the Minister. First, as I am sure she is aware, in 2018, the UK launched the Commonwealth clean ocean alliance with Vanuatu, which brings together 34 Commonwealth countries in the fight to tackle plastic pollution. Can she update us on the progress that the programme has made, and what the next steps are? Secondly, will she consider bringing forward a national action plan for tackling plastic pollution to increase the focus and action on this issue?

Thirdly, will the Minister give an update on progress towards the deposit return scheme? Fourthly, she will know that plastic packaging accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste. When was the last time the Government sat down with manufacturers and worked on a road map for eliminating plastic packaging in food and other products, thereby driving down plastic production?

Fifthly, have there been discussions with the Secretary of State for Education regarding the role of schools in tackling plastic pollution? They have a huge role to play. Sixthly, can the Minister provide more detail on the upcoming ban on plastic in wet wipes that was announced in April, and will she meet me and my shadow Environment colleagues to discuss it? Finally, can she give an assessment of how well the Government’s environment plan is working in relation to reaching their target of eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, and whether she feels that target is ambitious enough in the light of the need to save our oceans?

Our oceans are precious. Plastic pollution is irreversible, drives biodiversity loss, and has a devastating impact on marine and human life. Without dramatically reducing plastic production and use, it will be impossible to end plastic pollution in our oceans. Banning plastic in wet wipes is widely supported by the public, MPs, retailers and producers. Last year, 250,000 people from across the UK, including more than 9,000 school students and 36 MPs, including myself, took part in the Big Plastic Count. Such actions show the public demand for action. The public are on board and so are the Opposition. We are just waiting on the Government. If they do not have the appetite for it, we will provide the plans if they step aside.

I thank the hon. Member for North Devon for bringing this critical matter to the House. I am so glad that we have had this debate, especially this week. I assure her that she has an ally in the Labour party if she wants real, ambitious and comprehensive change and protection for our natural world.

Thank you, Sir Christopher. You might be pleased to hear that I may not go on for half an hour, but that will give a little time for my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) to respond. I thank her for bringing this matter before the House. She is a great champion for her constituency, particularly on subjects connected with water and the coast. I do not think that anyone could ask for more on that front. She has to be praised for all the work that she has done, and particularly for bringing this subject for us to debate today.

While Members across the House have our differences, there is an awful lot of common ground. Plastic in the ocean is unacceptable, and we have to do something urgently to tackle it. To the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), we have probably all been in and out of schools. It is honestly the No. 1 subject that children want to talk about. I went into Oake, Bradford and Nynehead Primary School the other day, and it was top of the agenda. I share with the children all the things the Government are doing on the environment, on plastics and on waste and recycling. I usually leave them knowing that we are genuinely tackling a lot of these issues, which are so important not just to children but to us all.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon sent a letter to the Secretary of State, and I will respond. I was waiting until today, just in case any matters arose from the debate, but she will get her response very shortly. I thank her for all the work she does in North Devon. I will expand a bit on what we are doing both domestically and internationally, because they work together, as has been highlighted today.

I will make a little progress, just to set the scene.

As Members have said, the annual plastic flow into oceans will triple between 2016 and 2040, which is a pretty shocking thing to think about. Plastic has already had a devastating effect on the environment and it is due to get worse, which is why we have to take urgent action both domestically and internationally. Although it would be wonderful to take out all the plastic in the oceans—we have heard some really good stories about how that has been done in many places, and credit to all the organisations doing that work, many of which are voluntary—the absolute key is to tackle the problem at source and to reduce the amount of plastic going on to the market, so I will talk about that in some detail. It is what the Government’s focus is all about.

Our environmental improvement plan 2023 states that we have targets for reducing all forms of marine plastic pollution where possible, and our 2018 resources and waste strategy sets out how we will do that. In our environment improvement plan, we have set a target of achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. How will we do all that? There is a step-by-step process, and it will be done through a whole range of measures that focus on maximising resource efficiency; reusing, recycling and reducing the overall amount of plastic on the market; and keeping what plastic we do use—because there are no doubt some really important uses of plastic—in the circular economy for much longer. As we have heard from various colleagues, the key element of our packaging and waste regime and reforms is the extended producer responsibility scheme, which puts the onus on the manufacturer that places the packaging on the market and makes them responsible for its lifecycle and where it ends up. We also have the deposit return scheme, which has been mentioned by a number of colleagues. It is due to start in October 2025, but intensive work is being done on both schemes right now.

I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon about Scotland. We obviously welcome the involvement of the devolved Administrations, because it would all be much simpler if we had the same scheme. We are working very closely together. Scotland’s scheme has been held up, but we are working to progress ours as quickly as possible. The third element is our consistent collection, so that we collect the same products from our local authorities. That will help us to get good-quality recyclates, and it will help the whole system to work effectively. We are pressing on with that and will shortly announce the results of our consultation. I will also slip in at this point that we will also announce our consultation on the ban of wet wipes shortly. I recognise that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney, has done a lot of work on this issue, as have many people in this room and other colleagues across the House.

The Liberal Democrat Member, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), mentioned his party’s policies for recycling. He seemed to be slightly behind the curve; we are already introducing all of the schemes to tackle plastic packaging and plastic waste. We are well on the case, and realise how important those schemes are.

We have done a lot already. We have significantly reduced major supermarket retailers’ use of single-use carrier bags, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, by over 97%. That was enabled, or triggered, by the 5p charge. We have since introduced the 10p charge and extended it to all retailers. That is really making the extra difference we need on carrier bags.

The Minister says that the Government have already taken account of the proposals I talked about on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Does that include the points I made about cigarette butts? Will she tell us what the Government are doing to crack down on cigarette butts in the ocean?

Yes. I have spent a lot of time working on cigarette butts as well. They are a nasty, poisonous, polluting litter item. In fact, in terms of numbers of items littered, they are the largest. A lot of work has been done on that front. We work very closely with WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—on options for tackling the littering of cigarette butts, which include making the industry more responsible for the cost of dealing with them. We are considering next steps now. The hon. Member may not be aware that, with the stick hanging over the industry, it has come up with £30 million to voluntarily deal with cigarette butt littering. We will watch closely to see how that proceeds.

In October 2020, we introduced measures to restrict the supply of plastic straws, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) mentioned, as well as plastic drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, which we did ahead of the EU. We are building on that progress with our recently announced bans on single-use plastic plates, bowls, trays, containers, cutlery and balloon sticks from this October. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent reminded us, quite starkly, why we need to do this—those things stay in the environment for so long; she gave the figure of 400 years. We are doing absolutely the right thing in bringing in those bans. As time progresses, we will review those bans to see whether they are effective and to make sure that we have the right processes in place—I think the shadow Minister asked about that.

The form of marine litter with the greatest known impact on marine life is abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost gear. That has been estimated to cause a decline of between 5% and 30% in some fish stocks. The Administrations of the UK are committed to working together, and with industry, through the British Irish Council, to develop solutions for the collection and recycling of end-of-life fishing gear—the gear left lying about on the quayside—of which there is a large quantity. To fulfil that commitment, the UK is reviewing domestic measures for end-of-life fishing and aquaculture gear with the intention of moving the sector towards a circular economy model, finding ways to recycle that material. It is quite complicated, because the gear contains a lot of different materials. We will ensure that any new requirements do not create a competitive disadvantage for our fishing industry.

Regional sea conventions can also play a key role in co-ordinating action, sharing knowledge and monitoring the state of the ocean, and as a contracting party to OSPAR—the regional seas convention for the protection of the north-east Atlantic—the UK participates in monitoring programmes to assess regional trends in marine litter and develops and takes action in co-operation with our nearest neighbours. In 2021, OSPAR contracting parties agreed the north-east Atlantic environment strategy. The strategy has a number of objectives on tackling marine litter in the north-east Atlantic, including a strategic objective to prevent inputs of, and significantly reduce, marine litter, including microplastics in the marine environment. Under the strategic objective, contracting parties also agreed to publish an updated regional action plan on marine litter, which was published in 2022.

The strong programme of domestic and regional action means that the UK is well placed to be a leading voice in tackling plastic pollution on the wider international stage. The UK was proud to co-sponsor the proposal to prepare a new international, legally binding plastic pollution treaty, which was agreed in the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2022.

With Malaysia’s high contribution to plastic pollution, and its status as a comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership country, does the Minister believe that our recent accession to the bloc could be a good opportunity to drive environmental change with trading partners?

One of our key focuses is on environmental protection. We are doing a great deal of work, as I am outlining, on the international stage to work with our partners, and influence them on things that we are doing at home—demonstrating that a lot of those things can be done nationally. The aim is to reduce, reuse, recycle, and limit the amount of plastic going on to the market in the first place.

The process for negotiating the new agreement that the UK co-sponsored is under way. The first intergovernmental negotiating committee was in November last year. The UK took an ambitious stance on that, supporting a treaty that will restrain the production and consumption of plastic, address plastic design and encourage more recycling and reuse. Those are the things we think are critical.

The UK is also a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, which is a group of 50 countries that are calling for a target under the treaty to stop plastic from flowing into the environment by 2040. That very much reflects our approach at home. We reiterated that commitment at the recent G7 meeting in Japan, where all G7 nations committed to ending plastic pollution, with the ambition to reduce additional plastic pollution to zero by 2040. We are going to continue to push for ambition at future negotiation sessions, including the forthcoming one in Paris, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon. My officials and I will go to that, and we are hoping for real, useful progress there. Every colleague in the Chamber has mentioned the importance of international treaties and work.

We already support a range of initiatives to remove or remediate plastic in the marine environment. We support the Fishing for Litter initiative and many other local schemes. Fishing for Litter is a voluntary, unpaid litter bycatch removal scheme for commercial fishermen, run by KIMO, a network of local authorities, which provides fishing boats with bags to dispose of marine-sourced litter collected during normal fishing operations. Fishing for Litter South West England is currently funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s fisheries and seafood scheme. In 2018, we also changed marine licensing measures to make it easier for divers to recover marine litter, including fishing gear. That is something they highlighted to us, and we had to make a tweak to enable them to be able to do that and safely dispose of it when they brought the litter back on to land.

Under the OSPAR Commission’s regional action plan for marine litter, the UK works with other contracting parties to implement actions. The plan includes an action to prevent, locate and handle abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.

I also agree with the importance of monitoring plastic pollution. The UK co-funds the Marine Conservation Society’s recording of litter from sections of our coast. That helps us to monitor plastic pollution levels and trends. That data is used in combination with other monitoring data to measure the impact of our policies and inform our decisions about how to tackle marine litter. Its information was really useful in informing our work and regulation on the ban of cotton buds. We looked at the things that rocked up most frequently on beaches, which included balloon sticks and so forth.

I note the valuable work done by the Ocean Cleanup, which is an interesting initiative. I cannot say that we have a pot of money to put into that, but we are certainly grateful for the work it does and we are obviously looking very closely at what will proceed from that.

We are working closely with other countries around the world to understand how to tackle legacy plastic pollution through the treaty. As mentioned, we are working hard to prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first place by making producers responsible for their plastic.

We are also supporting a lot of other international action. In 2021, the then Prime Minister announced the new £500 million blue planet fund, which lots of colleagues are familiar with. The fund aims to protect and enhance the marine environment and reduce poverty. It includes a focus on tackling marine pollution and supporting coastal communities. That point was raised; we have to bring the communities along with us in all that.

Through the UK’s blue planet fund, we are working with the Global Plastic Action Partnership to take collaborative action on tackling pollution in developing countries, including Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam. Through that partnership, the UK is supporting the creation of national roadmaps to address plastic pollution, which outline the action, finance and innovation needed to achieve national commitments. In Indonesia, for example, the partnership is working towards a target of reducing mismanaged waste by 70% by 2025.

The blue planet fund’s ocean country partnership programme is also supporting countries to tackle, reduce and mitigate marine pollution through the development of science-led policy and the strengthening of marine expertise. Everything must be science based. That is what they are working on.

The UK also appreciates the critical role that young people play in paving the way for change. Since 2019, we have supported the United Nations Environment Programme’s Tide Turners plastic challenge badge. That has developed a community of over 500,000 young people doing work on plastic pollution.

The UK also contributes to PROBLUE, the World Bank’s multi-donor trust, which supports the sustainable and integrated development of marine and coastal resources. A key component of that is prevention and management of marine pollution. PROBLUE projects aim to address the threats posed by such pollution, including litter, plastics and land-based sources that are contributing to what goes into our seas. Additionally, the UK co-chairs the Commonwealth clean ocean alliance alongside Vanuatu. I think the shadow Minister mentioned that. We work very closely with them on the Commonwealth blue charter’s action groups. We have delivered the Commonwealth litter programme, which is delivering scientific technical assistance across all Commonwealth countries. It is proceeding very constructively.

I have just a couple of questions left to answer. I think I have answered the question about the evaluation of the effectiveness of our bans because we have to qualitatively and quantitively analyse the difference that our policies are making. We are committed to doing that, and we are evaluating the impact of the plastic straw ban. The timing of that evaluation is dependent on our progress in introducing our other packaging reforms, but it is currently scheduled for 2026-27.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) is a great advocate of the work on plastics and microplastics. He always talks about nurdles, and he did not fail to do so today. They are pre-production plastic pellets—the raw materials used in the production of plastic items—and they can be lost all over the place. It is shocking how much we find them on our beaches and in the sea. In 2019, the British-Irish Council recognised the need to address that source of microplastics, and it committed to learn from a trial supply chain approach that is taking place in Scotland. We are watching that carefully. The Administration supported the development of a publicly available specification developed by the British Standards Institution, which set out how businesses handling or managing the pellets can reduce pellet loss. It is the first initiative of its kind, and it was published in July 2021.

Hon. Members raised overseas exports of plastic waste. We plan to consult later this year on options to ban the export of plastic waste to countries that are not members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Government have committed to that, and it is being rolled out.

I hope I have demonstrated the enormous amount of work that is being done on this front, but that is not to say that there is not an enormous amount to do. There is: this is a huge problem. We are taking action domestically through the new initiatives that we are rolling out. They are a game-changer for lots of people and local authorities, so we will have to bring people with us. I think we will do so, because there is such a positive attitude towards reducing our plastic waste.

I once again thank everyone who took part in the debate. It is good to get this issue on the agenda. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon for securing it.

Again, it has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank all hon. Members, and particularly the Minister, for participating. The Minister’s extensive speech demonstrated the volume of work that the Government have undertaken and continue to undertake to clean up our vital oceans.

I particularly thank the Ocean Cleanup team—João Ribeiro-Bidaoui is in the Public Gallery. The video of the work that it is undertaking in the Pacific—I understand that the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) has seen it—is very compelling. I urge Members and anyone else who cares to do so to join us on 13 September in the Churchill Room. There will be a live transmission by the founder of the Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat, from the Pacific as he works on the ships cleaning up the ocean.

We have a real opportunity to do more on the global stage. Great Britain really could rule the waves on this one.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of reducing plastic pollution in the ocean.

Sitting suspended.