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Environment: Litter and Waste

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will establish recommended standards for dealing with litter and waste, adapted for different areas and needs and including labelling plastic carrier bags with the length of time they take to biodegrade.

My Lords, the Code of practice on litter and refuse sets cleaning standards for local authorities which vary according to an area’s intensity of use and litter levels. The key to reducing the environmental cost of carrier bags is reducing usage, encouraging reuse and recycling. It is unclear whether labelling carrier bags with details of biodegradability influences consumer behaviour. It might wrongly imply that quicker-degrading bags have less environmental impact.

I thank the Minister for that slightly doubtful Answer. Has he become aware, or does he know, that the chemical additive d2w, in use since 1970, has now been developed to a degree of accuracy that almost the exact date of self-destruction can be built into plastic-bag manufacture? Would it not be an advantage for everyone to know this death date so that bags could be tailored for certain markets, such as the fast-food industry—blamed for bags clogging our waterways? Other bags intended for long-term storage would not unexpectedly turn into confetti. Is the Minister aware that some people are now beginning to hoard free plastic carriers because they are so fearful that they may become unavailable?

My Lords, I was aware of the brief chemistry lesson that my noble friend has given me but I am grateful for that. Labelling plastic bags is not quite as simple as that. Some bags break down in different manners in different environments, according to where they are left, whether it is in the sea or on land. Some will break down into different things, whether plastic or, if they are made of some organic matter, in other ways. All things break down in different ways and labelling would not necessarily help the consumer. I am always prepared to listen to any further advice that my noble friend and others have on these matters. We want to deal with the long-term problem particularly of the single-use plastic bag.

My Lords, are the Government giving consideration to the decision taken by the Welsh Government to charge for plastic bags from 1 October, to encourage the reuse of bags and of good old-fashioned shopping bags?

My Lords, I have not always been the greatest fan of devolution but one of its great advantages is that we can profit from lessons learnt in other countries. We will certainly look carefully at what they are doing in Wales and keep an eye on that. The noble Baroness is quite right to talk about what she referred to as “good, old-fashioned shopping bags” or the bags made available by supermarkets at a cost to encourage reuse of them. Often the problem with those is that one ends up buying too many. I have a very large stack of those bags at home waiting to be reused.

My Lords, are the Government aware of the example of Rwanda, where the Parliament and Government banned the use of plastic bags completely, leading to it being widely described as the cleanest country in the whole of Africa? The impact on litter pollution and also civic duty in Rwanda has been considerable. Will the Government look at international examples to deal with this horrendous problem?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for bringing to the House the experiences of Rwanda. I recently met the Rwandan forestry minister on a completely different matter and unfortunately, because I was not briefed on this matter, did not have a chance to discuss it with him. Should I have a chance again, I will do so. That is an option that one could look at. We are not happy that the decline in the use of single-use plastic bags has not been maintained and that there has been an increase. When we got those figures in the summer, I made it clear that, if we do not see an improvement, we may have to consider additional measures in the future, and we will certainly learn from all other countries.

Would the Government consider having their experts look at drawing up a recommended list of materials for recycling, which could be very helpful both to local government and to individuals?

My noble friend is quite right to draw to the House’s attention the problems of the vast variety of different plastics that we use—I cannot remember how many there are—and the problems of recycling them. I think that currently we recycle some 24 per cent of packaging. We would like to get that figure up. Obviously it might be easier to do that if we could reduce the number of different forms of plastic, but that would take quite a long time, a great many behavioural changes and changes by the producers. Certainly, as my noble friend suggests, it is something that we could look at.

My Lords, the Government’s waste review set out the noble ambition of a zero-waste economy. I ask the Minister, what role do standards and targets have in achieving that? The previous Government legislated to take powers to tackle the profusion of plastic bags, and we have heard how such powers are being used by the Welsh Assembly Government. Wales also has a recycling target of 70 per cent. Is this Government’s lack of action connected to the abandoning of any recycling targets in England?

I am not always convinced that targets are necessarily the right way to go forward. Targets can very often distort behaviour and distort priorities and how people deal with things. We made clear in our waste review that we want to make it easy for individuals and organisations to do the right thing, because a great many of them want to do just that. We will continue that process, and I hope that as a result we will head towards that zero-waste economy that we are looking for.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, in the general area of litter and waste, and indeed offensive graffiti, localism really should reign and prevail? It is not up to central government to tell local people and local councils exactly what they should do and how they should do it. It is up to local people and local councillors to get together to make sure that their streets and areas are clean and that unsightly graffiti are removed. Would he agree that it would be wrong for the Government to take away any of the existing powers that local authorities have in this area?

My noble friend is quite right to link graffiti with both litter and waste, and I am very grateful that he did that. I am also grateful for his stress on the importance of localism. I have made it clear the whole way through this process, particularly when it came to our recent waste review, that we believe that it is for local authorities to decide on these matters and that they can get them right. What is right in one borough, such as Westminster, where I happen to live, or Carlisle, where I also happen to live, will be different processes. The same will be true for Pendle, where my noble friend lives.

Would it not be possible to reduce the use of plastic bags if more could be done to encourage the producers and manufacturers of goods that are sold in supermarkets to stop packaging them as if they were mothballing an aircraft carrier?

Again, it is not as simple as all that. We do encourage them to reduce packaging as much as possible. However, the noble Lord will find that some packaging actually does end up reducing waste. If one takes something as simple as a cucumber, wrapping it in plastic ends up reducing the amount of cucumber that is wasted because it goes off compared to the cucumber that is unwrapped. This is a simple fact. So packaging can play its part in reducing waste, and we will work with the supermarkets and others to make sure that, while packaging is reduced, packaging can also play its part in reducing waste.