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Recycling: Chinese Import Ban

Volume 788: debated on Monday 5 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to ensure that materials collected for recycling by local authorities are not incinerated as a result of the Chinese ban on taking plastic and other waste materials.

My Lords, the Government are encouraging industry to access alternative markets and are taking steps to reduce waste and recycle more. Where waste cannot yet be recycled, modern incineration facilities ensure that it can be used to produce energy and to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. These facilities divert waste from landfill and are tightly regulated by the Environment Agency. Our resources and waste strategy will set out further actions to increase recycling and manage waste to incineration.

My Lords, we hear fine words from the Government, with lots of promises, reports, press releases from No. 10, and so on. But recently, the UK declined to commit to the EU-wide 65% recycling target by 2035. That target does not seem unreasonable. Why do the Government not put their promises into action?

My Lords, we certainly need to consider this target carefully. The approach we want to take in future is to support our ambitions in tackling avoidable waste and supporting a circular economy. However, we need to consider this further because we do not want perverse incentives on heavy waste when actually, we need to consider what the most important waste is that we ought to be reusing and recycling more.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the suggestion in the press that we should bury all this at £86—I am not sure per what measure, but think of what it would cost; it is expensive now even to suggest that—and then dig it all up again to recycle it when our facilities are available? Surely the answer is for us to set up companies in this country that can carry out the recycling, which would be to our advantage in business and environmental terms.

My Lords, there is certainly value in waste, and we want to ensure that we have reduced dramatically the amount of waste going to landfill—that is why the landfill tax has been so successful. Interestingly, it is important that we do not put paper, for instance, which creates methane, into landfill; it is far better that that goes for incineration, if necessary, so that we can use it for energy.

My Lords, the Government’s 25-year environmental plan promised a waste strategy later this year. Will they take advantage of that and bring forward the target of ending plastic waste by 2042 by a decade or so?

My Lords, we are extremely ambitious: as your Lordships know, we have some of the strongest arrangements on microbeads, certainly in Europe, if not in the world. We want to go as fast as we can, which is why the resources and waste strategy will be important, and we want to reuse and recycle more.

My Lords, what studies have the Government commissioned into the environmental hazards that may occur if we start to burn large amounts of plastic waste, and what percentage of plastic can be recycled according to the Government’s own estimates?

My Lords, following considerable investment, there are now about 40 large municipal waste plants. They are highly regulated by the Environment Agency precisely to ensure that we recover energy and, importantly, they also operate within all the emission tests. I do not have the precise figure for what is currently recyclable but I will write to the noble Lord. However, the whole essence of our objective is to cut the amount of plastic in circulation and to reduce the variety of plastic so that we can recycle ever more.

In his original Answer to my noble friend Lady Jones, the Minister mentioned that the Government were looking for alternative markets to replace the Chinese market as the current receptacle for much waste. Is it not immoral to say that we are just going to look for another place in the world to dump the rubbish that we should be looking after ourselves?

My Lords, there obviously need to be alternatives and we are looking at them. Nothing is exported in the way that the noble Lord describes—there are very strong and strict requirements. I agree with him about wanting to recycle more at home but a number of countries—Turkey, Taiwan, Vietnam and India—all have resources and are taking more waste. However, we certainly want to work more on recycling at home.

My Lords, embracing the Chinese ban and implementing further restrictions in the coming years could be an opportunity to overhaul our current system and invest at home. What progress is being made in moving towards a joined-up waste and recycling policy that can respond positively?

My Lords, the resources and waste strategy will be very important in that regard, and it is encouraging that industry is picking this up. We have already had announcements from businesses about plastic-free brand products, and it is interesting that we are now recycling 60% of our packaging. Therefore, although we need to seek further increases in recycling rates, we are now going in the right direction.

My Lords, is it not time that the people at the top of the supply chain started taking more responsibility for the materials they produce? Manufacturers are always very quick to blame recyclers for allowing a build-up of waste to occur but, rather than just relying on manufacturers to take a voluntary approach, what are the Government doing to hold them to account for the plastic pollution they produce? That is at the heart of the problem. They need to produce alternatives to plastic but they are not doing that in sufficient numbers.

My Lords, we certainly need research and co-operation from all to increase recycling rates. Business is beginning to make some important strides. The Co-op, Iceland, Unilever and the packaging industry have committed to implementing solutions to enable the sustainable recycling of all black plastic packaging by the end of this year. We need to collaborate and work with business. We have strong targets and we all have to change many of our attitudes.

My Lords, what are we doing to increase and enforce penalties on those who dump household goods and other things in the countryside and, in the process, spoil some of the most beautiful parts of Britain?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that fly-tipping is a terrible blight, whether in towns or the countryside. That is why we have introduced stronger powers for local authorities and the Environment Agency—for example, to seize and search vehicles involved in suspected crime. We have also introduced the power for local authorities to issue fixed-penalty notices and we have just published the waste crime consultation, which proposes providing local authorities with the option of issuing fixed-penalty notices to those whose waste ends up being fly-tipped.