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Plastics: Reduction in Use

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what their latest proposals are to reduce the use of plastics.

My Lords, we are already working with industry to reduce our use of plastics. Key to this will be our reforms to the packaging waste regulations. We will shortly publish the response to our proposals on banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Our response to the proposals on extending and increasing the plastic bag charge will follow thereafter. Where existing powers are insufficient to match our ambition, we will seek additional powers in the environment Bill.

My Lords, will the Minister consider a sentence from the answer given to this House last month on the same topic? It referred to the Government’s,

“plans to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042”.—[Official Report, 10/4/19; col. 491.]

That begs a lot of questions, as it is a long way ahead. What about unavoidable plastic waste? Surely that can also be dealt with. We know about the statistics—the Minister will be fully aware of them—on the dangers to marine life and the thousands of years that it takes for plastic to degrade. Plastic has been found north and south on this planet, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Surely we require more drastic action than that.

I have had an interesting e-mail from Waitrose about what it is trying to do. Will the Minister comment on two specific suggestions? First, can he develop a clear, visible kitemark on all packaging to indicate whether it contains plastic, and whether it meets decent standards? It would be a kitemark agreed throughout industry. Secondly, what about having an annual award to industry—I would like, without his permission, to call it the David Attenborough award—for the company, business or local authority that does best each year in getting rid of plastic?

My Lords, there were quite a few questions there but I agree with the thrust of what the noble Lord said. That is why we are working internationally, as well as at home. I share your Lordships’ frustration; we need to take action, which is why the UK plastics pact is so important. One of its targets for 2025 will be:

“100% of plastics packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable”.

Others include to eliminate by 2025 unnecessary single-use packaging and to have,

“70% of plastics packaging effectively recycled or composted”.

I agree with the noble Lord and we want to take action. This Government are taking action through research, which will obviously be an enormously important point, to find alternatives to the far too extensive use of plastics.

My Lords, many consumers are now choosing to use biodegradable bags rather than plastic ones, believing these to be preferable, yet researchers from the University of Plymouth have shown that many of these bags are not in fact biodegradable. Will Her Majesty’s Government undertake to produce clear standards and guidelines so we can be sure that these are biodegradable and improve the environment, and that we are not misled?

My Lords, it is absolutely essential for us all that, in seeking to do the right thing, we are in a position to do so. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, Morrisons are replacing plastic bags for loose fruit and vegetables with paper ones. That sort of thing is happening up and down the country with retailers that understand their responsibility to ensure that we have a better planet for the next generations.

My Lords, one of the ways that we will reduce the use of plastic is making sure that we dispose of it responsibility, not at the cost of the environment. One way of doing that is banning exports of our waste and clearing up our own mess. What target do the Government have for banning the export of low-grade recyclate?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that we must recycle more here. We must use less, so there will be less recycling. We certainly need to do more at home, so we need to work with industry to have suitable plants to take much more of the UK’s plastic waste. Other countries that take waste are also important. We are a party to the Basel convention and it is essential that we work together to ensure that we are absolutely not sending plastic, or other waste, to countries that cannot cope with it and therefore pollute the environment.

My Lords, I bring the Minister back to the question asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans about what government intervention might be appropriate in quality control and establishing standards of practice.

My Lords, it is clear that the Government recognise the need for consistency on what we are in a position to recycle and to ensure proper marking so we know what can be recycled. The Government must and will take responsibility in these areas.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, consistently made the point—from the Minister’s Benches—that there should be a national policy on how we dispose of plastics. That has been consistently resisted on those Benches and made a matter for local authorities. I do not know whether the Minister does his own weekly shopping, but it is enormously difficult to buy fruit and vegetables without plastic containers, to the detriment of the environment. The noble Baroness made this point about disposal consistently and his own side has resisted over and over again.

My Lords, I am a little confused by what the noble Baroness has said. When I go into our fruiterers, I pick up and look at the fruit and am given it in a paper, not plastic, bag. As I have already said, Morrisons are using paper bags instead of plastic ones. This is happening more often. As I said in my earlier answer, we recognise the need for consistency. We need to enable people to recycle more, but we also need to reduce the use of plastic. I have been very clear about that.

My Lords, there are issues with the words, “biodegradable plastic”, one of which is concern over microplastics, which is why we need to undertake more research into this. It sounds a very good idea, but the last thing we want to do is create even more microplastics.