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Plastic Waste

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking following the decision of the Government of China to restrict imports of foreign waste.

My Lords, since China’s announcement the Government have raised their concerns on the scope and scale of the restrictions through the EU and WTO. We are working with local government and industry to minimise the impacts on public health and the environment and to assist in assessing alternative markets. We want to improve the quality of materials collected for recycling and reform the producer responsibility scheme for packaging to reduce waste.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and for his longer-term vision. However, the Government have been slow on this. We have a crisis. First, will the Minister guarantee that landfill will not increase significantly in the short term? Secondly, when warehousing or providing greater storage of waste material while we find a market for it, will the Environment Agency and other agencies make sure that pollution locally does not happen and fire hazards are kept to a minimum?

My Lords, since the Government heard of China’s decision in July, a great deal of work has been done. I can assure your Lordships’ on that. It is clear that the last resort is always landfill. More reuse, recycling and energy recovery in this country is the top priority. Landfill will always be the last resort. The noble Lord is right about the role of the Environment Agency, which is very important. It has been working with key partners and issuing guidance. It is important that the well-being of the environment is the number one priority,

My Lords, my noble friend may not be entirely surprised by my supplementary question. Does he agree that it would greatly mitigate the effect of the decision by the Government of China if we stopped wrapping just about anything and everything in plastic?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. What we want to do, through the resources and waste strategy which will be published later this year and the clean growth strategy which was published in October last year, is to see zero avoidable waste. We want to see less packaging and that the plastic we do use is readily recyclable.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, apart from persuading consumers to use less plastic, the Government should be doing more to encourage emerging technologies in this area by creating markets for recycled plastics? Sadly, the first wave of plastic recycling companies could not survive because virgin plastic was cheaper than recycled plastic. Is this not an area in which the Government really should be intervening to ensure that there are proper markets for recycled goods so that the recycling companies can grow and prosper?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. We want to ensure that we use all the innovation and technology we can. It is interesting to note that a number of the key waste management companies see what has happened in China as, ironically, a real opportunity. Companies like Suez and Biffa are saying that there are real opportunities in this and they want to find alternative markets. This is a serious situation on an international scale. For example, some 56% of globally exported plastic waste ends up in China, so we need to address this issue on a global basis.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what percentage of the some 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste that are estimated to be exported from this country to China each year are actually capable of being recycled? Further, in his response to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, he did not say anything about incineration. There has been some speculation that the Government might support incineration, but would that not be simply adding one environmental degradation to another?

My Lords, I used the phrase energy recovery. That is via the use of incineration and the source of fuel it provides is a much better use than landfill. Moreover, landfill quantities have been reduced dramatically. Some 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste are created in this country of which 0.4 million tonnes is sent to China. That actually represents a reduction from 0.7 million tonnes of waste being exported in 2010, so a reducing amount of waste is going to China. However, it is clear that we need to do better, and that is why we are working on this issue.

My Lords, in thinking about the importance of recycling, can the Minister tell the House what research the Government know about, or are supporting, into the development of biodegradable materials that can be used, particularly in packaging? Some are available but the quantities are small relative to the stuff which is advertised as being recyclable. While I am on my feet, could I also ask the noble Lord to put in a plug, when he is thinking about recycling, for home composting? It is frightfully useful to anyone who has a garden.

My Lords, I am a fanatically zealous composter, as my wife knows very well. Whether waste is biodegradable or whether we are considering the better use of plastics, by which I mean quality plastic that is consistent and is readily recyclable across the country, we want to learn from the best examples. Many local authorities are doing extremely well in this area and we want to replicate their work across the country.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a board member of WRAP. I welcome the fact that today is the day when the ban on the use of microbeads will be introduced. I also welcome the fact that some 9 billion fewer plastic bags are in circulation than when the levy was introduced. However, will my noble friend look carefully at the recyclability of takeaway coffee cups, which currently cannot be recycled properly? What are the Government going to do about this?

My Lords, I endorse what my noble friend says about plastic bags. There has been a reduction of 83% of the plastic bags in circulation, and now we have the microbeads ban. We are working with the Treasury on a call for evidence this year seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastic waste whether in the form of coffee cups, straws and so on. We need to adopt a different attitude to all of these issues, and I am very pleased that we are working on them.