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Plastics Recycling

Volume 800: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce a single national system for recycling plastics in England to maximise efficiency and encourage participation.

My Lords, the Government are committed to increasing recycling rates. The Environment Bill introduces legislation that will allow us to ensure that local authorities collect a core set of recyclable materials, including plastics, from households from 2023. We will also introduce measures to encourage producers to use plastic packaging that can be recycled. Together with the plastic packaging tax, these measures will reduce difficult to recycle packaging and promote the use of recyclable plastic.

My Lords, while I am delighted that the establishment of an England-wide recycling system is now government policy, I am dismayed by the proposed delay until 2023. Does the Minister agree that, as soon as the powers in the Environment Bill are through, we should make an order setting out a single new system that could apply more or less immediately to most local authorities? That could include everything from plastic bottles to plastic pots, tubs and trays, as in the White Paper. Does he also agree that we need clear labelling of what can be recycled and, I suggest, an imaginative information campaign, so that frustrated housewives like myself, businesses and children in our schools know what to recycle?

My Lords, I am as keen for action as my noble friend is and have asked similar questions myself. However, waste managers and local authorities will need time to install the necessary facilities and infrastructure, hence the start date, in its totality, of 2023. Currently, 100% of local authorities in England collect plastic bottles, and 78% collect plastic pots, tubs and trays. We can make progress already. We also agree that clear labelling is essential, and we will consult next year on final proposals because clearly, we must help to inform consumers better.

My Lords, may I push the Minister on this? The year 2023 seems a very long way away. It is not as though this is a new idea; it has been trialled and talked about considerably over the last couple of years. We need action on this now. There is huge public demand for action on tackling plastics, so why are the Government not able to move this agenda along more quickly? This is a really important issue that the Great British public care about.

I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that we need to make progress on this issue. We have been stalling on recycling and need to do much better. But think of the materials that will be in this core set: plastics, glass, metal, paper, food waste and garden waste. For certain local authorities—one thinks of Newham, which, at 14%, has the lowest recycling rate in the country—we will have to ensure that they change their systems absolutely. I said that this will be comprehensive in 2023, but many local authorities are already undertaking good work on this.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the initiative to introduce plastic parks, which will use revolutionary British technology to convert unrecyclable plastics into hydrogen, as a fuel source, as well as to generate electricity?

The noble Lord refers to the really important work that needs to proceed: research into how we move from a wasteful economy to a circular one. I absolutely endorse that we need to be working more on research. For instance, we are undertaking work on biodegradable and bio-based plastics and BEIS is considering those proposals. There are issues, however, and we do not want unintended consequences.

My Lords, given the vast amount of plastic film used in food packaging, what are the Government doing to increase the amount available for recycling?

Again, here, industry has a number of pressure points. One is the packaging tax—a new tax on plastic packaging—which will take effect from April 2022 and will apply to plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. There are a number of others, such as extending producer responsibility. We must not always knock industry because there are many examples of it seeking an alternative, such as plastic-free aisles and different sorts of packaging. I agree that one of the most frustrating things is that we cannot currently put plastic film in our recycling bins.

I declare an interest as a director of Lotte Chemical UK, which is the principal manufacturer of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that many councils are now collecting used material and providing it for recycling, because Lotte Chemical is able to obtain only enough recycled material to form 10% of our finished products. We wish to increase that to about 28%. Does the Minister agree that the Government should concentrate on establishing a standardised recycling policy across the whole country rather than encourage the use of substitute materials, which can have more negative consequences?

We sometimes need to be careful about unintended consequences, which is why we have considered biodegradable and bio-based plastics. Some 13.5 billion plastic bottles are used in the UK each year; the current household recycling rate for them is 70%. Thirty per cent is not good, but I will take back what my noble friend has said because that is quite a lot of bottles to recycle.

What is being done to clear up the large number of plastic bottles and other containers that are discarded alongside rural roads?

My Lords, it is a question of education and awareness. How do we discourage the one in five people in our great country who actually admit that they drop litter? I understand the pressures on local authorities and volunteers who, like me, pick up litter, but this situation is unacceptable. The truth is that we will crack this thoroughly only when everyone in the country, starting from the next generation, thinks that it is not acceptable to drop litter.