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Plastic Bags

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their estimate of the number of plastic bags supplied by the retail industry; and what steps they are taking to discourage their use.

My Lords, the total number of one-way plastic carrier bags used in the UK is estimated to be between 8 and 10 billion a year. They weigh about 80,000 tonnes. The department is working closely with the Waste and Resources Action Programme and a range of high street retailers to promote reusable bags and to make a further contribution to saving resources and, of course, reducing waste.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, which moves on a little from the response given by his predecessor a year ago. Does my noble friend agree that we are talking about bags that add significantly to litter, have a damaging effect on marine life and contribute to climate change? If the Government will not put a tax on these bags, as has worked so successfully in Ireland, will my noble friend step up pressure on the retail trade and start educating the public so that we use reusable bags whenever we go shopping?

My Lords, the Irish example is not all that it appears because there has been an increase in the sale of black bin liners and other such bags to get round the problem of not having bags from the supermarkets. Nevertheless, the culture has changed. Taxation is a matter for the Treasury, because it knows all about these things. I can only say to my noble friend that when I was a young boy and my mother sent me out to run errands and go shopping each week, I took shopping bags with me. I did that every week, every month and every year, and used the same bags.

My Lords, is any attention being given to biodegradable plastic bags, which would deal with some of the problems that have been outlined?

My Lords, that is the problem. From researching heavily for this Question, I understand that biodegradable bags contribute to climate change through carbon dioxide emissions, and that is part of the problem. Biodegradable bags are not an easy answer. Sometimes they degrade in the wrong way and people do not know what to do with them. If the bag goes into landfill and biodegrades, CO2 is emitted. The answer lies in reusable bags. If the supermarkets did not give these bags away—at the expense of other customers, I might add, because the people who take their own bags pay for everyone else to have free bags—or maybe were not allowed to put logos on them, they might change their tune about the waste being created in this country. As I said, there are 80,000 tonnes of plastic bags a year.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to point out that these bags are used for advertising. They are also used as a security measure—I think that he would agree that when you try to decline them, the response is, “We need to put the shopping in a bag for security reasons”. Does he accept that the point of taxing plastic bags would be to encourage behaviour change so that people would take baskets or reusable bags instead?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a seductive point, but this all seems to come down to the view that, as there is a problem, the Government should do something about it. There are alternatives to the Government bringing in a tax, which, as I say, is a matter for the Treasury. But if other forms of pressure were put on by parliamentarians, who can introduce Private Members’ Bills from time to time, they might be able to stop these practices and ensure that the supermarkets are allowed to give away only plain bags. That might change the behaviour of the supermarkets—and it is their behaviour that we need to change. They are giving away 200 million bags a week, which amounts to three bags for every man, woman and child in the country. That is an incredible waste.

My Lords, was not the noble Lord’s mother absolutely right in her reuse of these bags? I certainly reuse them to bin kitchen rubbish before putting it into the black liner. What is wrong with that?

My Lords, that is two plastic bags causing a problem for the environment. I plead guilty, but I was referring to old-fashioned shopping bags. What is wrong with an old-fashioned shopping bag that lasts a lifetime and does not cause pollution?

My Lords, this may be an issue on a slightly different scale, but what effort is made to recycle the plastic bags used by Parliament in sending out stuff to us? Could one persuade the supermarkets to accept such items along with their own plastic bags as a way of recycling?

My Lords, to give them their due, some supermarkets have containers for the disposal of these bags. These bags are packaging and are subject to the regulations regarding plastic packaging, and the supermarkets have to make a contribution towards that. Some local authority recycling sites have provision for such bags. On the other hand, there is plastic and plastic, and sometimes you are told that you cannot put certain plastics in disposing areas run by local authorities. More work is being done on this, but the fact is that the waste is being created unnecessarily in the first place. Worse still, most of these bags are imported. It is not as though we are creating jobs by making them in this country.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned black plastic bin liners as being another hazard in this respect. What does he have to say about the fact that many local authorities now refuse to collect refuse unless it is in just such a black plastic bin liner?

My Lords, that is an issue. On the other hand, local authorities are now doing far more recycling than they ever did. There is no doubt about that. You can have green boxes and food-waste boxes as well as containers for general household waste, so this is in no way a criticism of local authorities. Tackling the problem of waste is a major issue on a small island such as ours, but we have to tackle it in such a way that we benefit the environment and do not damage it. Whether it is a problem of litter or of plastic bags ending up in the sea as a danger to wildlife, there is no easy solution. Creating less waste is the solution, if you are looking for a single one.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a considerable number of transparent plastic bags are used to send out papers from this House to Members and that, when there is a single sheet of paper to go, we get not only a flat plastic bag but a slice of cardboard to keep the paper straight, which must be a waste?

My Lords, I answer for the Government at this Dispatch Box. I am not answering for the authorities of the House.

My Lords, I am delighted with much of what my noble friend has said; he has stated the case perfectly. He is a very good Minister—but he is a Minister and it is up to the Government to do something. If he can convert what he said and his own personal behaviour to government policy, we would all be happy.

My Lords, that was my behaviour when I was a young boy doing what my mother told me. These days I am as guilty as everyone else.