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Single-use Plastics

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

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

Cheap and disposable single-use plastics have become a symbol of our throwaway culture—they are cheap, convenient and now pervade every part of our lives—but that also means that they have contaminated every part of our environment, where they take centuries to break down. They often break down into tiny microplastics that are having a catastrophic impact on biodiversity and human health.

Plastics can be found in ever-increasing quantities everywhere, from the top of Mount Everest to the deep ocean trench. The UK produces the second highest amount of plastic waste per capita, with supermarkets producing 900,000 tonnes of plastic every year at the last count. With production increasing, that figure is set to rise.

The UK public have long been ahead of politicians on this issue and have proven time and again their deep concern for the plastics crisis and their determination to find solutions. That was highlighted most recently in a massive citizen science project, the Big Plastic Count, run by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic. More than 220,000 individuals and schoolchildren agreed to count their plastic for a week, to record the scale of the problem and find out where their waste was being disposed of. Fifty MPs also signed up to take part, and I was proud to be one of them.

The project uncovered that the UK throws away 1.7 billion pieces of plastic every year, but only 17% of that is recycled. The vast majority—58% of it—is burned in UK incinerators, which are often located in deprived neighbourhoods, producing toxic air pollution and often more greenhouse gases per tonne burned than coal. That is a shocking statistic, and a large part of why the plastics industry is contributing such a huge amount to climate change. The industry now produces more greenhouse gases than the entire aviation industry.

Time and again, surveys have confirmed the strength of public feeling when it comes to plastics, and in particular their frustration with single-use plastics. A study by the University of Birmingham earlier this year found the UK public to be more concerned about the threat to society posed by plastic pollution than the coronavirus pandemic or future pandemics, terrorism, economic collapse, natural disasters or artificial intelligence. Plastic-related issues top the list of environmental problems that the UK public want to tackle—plastic in the ocean is first, and the amount produced is second.

A different poll found that 74% of UK residents agreed that, to stop plastic pollution, we need to cut plastic production. When we look globally, it is clear that the problem has grown out of control: global plastic production doubled between 2000 and 2019, and it is anticipated nearly to triple by 2050. A study that came out this week projected that the plastics industry will consume 21% to 26% more of the Earth’s remaining carbon budget to keep warming below 1.5°C—and that was a conservative estimate.

All that means, of course, is that we must design a solution that is appropriate for the enormity of the problem at hand. That means a solution that is global, which requires international co-operation; one that forces companies and Governments to change their behaviour, and one that addresses plastic pollution across its full life cycle from extraction to disposal.

As we speak, countries around the world are attending the fourth round of the United Nations negotiations to try to agree a plastics treaty, but that process currently hangs in the balance. Oil producing countries and fossil fuel and chemical companies are out in force at the negotiations, using all their power, resources and wealth to try to obstruct the process and prevent any deal that would put a limit on the amount of plastic that gets produced. For those companies, the plastics industry represents a lifeline as the world looks to replace oil and gas as an energy source. The global plastics treaty needs to secure a global, legally binding target to cut plastic production radically.

The Liberal Democrats are serious about tackling the problem. We want to end plastic exports by 2030. In a previous Session, my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) introduced a Bill that would have set a 2025 target to end non-essential single-use plastics as well as a statutory long-term target to cut plastic waste and pollution significantly by 2042 by phasing out all but the most essential use of plastic. I am deeply concerned that the Government targets on plastic pollution, as set out in the Environment Act 2021, will not be enforced until 2037, leaving the Government 13 years to delay taking action. We are pushing for punitive measures for the Government if they do not achieve the targets.

While the Government say some of the right things on the plastics treaty, we have yet to see confirmation that they will push for a genuinely ambitious outcome, particularly on plastic production. To be clear, the Government have announced their intention to “restrain and reduce” plastic production, but they must go much further and call for a radical target for reduction. They also must provide explicit confirmation that such a target should be legally binding, rather than leaving each country to decide voluntarily how much it will do and when, and they must confirm that such a target should address every single form of plastic production without loopholes, not just those containing the most harmful and toxic elements. The absolute priority in the negotiations is that we must stop the problem at source. That will make our air cleaner, and our parks, green spaces and beaches free from plastic. It will protect wildlife and biodiversity, and help us stay within 1.5°C of global warming.

Although it is crucial to recognise the importance of tackling the issue on a global scale, I would also like to recognise some of the important actions we can take at home. In my constituency we are incredibly lucky to have the Carymoor Environmental Trust, which works to educate children on the impacts of waste on the environment. It runs a session called “fantastic plastic” which looks at the environmental impacts of plastic and ways to avoid single-use plastics. Since 2018 the project has worked with over 58,000 children in Somerset. Since 1996, Carymoor has regenerated 80 acres of a capped landfill site into a beautiful nature reserve and welcomes around 100 schools a year to its visitor centre, where it gives advice on using reusable containers for drinks instead of single-use plastic alternatives.

That wonderful example of local educational work needs to be supplemented by Government policy, and I have been pleased by some of the Government’s intentions. Their reformed extended producer responsibility system will put the full cost of collecting, sorting, recycling and disposing of household packaging waste on producers rather than local authorities. It is a step in the right direction, despite being hampered by delays meaning it will not begin until at least March 2025. Local authorities will also be required to collect flexible plastics and films from household waste by March 2027.

Somerset has been preparing for the introduction of these new waste regulations and recently Somerset Council has taken part in a flexible plastics trial. As a proud serving Somerset councillor, I was very pleased by its success. Around 3,600 properties around Frome in my constituency took part and each household was provided with blue transparent bags in which to present their flexible plastic waste. The response has been positive, with over 65% of residents regularly participating in the trial. Just under 500 kg of material was captured each week. If we consider the light weight of this type of plastic, we get an idea of the sheer volume of it that is used each week.

The take-up of the trial demonstrates that there is an appetite among residents to increase their recycling output, and polling from Reloop has found that 83% of the British public express very high levels of support for recycling. However, one issue is the UK’s current lack of suitable recycling infrastructure for flexible plastics. They are expensive to recycle and more work is required on the end-market side to create the infrastructure to make this type of recycling work. Assurances from Government on the cost and support available for local authorities and for industry will help to ensure moves in this direction are a success.

Returning to the recent Big Plastic Count, one participating constituent in Frome told me that they would use 2,000 individual pieces of single-use plastic a year and that it is mostly food packaging. I would like legislation to oblige supermarkets to sell more loose food, which would dramatically reduce unnecessary plastic waste. That would have the twin benefit of cutting down on food waste, as it would encourage consumers to buy what they need, rather than big, pre-packaged bags of fruit and veg. Farmers could also reduce their costly pre-farmgate food waste, which is created when supermarkets mandate certain sizes for fruit and vegetables to fit into their plastic packaging.

The Liberal Democrats have been calling for a ban on non-recyclable single-use plastics. We want to replace them with affordable alternatives, aiming for complete elimination within three years. In my constituency, famers have started to look at ways in which they can eliminate their usage of single-use plastics. For example, Tytherington Milk Station, near Frome, operates four milk vending machines—one at the farm in Tytherington, one in Frome, one just outside my constituency in Warminster, and another in Bath—supplying their customers directly, and reducing the farm’s carbon footprint by reducing plastic waste through the use of refillable glass bottles. My constituency is also home to Bruton Dairy, which started to use steel milk churns in a bid to cut down the amount of plastic used. That has proved so successful that over a 12-month period, the dairy sent out more than 200,000 litres of milk in its churns. Innovations and initiatives of that kind should be celebrated and supported.

Let me now turn to an announcement that the Government made earlier today. Having waited since 2018, when they first announced their intention to launch a deposit return scheme, we have now heard their plans. Polling for Reloop found that 69% of the public supported the introduction of a deposit return scheme, and that 89% believed that the Government had at least a fair amount of responsibility for recycling. Despite the lengthy delays, I welcome the fact that the Government have listened to the public, along with Liberal Democrat support for an all-in deposit scheme, and I hope the Minister will say a little about the scheme in his response.

However, yet again the Government are looking to move too slowly: the scheme is not expected to come into operation until 2027, although international best practice has shown that 18 months should be sufficient to establish such a system. It could potentially save about £11 billion, given the social cost of litter and given higher recycling rates, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 0.46 million tonnes a year by 2032. In the light of those benefits, it is vital for the Government to move fast in delivering this long-awaited scheme. I am also disappointed that they have failed to honour their 2019 manifesto commitment to include glass bottles in such a scheme, but I guess that that promise was made five DEFRA Secretaries of State ago.

The scale of the plastic problem that we face is huge, but I believe we have the tools at our disposal to tackle it. The Government have made the right noises, but now is the time to act, both on the international stage and at home. We know of the devastating impact that climate change and plastic pollution have on our environment, so we must address it as a matter of urgency. The Government have been slow to act in the past, and I hope they will now recognise the urgency that is needed. The UK must take its place as one of the leaders in the global movement to reduce our reliance on single- use plastics, and I hope that through the successful implementation of the measures I have discussed today, we will take important steps forward.

I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) for raising this important issue. The Government are dealing with it, and take it extremely seriously.

We all know of the detrimental impact that single-use plastic can have on society. It makes up much of our plastic waste, and pollutes our landscape and harms our wildlife when it leaks into the environment. This plastic eventually breaks down into microplastics, ending up in our soils, our seas and, unfortunately, our food chain.

Our priority is to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042 and keep plastic in circulation for longer, moving away from a “take, make and throw away” model and towards a circular economy. Single-use plastics do not fit in with the new model and can be particularly problematic, which is why driving a circular economy is incredibly important. They are typically littered or discarded into general waste, rather than being recycled, due to the difficulty in segregating, cleaning and processing them. We want to move away from a culture of single-use plastics and towards one where, if they cannot be designed out, we reuse and repair products as much as possible, before recycling them at the end of their life.

I am sure that all of us, as constituency MPs, have been to many a primary school and heard the challenges brought forward by students, who want us to deal with single-use plastics. They come up with ingenious ideas. This Government are prepared to embrace those ideas and drive the challenge forward. We must recognise, however, that single-use plastics have an important role to play in certain applications. When used in the right way and disposed of correctly, single-use plastics can help us to deliver the best environmental outcome. For example, there is a direct need for single-use plastics for medical or clinical purposes in certain circumstances. We are bringing out policy to drive the circular economy. It is important to take a systematic, evidence-based approach to policy, as we have done thus far, to drive down the use of single-use plastics.

We have already made significant progress in addressing the use of single-use plastics. The latest step, in October 2023, was the Government’s ban on some of these plastics, including cutlery, balloon sticks, expanded polystyrene cups and takeaway food and drink containers—and restrictions on single-use plastic plates, bowls and trays. That builds on measures that we had already put in place. We have one of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, which prevents billions of tiny plastic beads from entering the ocean every single year. We also brought in measures to restrict the supply of plastic straws, plastic drink containers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds from October 2020, and these restrictions have already had an impact. Straws, stirrers and cotton buds used to be in the top 10 littered items on beaches, but this is no longer the case. Having been involved in many a beach clean-up in my lifetime, I am pleased to see that the use of plastic drink containers, plastic stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds has significantly reduced. I am sure that all of us who have taken part in beach clean-ups are happy that that is the case.

The use of single-use carrier bags in the main supermarkets reduced by over 98% through the introduction of the 5p charge. That represents a decrease of over 7 billion carrier bags. In May 2021, we increased the charge to 10p and extended it to all retailers, building on the success of the policy and creating a level playing field for all businesses. Retailers have donated over £206 million to good causes from the proceeds of the charge since its introduction, and we will continue to review the latest evidence on problematic products in order to take a systematic approach to reducing the number of unnecessary single-use plastic products in circulation.

We have also funded ground-breaking research to address this issue through the £60 million smart sustainable plastic packaging challenge. Supported by a £150 million investment from industry, it seeks to make plastic packaging that is fit for a sustainable future. Through the challenge, we have funded numerous UK universities to innovate and drive cleaner growth across the UK’s plastics packaging and recycling systems. That has supported research on reuse systems that tackle single-use approaches head-on. The Government also support the UK plastics pact, a collaborative initiative to create a circular system that keeps plastic in the economy and out of the natural environment. Business members of the UK plastics pact are responsible for 80% of plastic packaging sold through UK supermarkets, and approximately 50% of the total plastic packaging placed on the UK market.

The impact of single-use plastics can of course be felt across the globe, which is why our work on the global stage is incredibly important. We are working with others, such as the global ghost gear initiative, the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance and the tide turners plastic challenge badge scheme, which helps hundreds of thousands of young people to tackle plastic packaging in their communities. Through our £500 million Blue Planet fund, we are investing in initiatives such as the Global Plastic Action Partnership, to support others in making the transition to a more circular economy.

We know we must go further, which is why we are supporting new global agreements to co-ordinate action on plastics. The UK delegation to the UN environment programme is in Ottawa, Canada, at the fourth negotiation round to develop the first binding UN treaty to end plastic pollution. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), in her role as Environment Minister, was there in person on Sunday, championing our plastics work abroad, driving progress in these important negotiations, and sharing this Government’s experience of bringing forward legislation quickly, so that others can benefit from a collaborative approach. As a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, the UK is continuously pushing for an ambitious outcome and an effective UN treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040. This includes pushing for a full-lifecycle approach to plastic, designing out unnecessary and problematic single-use plastics, and promoting a circular economy in plastic.

We have further measures to tackle single-use plastics under development. Our incoming collection and packaging reforms, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) referred to, are central to our mission of promoting resource efficiency, moving toward a more circular economy and away from the single-use model. We are putting in place our extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging, which introduces measures that incentivise producers to make better decisions and be more sustainable in their design and use of plastic packaging. We will ensure that producers pay the cost of managing the plastic that they put on the market, and will incentivise a reduction in single-use plastics by requiring them to pay higher fees for unsustainable packaging.

The hon. Lady spoke about the deposit return scheme. Today, the UK Government have announced an update on the DRS, setting out next steps and reaffirming our commitment to delivering on this important project. Our scheme will drive the transition to a circular economy by investing in recycling, reducing littering, and offering greater opportunities to collect higher-quality materials for recycling. The update confirms interoperability across UK schemes, the delivery timeframe, and the UK Government’s position on glass drink containers and the implications of divergence from the UK internal market.

After working closely with industry and the devolved Administrations, we have refreshed our programme, and we are moving ahead to introduce deposit return schemes for single-use drink containers across the UK by October 2027. We are committed to ensuring that the schemes work, successively and collectively, across the UK. We are reducing complexity for businesses and consumers, and making sure that consumer behaviour is influenced. We have worked closely with devolved Administrations and agreed alignment on various important points, including labelling, reciprocal returns and container sizes.

Although the hon. Lady did not mention banning wet wipes, I will take the opportunity to do so. On Monday this week, we were pleased to announce that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations are to ban the supply and sale of wet wipes containing plastic across the UK. This follows the public consultation held in autumn 2023, in which 95% of respondents supported the proposed ban.

Wet wipes pollute our environment. They have been found in large quantities in beach litter surveys conducted by DEFRA and the Marine Conservation Society. In the period from 2015 to 2020, an average of 20.4 wet wipes per 100 metres were found on UK beaches surveyed. That is completely unacceptable. Wet wipes, both those containing plastic and those classified as plastic free, were the fifth most found item in the 2022 Great British beach clean, which is, again, unacceptable. In 2023, the Marine Conservation Society reported that 21,000 wet wipes were found on UK beaches. Plastic-containing wet wipes break down into smaller pieces in the water environment, contributing towards microplastic pollution, which may be harmful to human and animal health. Banning the supply and sale of plastic-containing wet wipes will significantly reduce the amount of single-use plastic getting into our environment from that source. That is why we made that announcement this week, which delivers on the Government’s commitments.

As part of the Prime Minister’s vision of creating a smoke-free generation, we are tackling the scourge of single-use disposable vapes. That is why, on 10 April, we set draft legislation before the World Trade Organisation for its members to provide us with any comments. We aim to lay our draft legislation before Parliament before the summer recess.

We are well aware of how much of a scourge littering and fly-tipping can be to our communities. As constituency MPs, we are all constantly challenged by fly-tipping. In my Keighley and Ilkley constituency, Bradford Council’s decision to close our local household waste and recycling centres in Ilkley and Sugden End will unfortunately have a detrimental impact in the Worth valley and across my constituency through increased fly-tipping.

The Government are also doing more to clean up our communities that bear the brunt of single-use plastic through fly-tipping. For example, we have significantly raised the upper limit on fixed penalty notices by £1,000 for fly-tipping, and by £500 for littering. As of 1 April 2024, councils have to spend the income from these penalties on enforcement and clean up.

DEFRA is also funding a post in the national rural crime unit, exploring how the police’s role in tackling fly-tipping can be optimised, with a focus on rural areas. This work is part of the Prime Minister’s antisocial behaviour plan, which sets out how we will support councils in taking tougher action against those who pollute our local environment.

We have taken regulatory action, and have supported voluntary action by businesses. We are planning a raft of new regulatory actions to tackle the scourge of single-use plastics. These actions will have positive outcomes, and will build on the work that we have done to date. We have introduced a carrier bag charge; reduced single-use carrier bag consumption by 98%; banned the sale of wet wipes; banned the sale of single-use straws, plastic containers, stirrers and stem cotton buds; introduced a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products; and rolled out further bans on cutlery, balloon sticks, expanded polystyrene cups and takeaway food and drink containers, and restrictions on single-use plastic plates, bowls and trays.

We are making great strides towards a circular economy through our commitment to collection and packaging reforms. We are collaborating with the devolved Administrations on banning the supply and sale of plastic-containing wet wipes across the UK. We are increasing penalties and cracking down on those who fly-tip and litter, and we are announcing a ban on disposable single-use vapes. We are leading and funding international efforts, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, has done this week in Canada. Finally, we are a member of the High Ambition Coalition, which is committed to negotiating an ambitious UN treaty on plastics.

I hope that I have been able to reassure the House and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that this Government are committed to reducing single-use plastics in this country, and are taking action that will have tangible, real-world impacts. I am pleased to be able to highlight from this Dispatch Box all the measures that this Government have taken thus far, and the continued action that we will take to address the scourge of single-use plastics.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.