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Plastic Bags

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 2 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What discussions they have had with the retail industry about reducing the number of plastic bags offered free of charge to customers.

My Lords, Ministers from Defra and the Scottish Executive recently met UK retailers to discuss a draft voluntary code of practice on paper and plastic carrier bags. The Government and retailers have committed to work together to encourage the reuse and recycling of bags, and agreed targets for their reduction. It is hoped that as many retailers as possible will sign up to the code, resulting in a significant change in consumer behaviour.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree, as one of the most effective and experienced parliamentarians and Ministers in this Government, that in order for a Back-Bencher to influence policy one has to have an impeccable case and to be a bit of a nuisance? We are still using 8 billion plastic bags a year, and despite the efforts of the supermarkets they have not made much of a dent in that figure. I am sure that the noble Lord goes shopping frequently, as many of us do. Does he agree that plastic bags are pushed at one in supermarkets, even if one has one’s own bags? Do the Government agree that, if we cannot make progress voluntarily through this code, we will need a tax on plastic bags?

My Lords, my noble friend comes back to this issue a few months after he last raised it. He is absolutely right that making yourself a nuisance is the way to get things done. We hope that the majority of retailers will sign up to the proposed code and that we will have a statement before the end of the year. They have agreed to a target of a 25 per cent reduction by 2008 in the number of plastic bags given away and there is a possible target of a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As my noble friend said, between 8 billion and 10 billion plastic bags are produced a year—134 per person—so a 50 per cent reduction would be very substantial.

My Lords, rather than impose more taxes and strictures on the poor old consumer, would it not be better to use the huge possibilities in the media to get over the message that, if we want to protect the environment, we should take our own shopping bags to the supermarket?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. Perhaps everyone should have a shopping bag for Christmas.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us are very grateful for our free plastic bags, because we reuse them as bin liners and for a variety of other purposes, thereby saving ourselves from having to buy any?

My Lords, the noble Lady is quite right; plastic bags make up 0.3 per cent of domestic waste and between 0.1 per cent and 1 per cent of visible litter. They constitute a very small proportion of total litter, and most sensible people will reuse them for other purposes. To that extent, it is not all negative.

My Lords, what discussions has the Minister had with local authorities about the plastic bags that they have to issue so that we can all get rid of the huge quantity of unwanted marketing material that the Post Office forces through our doors?

My Lords, I have not had any such discussions; that is the direct answer to the question. Questions have been raised in this House about junk mail that comes via the Post Office through our doors. You can quite easily stop addressed junk mail and, as we all now know because of that nice postie somewhere who told his own customers, you can stop unaddressed junk mail coming through your door via the Royal Mail. There are two procedures to enable people to do that, and the details are available in answer to a PQ. I regret to say that I cannot remember which noble Lord asked it, but it is printed in either today’s or yesterday’s Hansard.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that just stopping the use of plastic bags is important and that cloth bags or baskets are a better option, as he suggested last time? However, the Government chose to implement the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy—which would have answered a lot of these problems, including those of packaging—only as a voluntary strategy although the industry was encouraging them to make it mandatory. Why did they resist that?

My Lords, possibly to try to get as much voluntary action as possible. The issue of packaging is almost the same as that of plastic bags. If they are made from fossil materials, they are a problem for the environment. It is possible to make such packaging and bags from non-fossil materials. We can grow the materials to make such products, and that actually helps the environment.

My Lords, one has to take away one’s supermarket goods in some form of container and there was a time when people could use the cardboard boxes in which goods were delivered to the supermarket. In his discussions with supermarkets, will the Minister urge them to make those cardboard boxes available? I believe that they have been withdrawn generally because they are said to be a fire risk.

My Lords, I will see that my colleague who deals with this matter with retailers takes that point on board. They do not use cardboard boxes any more. I have been told that paper bags as an alternative weigh more, cost more to transport and can be more damaging to the environment. There is no easy answer to this.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one supermarket chain uses plastic bags that are printed with a message saying that they are biodegradable, how long they will take to biodegrade and for how long it is safe to use them before they begin to do so? Should that not be encouraged?

My Lords, that may be so, but other supermarkets have told me that people do not read what is on plastic bags, which is why they do not advertise on them. They have done tests on this to show that that is the case. There is also a problem with biodegradable plastic bags; this is not simple. If they are mixed with waste which includes non-biodegradable plastic and people then try to recycle, there is a problem with the recycled product.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are different weights of plastic bags? Obviously, the heavier ones can be reused much more often. An earlier question referred to supermarkets, but it would be enormously helpful if the discussions went right across the retail industry. We need to convert people who sell goods to stop advertising in a way that says, “No, we want to use our own bags. We don’t want to have your reusable ones”. My local butcher was a very good example of that: when I took my own bag, he said clearly, “I cannot possibly let my high-class meat go out in that bag”.