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Plastic Pollution

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 10 April 2019


Asked by

My Lords, our priority is to prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first instance. The resources and waste strategy published in December last year sets out our plans to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. To do this we are currently consulting on a suite of measures that include making recycling easier and financially incentivising producers to take greater responsibility.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of WRAP, which has convened the UK Plastics Pact, which is now supported by 68 of the UK’s largest businesses and organisations. In light of the Government’s proposed plastic packaging tax, which is currently being consulted on, and appreciating that it is not my noble friend’s normal brief, how do the Government intend to ensure that the Plastics Pact and the plastic packaging tax will work together to best effect?

My Lords, I can actually answer that question. The plastic packaging tax will provide a clear economic incentive for businesses to use recycled material in the production of packaging. Subject to consultation, any business that produces or imports plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content will have to pay a tax from 2022. The UK Plastics Pact has pledged to meet the same target of 30% recycled plastics in its packaging by 2025. This is a voluntary arrangement, and of course the Government support it, but we want to ensure that all businesses achieve this ambitious target and that they do so as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness understand why we are so frustrated about this issue? We have debated it here time and again, yet we seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of consultations. There is broad cross-party support right across the country on this, and it would be very popular with the public, so why do the Government not just get on with, for example, introducing a bottle deposit scheme, which all the evidence shows would cut the number of plastic bottles littering our countryside and waterways? As I say, this would be extremely popular. Why the delay?

I agree that many of the things the Government are proposing are extremely popular—these things are popular, and the Government are doing them—but I have to be honest with the noble Baroness: this is a very complicated, complex area and we must not introduce one of these things on its own without looking at the whole environment for recycling plastic. That is why the resources and waste strategy sets out the three different areas—from production to consumption and end of life. We are consulting on the deposit return scheme; we have to make sure that the local authorities are on board and can do it too, and we need to understand exactly what sort of DRS we will have.

My Lords, the supermarkets convince us that we need plastic in order to preserve the life of vegetables, yet a quarter of all food that is thrown away is still wrapped in its plastic—it has not been undone—so we are convinced in the wrong ways. Most fruit and vegetables have perfectly good skins that keep them alive. Why is this not mandatory? We pay for plastic bags, which has been effective. It is a cost to the consumer which I think we all agree with. Why are supermarkets not taxed en masse for the kind of plastic they produce? If they had to pay for it, they would sure as hell change their habits.

The noble Baroness raises a number of different questions. Of course, she is absolutely right that much of the packaging we use may not be necessary. That is why the UK Plastics Pact is working on ways to reduce supermarket packaging, and we absolutely welcome that. One thing we are consulting on is extended producer responsibility. This is really important; we will look to the people who produce packaging to pay the full net costs of that packaging. That will include the collection and transportation of waste recycling, the sorting and the treatment, the clean-up of litter, and the collection of data about packaging. A lot can be done, we are doing it, and we are looking to work with the supermarkets to reduce packaging as much as we can.

My Lords, creating genuinely sustainable alternatives to polluting plastics is vital. What is Defra doing to ensure that BEIS’s industrial strategy challenge fund is making money available to fund R&D for such innovation?

The noble Baroness is quite right. There is a huge amount of innovation going on around plastics. Again, it is a very complicated area. The industrial strategy challenge fund has put aside £66 million, which will be match funded by industry, to develop smart, sustainable plastic packaging.

Can my noble friend find a way to get local councils and the organisers of public events to clear up plastic waste after major events? It was disgusting along the banks of the River Thames after the boat race.

I thank my noble friend for that question. As someone who is running the London marathon this year, I will be appalled at the number of plastic bottles there will be by the roadside, but we have been told that if we empty them out they will be recycled. My noble friend makes a very good point: we have to clear up after our events. One thing that is happening right here, right now, which all noble Lords could participate in, is the Great British Spring Clean; 450,000 volunteers have signed up, and it will go on until 23 April. We can all be out there picking up litter, and indeed plastic.

My Lords, can my noble friend advise the House what efforts the Government are making on British waste to encourage new, more imaginative technologies that convert plastic waste into energy, such as those in town centre schemes in Copenhagen and Stockholm? They could mitigate some of the harm that this plastic mountain is inflicting.

My noble friend raises a very important point. Energy from waste is potentially one of the solutions. However, we do not want to see items being sidetracked from recycling and reuse into energy from waste. Certainly, if we can stop products going to landfill, we will look at incineration. We are working with the Environment Agency and looking at how plastics are burned and any emissions that are released. We understand that Public Health England’s position on carbon dioxide release, for example, remains that modern, well-managed incinerators are not a significant risk to public health.

My Lords, everything is in the future—we are going to do it some time. When will all this happen? Years ago when we pressed the Government on charging for plastic bags in supermarkets, they said, “No, no, no, we are never going to do it”. Eventually they changed their minds. Can we get a move on? It is a crisis.

I am not entirely sure that the Labour Government did it either. The reality is that it was the Conservative Government who banned microbeads and introduced the 5p charge on plastic bags, which has reduced their usage by 86%. We are consulting on increasing the charge to 10p and for it to cover all different retailers. It is wrong to say that nothing has been done, but it is right to say that the Government have great plans for the future, and we will be tackling plastic pollution.

Has my noble friend noticed, in the Great British Spring Clean, the great enthusiasm with which children, particularly primary school children, have signed up to go out and clean up the lanes and byways of this country? Does she agree that the Daily Mail has done rather well in encouraging people to do it?

Indeed, and I understand that my noble friend has a Question on this particular issue coming up very soon, so we will be able to debate this in greater detail. He is absolutely right: we have to get everybody involved. Children are brilliant at picking up litter, and we must make sure that their parents encourage them to do so.