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Plastic Bag Charge

Volume 798: debated on Monday 17 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to make an announcement concerning the introduction of the 10p plastic bag charge in England.

My Lords, earlier this year we consulted on proposals to extend the charge to all retailers and to increase the minimum charge to 10p. To advance this matter, we will publish both the summary of responses and the Government’s intended action very soon. This follows the banning of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers from next April, as well as our consultation on placing responsibility for the cost of managing packaging waste on producers.

My Lords, in January 2018 the Prime Minister announced the intention to extend the single-use carrier bag charge to all retailers. Eight months later, it was announced that there would be consultation. Five months later, the consultation started. Four months after that, I received a letter from Defra saying that the announcement would be made soon. That was almost two months ago. Why is it possible to choose a Prime Minister in eight weeks when it is impossible for Defra to make a decision about bag charges—which all the industry favours—in 80 weeks?

My Lords, that is an intriguing comparison, but the position is that combining the publication of the summary and intended action will reduce the overall time taken, compared to publishing each separately. We have indeed had to take a little longer because officials have needed to undertake additional policy work in response to feedback from consultation. I assure my noble friend—and all noble Lords—that we are fully seized of the importance of plastic reduction.

My Lords, I do not wish to be discourteous to the Minister, but his answer sounded like a direct quote from “Yes Minister”. Would he like to think about it again? This is intolerable. We have been waiting years to put a charge on plastic bags. We have it on some but not on others. Why can we not just get a move on? Why does it take so long?

My Lords, that is not quite the case, as with all such things. I am well aware of the sort of responses one is given, but as I said, perhaps the interpretation of “very soon” should be in a glossary of terms. I am very conscious that we need to take action on this. By the end of this year, many of the larger retailers will not be using single-use plastic bags at all. We are working with all retailers and market traders to address this fully, because we want to get this right.

My Lords, 10p seems incredibly cheap for something that can last for 1,000 years before it biodegrades, but why is the consumer bearing all this? What regulations are the Government going to impose on the supermarkets and the food retailers to cut down the amount of packaging they use? It is insane that bananas are wrapped in plastic. I know it is complicated, and to do with how long food lasts, but will the Minister assure me that the Government will undertake proper consultation and then introduce regulation, rather than just responsibility?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that one of the complications is that certain wrapping increases how long produce lasts and stops food waste, so we need to look at these things thoroughly. We also think that those producing the packaging should be responsible for the costs of clearing these matters up—that is what we are consulting on at this very moment. The consultation is important because we need to reduce plastic packaging.

My Lords, there are now many biodegradable carrier bags being used by small retailers who handle food, including butchers. These bags are alleged to degrade in landfill in 12 to 24 months. Surely if these bags are going to landfill, this somewhat defeats the object of the tax. Do the Government plan to extend the 10p tax to biodegradable bags, and are they aware that such bags contain additives to accelerate the degeneration process? Can the Minister assure us that these are not harmful to those who have eaten food that has come into contact with these bags?

On the last point first, it is important that research is going on, including at EU level, on certain types of degradable plastics—precisely because of chemicals and microplastics. Again, this is not a straightforward matter where we can just press a button and get something resolved. We need to worry about the unintended consequences. A lot of work is going on on these points and I will write to the noble Baroness in some further detail on her first point.

My Lords, I have been campaigning on the plastics issue now for two years, and progress has been too complex and too slow, for example on bags, as we have heard. Does the Minister expect to be able to announce very soon, with dates, a genuinely single system of waste collection in England and a compulsory system for marking plastic on its recycling characteristics?

My Lords, a lot of what my noble friend said is involved in the consultation, which closed on 13 May—that is the only precise date I can give—but it is therefore now being considered. We are analysing the responses on consistency of both household and business recycling collections. I know that one point which my noble friend has constantly raised is on the quality and quantity of the materials collected for recycling. The consultation seeks views on that and one proposal is for all collectors of waste to collect a core set of materials from households and businesses. We want to make it as straightforward as possible for everyone to recycle.

My Lords, the Government really have to get a move on with this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said, it is not just about plastic carrier bags. Last year, Theresa May said that by the year 2043—there might have been several new Tory leaders elected by then—the Government aimed to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. Yet whenever I go to the supermarket and unpack the shopping when I get home, I have far more than one carrier bag’s worth of it. In fact, when I take my wheelie bin out on a Thursday night it is almost hard to move it because of the amount of so-called recyclable materials in it. Can the Minister be a little more specific? What proposals are the Government considering now that would, first, reduce the use of single-use plastic but, secondly, task producers with dealing with the environmental impacts of their packaging?

My Lords, I am very pleased that, like all of us, the noble Baroness is seeking to recycle more. I think we all want to recycle much more. On the extension of the producer responsibility on packaging, she is quite right that too much plastic packaging is produced and that obviously needs to be addressed. On taxation, we have already said that by 2022 there will be a tax on producers who do not use at least 30% recycled material in their products. All this is about a mechanism to reduce the use of plastic packaging and recycle more.