Motion to Approve
My Lords, the instrument before your Lordships, the Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020, is being made to restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, single-use plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and plastic drink stirrers to end users. An end user is the final recipient in the chain who will use the item for its intended purpose—for example, a customer using a straw to consume a drink.
We consulted on this measure between October 2018 and December 2018. On 22 May 2019, the summary of responses and the government response were published. A full impact assessment covering straws, and two regulatory triage assessments covering cotton buds and stirrers, are published alongside the Explanatory Memorandum. These regulations are a devolved matter and this instrument applies to England only.
I first want to address an issue raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has now been addressed in the Explanatory Memorandum. These regulations were initially laid in March this year and were set to come into force in April. However, in light of the unprecedented situation this country has faced due to Covid-19, they were delayed to reduce the burden being placed on industry and to avoid adding further demands on local authorities. We decided to delay entry into force for a short time, while we were at the peak of the crisis. Delaying these regulations was only a temporary measure in response to the crisis. Our commitment to turning the tide on the widespread use of single-use plastics is as strong as ever, as we seek to limit our impact on the natural world.
Turning to the purpose of this SI, the Government are committed to eliminating plastic waste and pollution. Single-use plastic items are increasingly common, and their use and inappropriate disposal continue to raise significant environmental issues. Unlike other materials, such as paper or wood, plastic can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. When released into the environment, items such as plastic straws can endanger wildlife and damage habitats, as small plastic items are often mistaken for food by animals. Furthermore, plastic will eventually break down into microplastics, ending up in our soils and seas and permeating our food chains. The full impacts of the dangers of microplastics are still being uncovered.
Even when some single-use plastics are properly disposed of, they will typically end up in landfill or go off to be incinerated, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. Straws, cotton buds and stirrers in particular are unlikely to be recycled due to their small size, as sizeable effort is required to segregate and clean them. Therefore, action is needed to curtail the use of single-use plastics and their release into the environment.
The proposed measures in the resource and waste chapter of our Environment Bill will transition us towards a more circular economy and change the way that we use and consume resources. We have already seen a drop in demand for plastic straws and pledges from a number of corporations such as McDonald’s, Waitrose and Tetra Pak to find sustainable alternatives. These new regulations will support the voluntary actions being taken by industry, led by the UK Plastics Pact, while ensuring that all businesses move to more sustainable alternatives. Our current data shows that we use a staggering 4.7 billion straws, 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds and 316 million plastic stirrers every year in England. This SI will drastically reduce the use of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers by an estimated 95%.
This intervention is a strong marker of the Government’s intent to clamp down on single-use plastic pollution and protect our environment. It will spur industry to innovate in this space, developing innovative alternatives such as new reusable or paper straws. When taken in conjunction with other parts of our policy approach to move towards a more circular economy, this will be another landmark moment, following our carrier bag charge and microbeads ban.
Plastic is, however, an incredibly useful and versatile material; its strength and relative light weight means that it can have a vital role to play in a range of applications. For instance, plastic straws can withstand high temperatures, such as in tea or coffee, and can be manufactured to bend or fit a particular shape. This allows for those suffering from ailments, for example motor neurone diseases, who struggle holding cups, to access hot and cold drinks as well as liquid foods. Therefore, we have included exemptions within these regulations for straws for accessibility, forensic, medical, and scientific uses, and cotton buds for forensic, medical, and scientific uses as well.
Plastic straws will be available through pharmacies without any requirement for proof of need. This will mean that relatives, friends, and carers could buy them on behalf of those who rely on these items. Similarly, we are allowing for catering establishments, such as restaurants and pubs, that supply food and drink ready for visitors to consume to continue to provide plastic straws on request, again without any proof of need. In these instances, it will be against the regulations to display and advertise that straws are being supplied in order to limit the impulse for people to request them without a need for them.
The regulations allow business-to-business sales—for example, between a manufacturer and a catering establishment—to ensure that businesses can supply items to those who need them. We have also exempted other establishments such as schools, care homes and prisons from the restrictions on plastic straws so that they can be made available for anyone in their care who may need one. Finally, there is also an exemption for plastic straws that are classed as packaging—for example, some medicines in pill form are packaged in straws, to be dispensed one at a time. These exemptions for medical, scientific and forensic purposes will be reviewed and updated as we move forward and as new technologies and evidence emerge.
We are determined to get this right, and it is vital that businesses and the public are informed about what they can and cannot do. Local authorities are obliged to ensure that guidance is published ahead of these regulations coming into force. To ensure compliance, we have given trading standards authorities the power that they require for this type of restriction—for example, to enter and examine premises that they suspect are in breach of the law. Anyone caught still supplying these items against the rules set out in this legislation could face civil sanctions, such as stop notices or a variable monetary penalty.
Of course, we hope that those enforcement measures will not be necessary. Industry is already making good progress in removing these items from the shelves, and public demand for them is falling—but the regulations need to have teeth to show that this Government take the issue of plastic pollution seriously.
The new regulations send a signal to industry and the general public that we need to think carefully about the products that we buy and the materials from which they are made. The regulations will help people to make more sustainable choices, and I commend them to the House.
My Lords, this piece of legislation is sound and timely. I guess that most of us were aware of the plastics littering the seashores of Britain, but when we saw Sir David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” series, and especially when he showed the effect of plastic on the marine environment and marine animals and fish, we were especially shocked. And it was not only us; the British public were really shocked. So when the instrument comes into effect, will the Minister ensure that that swell of support from the general public is built upon and that the British people are kept fully informed at every stage of its implementation?
My Lords, I welcome the regulations as far as they go, but I fear that the scope of exemptions for plastic straws may undermine their effectiveness and make enforcement harder. I recognise of course the need to provide exemptions for people with disabilities, but the exemption seems wider than necessary. Although catering establishments will not be allowed to display them, as I understand it, they will be able to provide them to anyone on request, whether or not they have a disability need. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the case?
Finally, what assessment has been made of local authority trading standards’ capacity to enforce these regulations? Does the Minister recognise the impacts of budget cuts to trading standards of up to 60% over the past decade? Will he urge his colleagues in the Treasury to provide local authorities with the funding to allow trading standards to enforce the laws and regulations that we pass in this House?
My Lords, I am pleased that, following an open discussion, the Government are putting forward the regulations, which I fully support. It is important for us to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment, which needs looking after, particularly the oceans and beaches. It is estimated that over 150 million tonnes of plastic is in the world’s oceans, and every year 1 million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating or getting tangled in plastic waste. Furthermore, it is estimated that the plastic in the oceans will increase threefold in the next 15 years. What steps are we taking to remove plastic waste and stop it from entering the oceans?
Pollution is indeed a global problem. How are we working with or supporting other countries in tackling the issues? Are we supporting any research to modify the ways we manufacture and consume the items that pollute? Are there any outreach and educational programmes to encourage the young to reduce plastic consumption and marine litter?
My Lords, Sikh teachings stress the importance of living in harmony, respecting not only those of different creeds and beliefs but the earth and the environment that sustain us all. Sadly, over the years we have failed to respect a different pace of life and, in our short-sighted greed, we have done serious damage to our environment. Legislation to ban plastic straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drink stirrers is a small step in the right direction, although billions of these items are involved. Such steps can help nudge us to understand our wider responsibilities to our environment and to future generations.
My Lords, I cite to the Minister three pieces of research that have emerged since these regulations were drafted. First, on King George Island, off the north-east tip of Antarctica, microplastics were found in the intestines of Antarctic springtails, crucial soil microbes. Researchers said that microplastics are now an integral part of the soil food web. A University of Strathclyde study showed that microplastics are blowing ashore in the sea breeze. A University of Manchester study found 1.9 million pieces of plastic in one square metre of deep ocean floor—a key area for the breeding of sea squirts, which are filter feeders.
In introducing the regulations, the Minister said, “This turns the tide; this is a landmark moment.” Does he really believe that future generations, as they sift through the layer of defilement we have left on every inch of this earth, will say, “Oh, but isn’t it great that they banned straws, cotton buds and stirrers in 2020?”
My Lords, the Food and Drink Federation’s response to the consultation exercise urged caution by the Government, requesting them to take a holistic view of the wider pressures faced by industry at this time, along with the attendant risks, including the proposal to introduce a deposit return scheme and reform of the packaging producer responsibility legislation. Is the Minister able to update the House on those proposals? While I welcome the regulations, can the Minister also explain whether the ban covers all types of plastic straws, including those carrying a biodegradable or compostable stamp? If so, would it not have been better for the Government to have concluded their work with UK Research and Innovation and industry to seek evidence on the demand and benefits of bio-based and biodegradable plastics that can be decomposed by the action of living organisms, before imposing a ban on these environmentally friendlier alternatives as well?
The ban on these items was initiated by the former Prime Minister at a Commonwealth summit over two years ago—a long time coming but at least it is here now, at an increasingly serious and difficult time for the UK. Can the Minister say what estimate his department has made of the increase in plastic waste as a result of the pandemic? Is the department still committed to eliminating avoidable plastic waste? Why are we still waiting for the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers to incentivise people to recycle more plastic? Since the pandemic began, single-use has increased, exploited by some companies, which claim that it shows single-use, and often single-use plastic, to be the safest option. The science does not back that up; the virus can live on single-use surfaces as well.
The Welsh Government are currently consulting to restrict single-use, hard-to-recycle and commonly littered plastics and help move Wales towards a circular economy. We have often been at the forefront of these things. The longstanding commitment is outlined in Beyond Recycling. Today, I support the speedy introduction of these regulations for England and argue for a review of the regulations after 12 months.
My Lords, these regulations are key to the UK’s responsibility to reduce single-use plastics. However, as Trailblazers and other disabled organisations have made clear, there is an issue for some disabled people, who need to use plastic straws because of their flexibility and ability to be used in hot and cold drinks.
I thank the Minister for listening to disabled people and ensuring that the exemption in these regulations meets their needs. However, I want to ask him about the social impact of these regulations. What guidance is being given to the hospitality sector to train organisations and all staff and explain the needs of these disabled people so that outlets will still maintain a supply of plastic straws, even if these are not kept visible? Without plastic straws, those venues become inaccessible to these disabled visitors. Will Defra continue to consult disabled people and groups such as Trailblazers to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged or stigmatised when they use needed single-use plastics?
My Lords, I welcome the regulations, which were so clearly introduced by my noble friend the Minister, not least for the way that they take account of the need for an inclusive approach and the needs of disabled people. Building on the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will he confirm that the department will continue to consult organisations of and for disabled people to ensure that all outlets understand and are clear that an inclusive approach will allow everybody to access their products equally and that there should not be any difficulties or sense of stigmatisation as a result of this?
Does the Minister agree that these regulations are key to turning our ocean back to one that is salty and refreshing, rather than an ocean of plastic? Does he agree that, as a result of these regulations, a plastic straw in the wind will soon be a thing of the past?
My Lords, I draw attention to the associated medical problems. The inhalation of microplastics is causing health difficulties in textile workers. Synthetic clothing is responsible for endless amounts of microfibres, which are even found in drinking water. Microplastics are found in high concentration in the air, especially in large cities such as London, and even in the Alps and the Arctic. Would the Minister agree that there is a very urgent need to reduce the amount of plastics in the UK? Cleaning up the environment should be a priority for everyone and possibly take priority over spending endless funds on trying to change the climate.
My Lords, I support these regulations and am very pleased that the Government have brought them back to us, despite the difficulties of the last three or four months in peak lockdown. However, the Government now need to look to the next steps. When will they bring forward plans to ban mixed packaging, which seems a particularly disgraceful waste that could be eliminated quite easily through regulation and legislation? I also ask the Minister to say more about how the Government are contributing to the delivery of UN sustainable development goal 12, which calls for sustainable consumption and production. At home and abroad, this Government should lead the way by going much further than this ban and making sure that any recovery around the world is more sustainable in both its consumption and production.
My Lords, we contribute to environmental harm from plastics, here and across the world. We must particularly thank David Attenborough for opening our eyes. In developing countries, you will see a mass of plastic waste filling every river and ditch, strewn around every home and through settlements. We have contributed to that. My noble friend Lady Parminter was right when she insisted, in the coalition, that we must charge for plastic bags, simply to cut their use. Limiting plastic straws and cotton buds and banning stirrers is welcome. I understand why we may still need to use plastic straws and cotton buds in health and social care settings, but I hope that we will develop substitutes. We have so much more to do. What other plans do the Government have? Plastics are everywhere we turn, here and worldwide. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly welcome these regulations, which I am sure would have been implemented earlier had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic. I have found that the vast majority of the public is very supportive of measures to reduce plastic pollution, and that support ranges across all age groups and, indeed, businesses. I am sure that the forthcoming Environment Bill will offer further opportunities to continue on this path, particularly with the deposit return scheme, which we have been awaiting eagerly. I believe that the Government have taken appropriate consideration of those needing exemptions, particularly in relation to plastic straws, and I am very pleased that they are doing it in a way that will not stigmatise those who have to use them. I also know that manufacturers are working flat out to produce a suitable non-plastic straw for use when attached to a drinks container. There is a lot more to do to deal with the scourge of avoidable single-use plastics, but these regulations are another welcome step in the fight to save the environment.
My Lords, this SI is a welcome step. What we need now is to significantly scale-up our ambition in order to transition to a circular economy that makes much better use of our finite natural resources. We can design out waste and pollution, keep materials and products in use, and regenerate natural systems. This means focusing on two things. The first is the standards in our design. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design stage. Incidentally, it has further found that circular economy strategies could reduce emissions by 40% by 2050 if applied to four key industrial materials—cement, steel, plastic and aluminium. The second point is that, as we work on design, we must ensure that citizens and consumers understand the impact of current usage and shift their attitudes to see waste as a design flaw. What are the Government doing to support better public understanding of this?
My Lords, I too am pleased that these regulations are before the House today. Half of all the plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years. Plastic production has increased exponentially; so much so that, every year, about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escapes into the oceans, killing and harming millions of fish and animals, and ending up in our air, food and water. These regulations are a step forward and I support them, but it is only a step forward. The pandemic has, understandably, interrupted progress on tackling the plastic problem. These regulations have been delayed and the plastic bag charge has been lifted. We cannot let this temporary pause become an excuse for ongoing inaction. I want to ask the noble Lord about the bottle deposit return scheme, which is also delayed. When will this legislation come forward? Is it the case that the Government are now reconsidering this scheme, due to pressure from the industry?
My Lords, of course I too support this legislation, which will provide some help to reduce the awful problem of plastic waste, as described so vividly by colleagues. But frankly, we still have an awfully long way to go—it only scratches the surface. There is much more that needs to be done to tackle not just single-use plastics but other types of problem waste in our society. All this work will form an integral part of our green recovery, yet we still have uncertainty over when the Government will publish the second wave of consultations, as has been mentioned already, for the extended producer responsibility scheme, the EPR, and the deposit return scheme, the DRS. We remain in a state of limbo over both. Will the Minister advise the House as to when the secondary consultations will be published?
My Lords, I welcome the regulations we are debating today. The exceptions are sensible and practical. I live in the south-west, and a walk on the beach after a storm, or on the moors after a holiday weekend, proves the evidence that regulations may be a start but more needs doing. Alongside the items we are discussing are discarded or washed-up plastic picnic plates, beakers, cutlery and even tablecloths. Some products have equivalents made of biodegradable products such as paper, cardboard or wood, which could be easily recycled. Would it not be more responsible to encourage reuse, rather than disposal or just plain abandonment? I have two questions for the Minister. What is preventing the Government being bolder about the scope of the ban? When do we expect to see wider regulation or legislation for other plastic, single-use disposable products? As far as it goes, I support the legislation.
My Lords, I am sorry the Minister was not able to be in his place in the Chamber because I think I missed much of his introduction. As ever, we must look at this in perspective. According to the National Geographic, 8 million tonnes of plastic is deposited in the oceans every year, and straws represent 0.025% of that; that is one in 4,000. Here we have a 30-clause Bill to deal with 1/4,000th of the waste problem. The Minister said he is committed to eliminating plastic waste but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, he needs to do a lot more. When he comes to wind up, I hope he will explain exactly what he is going to do about the much bigger problem of tackling the rest of the plastic waste in the oceans.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised the question of charges on plastic bags in small and medium-sized enterprises. I have been asking questions on this subject for over two years and received the latest of two Written Answers this week from the noble Lord, saying that the Government would be responding shortly. It has taken over two years of questioning and we have still not got any decision. Could I ask the Minister to please give a decision this afternoon when he sums up on this urgent, important and simple matter?
My Lords, in welcoming this SI, I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that this is a very tiny amount. Unfortunately, one of the impacts of the pandemic has been to go back to plastic use where we were getting rid of it; for example, supermarkets are now delivering in plastic bags. Therefore, I wonder if the Minister might give an indication of what work is being done with health authorities to produce guidance that balances the need for good health practice and the reduction of plastic use.
Secondly, I echo the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, about the extent of the exceptions, which do seem very wide. Can the Minister give an assurance that encouragement will be given to the research and development of alternatives to plastics that can be used in these different contexts?
My Lords, a simple ban is only part of the problem. In response to the consultation, the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management asked clearly that alternatives such as paper and wood be explored. Could my noble friend update us on where we are on the use of these alternatives? Furthermore, does it not seem nonsensical that we are failing to dispose of plastics, whether single use or otherwise, where they could be reused—the plastic that is created from this—and recirculated so that there would be minimum waste? Should we not take a more whole-life approach to end-of-life use at the time of manufacturing any product, plastic or otherwise?
My Lords, I welcome these regulations as we still have some way to go. I wish to make the following points. First, local authority recycling remains inconsistent and patchy, and food-waste management is absent in many boroughs. Secondly, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that supermarkets remain on the back foot regarding the use of plastic packaging. Having strolled through two markets yesterday, I saw plenty of free plastic being given out, demonstrating that understanding of the detrimental impact on the environment remains inadequate. Does the Minister agree that the visual campaign needs to be broadened, including in various languages?
Finally, on the use of alternatives to plastic straws and cotton buds, I agree that more needs to be done in respect of manufacturing robust materials. I have a disabled family member and grandchildren, and I know that paper straws and cotton buds crumble very easily and often do not function adequately, so I welcome the exemption. Does the Minister agree that now is not the time for punitive measures such as fining companies, without first educating people and producing durable alternatives?
My Lords, I welcome this step towards reducing the amount of single-use disposable plastic that finds its way into the ecosystem. Paper straws evoke memories of school milk, soggy ends and pink or brown-coloured ends for special occasions, but thankfully paper technology has improved since then. Taking a broader environmental view, everyday use of non-essential straws should not be encouraged. Making and disposing of them still uses resources, and it is unclear how quickly they will biodegrade. On the packaging exemption, does it provide a loophole if a product—say, a flavouring—is supplied in a straw which is then used for drinking? Finally, as a general question, have the wire and elastic bits from surgical masks been assessed for environmental damage now that they are already being discarded a little carelessly?
My Lords, to deal well with the interface between citizens and environmental initiatives such as this, we need a comprehensive, open and above all truthful evidence base covering such matters as pollution, recycling, energy saving, the whole life cycle and all costs and benefits. We, as citizens, should be enabled to question, understand and then own whatever is asked of us. Are microplastics actually dangerous? Can you really mix shattered glass and waste paper and end up with recycled loo paper you would actually want to use? Please can we have something easily accessible, comprehensive and obsessively truthful so that we can truly share in this enterprise?
My Lords, I welcome these regulations and I support my noble friend Lord McConnell regarding the development goals. Britain could clearly be leading the way on the development goals on plastic. Next year—because it has been postponed—we are hosting COP 26. By doing this we could show the rest of the world that we are banning all forms of plastic for consumers and for building, because we have seen what it is doing to our sewers, to our oceans and to Antarctica. We must protect the environment not only for ourselves but for our children and further generations. I hope that the Government will ensure that there is enough funding for local authorities to enforce these regulations.
My Lords, I strongly support this measure and congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward despite Covid, on doing a proper impact assessment and on making provision for medical need. As the House knows, I am a long-term campaigner for reducing the use of plastic because of its growth, its indestructibility and its appalling effect on the environment, wildlife, the oceans and, I fear, human health, as my noble friend Lord McColl suggested. I have two questions. First, there are some amazing steps forward on plastic. A spin-out from Imperial has pioneered an additive that causes plastic film to break down in water. Elsewhere, the pollution of recycling caused by black plastic trays has been solved and there is a way of making disposable coffee cups so that the lining can be removed and the paper recycled. Can my noble friend incorporate these into his strategy? Secondly, there is still not a single and comprehensible system of plastic recycling, neither bins nor product labelling, across Britain’s local authorities. Can my noble friend pluck this low-hanging fruit and bring in a new system now?
My Lords, people of my generation were led down the wrong path into using plastic, so the conscious reduction in its use is very welcome. Single use, irrespective of the material, is not compatible with goals to reduce emissions and be sustainable. Plastic waste and pollution created by the products we use is a problem that will affect the youth of today and tomorrow more than previous generations. It is a problem that compounds itself and is still increasing.
Research has found that 68% of students want to learn more about the environment, but 75% of teachers do not feel they are equipped or trained adequately to teach students about climate change. We need to press the reset button. Will the Government respond to the Teach the Future initiative and commit resources to ensuring that climate considerations such as education on plastic, plant plastics and the need for sustainability and recycling in the economy are at the heart of our education system? I declare an interest as a member of the Peers for the Planet group.
My Lords, the creative industries clearly have a huge role to play in finding substitutes for objects now unacceptable for general use, such as those covered in these regulations, as well as developing new uses for biodegradable materials. Everything around us that is manmade is the result of a series of design decisions, including the materials used. A mantra of a younger generation of designers is, “Waste is a design flaw”. Is there an ongoing dialogue between Defra, BEIS and DDCMS that connects concern for the environment with the encouragement of design solutions? If not, might there be one?
A second, related concern is that we should not replace one set of problems with another—namely, plastics biodegradable only under industrial conditions ending up in landfill. Good designers are aware of this. What progress has been made since last year’s call for evidence on standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics? How does the department intend to educate the public in this area, including the use of labelling?
My Lords, I support this legislation. The three items covered by it that use plastic must be banned and their manufacture stopped. Surely, with the help of science, a replacement material such as wood could easily be used. I have heard that grass or straw could be used and then eaten, thereby avoiding any residual material to be disposed of. This would help address environmental issues.
It is generally accepted that the environment and climate change are the important issues of this century. Current plastic stocks must be destroyed, and the Government should recompense the stockholders. What plans are being considered to find a replacement material, dispose of the current stocks and compensate the stockholders?
My Lords, I too welcome these regulations and the review after one year to assess their impact. Plastic-stem cotton buds in particular are an added cost for water companies. They contribute to blockages, flooding and pollution in the sewers. Nationwide, £90 million is now spent clearing blockages after they are flushed down the loo. They eventually end up in our waterways and oceans and washed up on our beaches.
On a positive note, consumers will buy products that support the environment. They want to help our green recovery. According to the Ocean Plastic Survey, 89% of people are concerned about the effect of plastic pollution. As I speak, even more plastic escapes into the environment. We have to do more and do it quickly. The full impact is still being discovered. The ban cannot come soon enough.
My Lords, plastic pollution poses immense risks to the environment and the ecosystem. Incredibly, only 9% of plastics are recycled. With the UK experiencing the highest single-use plastic consumption in Europe, these regulations take an encouraging step—but, as many others have said, they fail to go far enough.
Small single-use plastics make up a fraction of global plastic waste. Some 25 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans annually, which is the equivalent of pouring a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. It is estimated that small, single-use plastic makes up only 5 tonnes of those 25 million tonnes. Without a shift in policy on other forms of plastic waste, the crisis will grow exponentially, so I would ask the Minister why we are legislating only on small, single-use plastic, which makes up such a tiny proportion of plastic waste.
My Lords, the Government have set out their ambition to leave the environment in a better state for the next generation. But our generation was not given good leadership when David Cameron argued that we should
“get rid of all this green crap”
from energy bills. These regulations are a small step in setting that right. They rightly provide exemptions for people with disabilities who may need to use a straw, but I would ask the Minister, first, how we might prevent abuse of this exemption. Secondly, could more be done to promote recyclable or more environmentally friendly alternatives as far as it is safe and appropriate to do so? For example, given present concerns about Covid, would metal straws be considered safe if they are washed in a dishwasher? The damage done to teeth by sugary drinks may be mitigated by the use of a straw, so we need to ensure that people are able to use non-plastic ones.
My Lords, as an MEP in the first directly elected European Parliament, I was privileged to present a report on
“containers of liquids for human consumption”,
generally known as the beverage containers directive. Ever since, I have remained interested in the difficult balance to be struck between health, hygiene and convenience on the one hand and the need to reduce, reuse and recycle on the other. These regulations aim to strike that balance.
Time is short, so I shall confine myself to asking my noble friend the Minister what international co-operation channels have been set up not only so that we can benefit from shared experience and research, but to monitor the situation both nationally and internationally. After all, the items covered by these regulations are in use throughout the world and our seas, oceans and marine life are being contaminated, as we have heard. If, in this country, 10% of these items are flushed down the toilet, what must the figure be globally?
I welcome this modest change and note that the charge on plastic bags has been pretty much universally accepted across the country and with virtually no complaints. But we need to go significantly further. The whole takeaway, throwaway culture has to be challenged. It is not long-standing in this country, but very modern. Be it in our canteens across the Palace of Westminster, where people seem to feel that taking food and plastic utensils back to their offices is normal, or the absurdity of people buying takeaway hot drinks and wandering the streets or cycling with them, this culture needs to be challenged and changed, and government action is crucial to assist that.
My Lords, I welcome the sensitive way in which my noble friend introduced these regulations, particularly in relation to the exemptions—here I echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and my noble friend Lord Holmes. A member of my close family has severe Parkinson’s disease and cannot drink without a straw. However, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in my view the straws do have to be disposable. I actually own a brush for washing non-disposable straws, but I am not sure that I believe in it. It may be that these regulations will spur research into new materials. However, if we do encourage the use of new materials, we need to ensure that, in creating them, we do not do further environmental harm in the way that, say, palm oil has done. We must beware of the law of unintended consequences.
My Lords, the numbers given by the Minister regarding straws, cotton buds and stirrers are quite staggering. I believe that the public will be right behind this legislation, but if we are serious about dealing with and reducing these numbers, we must revisit the exemption list and tighten it up. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, using these facilities and products must become unpopular and made like smoking was. At one time, everybody smoked; public opinion changed that and we can change this, too, but the exemptions—apart from the medical ones— really need to be tightened up. Finally, how many more burdens can the Minister pass on to local authorities and trading standards without sufficient funding to maintain them and deliver the services that he requires? It is quite intolerable that, as every SI comes before us, the burden is put on local government.
My Lords, I too welcome the regulations. As many people have said, they are a small step in the right direction. What I query is that while the public may say they support these things, their attitudes display something different. Too many bottles, cans and plastic bags litter our environment. Why are retailers still offering plastic bags? We need to increase charges. Why is polyester still being used as packaging when we know how detrimental it is? Other people have mentioned the importance of speedily introducing the deposit return scheme; if we had one, children would probably co-operate in clearing up that problem. I looked at the Government’s 25-year strategy and there are some good things, but it fails to deal with one of the worst blights: wet wipes. Millions and millions of these are used, totally unnecessarily. In the good old days, we used a flannel that was capable of being washed. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations to address the serious problem of single-use plastic in our disposable society. My youngest daughter, as chair of the Western Riverside Waste Authority in 2018-19, spoke of her frustrations at our throwaway culture and its cost to nature and society. In those years, that waste authority recycled more than 5,000 tonnes of plastic. Yet small items such as drinking straws are not commonly recycled and, having fallen through the machinery or worse, are left littering the environment. These regulations will be one step in re-educating people’s habits.
I welcome the medical exemptions. Another grandson, who has severe Down’s syndrome, relies on a straw to drink. His mother has now moved him on to a metal straw, which has become an essential part of his life. We should not just swap a plastic straw for an alternative one and then throw it away, but get people to change their behaviour by either reusing an alternative or not requiring a straw. It is good to see HMG bringing these regulations into force but October seems too far away, given the understandable delays in bringing them before the House. I hope that the Minister, having listened to today’s debate, will now feel able to press the Government for an earlier implementation date.
My Lords, I agree with many of your Lordships who have spoken so eloquently before me, highlighting the damage that the use of plastic is causing the environment and supporting these regulations to ban the single use of certain plastic items, as agreed more than two years ago. Can the Minister tell the House what measures are being put in place to ensure that drinking straws, stirrers and cotton buds sold in England are made of more environmentally friendly materials? Will he also promote the use of reusable alternatives? Furthermore, the use of such plastic material is an international problem for the environment, affecting almost every country in the world. But for educational and economic reasons, many developing countries have failed to take any steps to address this important issue. What are the British Government doing to assist those countries in addressing these issues?
I thank my noble friend for bringing forward these regulations. They are a welcome step in halting the terrible damage done to the environment by plastic waste. I have only two points.
First, I welcome the sensible exemption to which the Minister referred. As the Covid crisis has shown, it is impossible to do without plastic until we can mass-produce a cheap biodegradable alternative. Secondly, human habits matter as much as the science of recycling. It is human beings who through their irresponsible dumping of plastic waste are poisoning food chains, habitats, water and wildlife. The curse of plastic waste demands a joint effort from the Government, business and the ordinary citizen. People must learn not to treat our streets, parks and beauty spots as a fly-tipper’s paradise.
Does the Minister agree that there is also an urgent need for more rubbish bins and recycling points, more frequent removal of litter from public places and a speedy imposition of much heavier fines for littering? In all my years in London, I have never seen anyone fined for littering. Britain has a reputation for being the dirtiest country in Europe.
My Lords, the ban on single-use plastics—plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers—has been debated in this Chamber on many occasions since autumn 2018 when the Government first started their consultation on it. In May 2019, the ban was confirmed by the Government. Since then we have had numerous debates in which my noble friend Lady Parminter and I have taken part and supported the measure.
In these debates, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, as Minister, proudly reiterated that the ban on plastics was a prime example of the Government’s commitment. I have no doubt that he was sincere in that. The Minister now before us was in the other place when the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, was giving us these reassurances. However, I have no doubt about the present incumbent’s commitment to the wish to see all plastics removed from our countryside. I welcome his introductory remarks. In England, an estimated 10% of cotton buds are flushed down toilets and can end up in waterways and oceans, threatening precious marine life.
There are exemptions to the ban for people with medical conditions and disabilities. Registered pharmacies will be allowed to sell plastic straws over the counter or online. For reasons I do not understand, pubs and catering establishments, although not displaying plastic straws, will be able to provide them if asked. These could easily be made of paper.
This ban was consulted on, went through all the processes of legislation and became law in May 2019, to be implemented by April 2020. However, here we are today debating moving the implementation date to October 2020. The deadline had already passed. It is over a year since the Government introduced the ban, and the compliance date was well trailed with the industry. The straw manufacturers and those making cotton buds have had plenty of time to comply. It is easy for the consumer to purchase non-paper plastic-stem cotton buds and paper straws. When we buy a cup of coffee, we can use the wooden stirrers provided.
Many noble Lords have made valuable contributions and important points supporting banning plastics on a much wider scale. I support all their arguments, but this could have already been done. Along with banning microbeads in wash-off cosmetics, the subjects of this SI are but a drop in the ocean of the plastics we need to remove from our environment. It is disappointing in the extreme that the Government are backtracking on their commitment.
Therefore, I am left with only one answer to why the Government have decided to postpone the implementation date, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Covid-19. One of the major producers of these products has done nothing to move its business forward and has put pressure on the Government to move the implementation date. I have only one question for the Minister. Which of the major companies that produce plastic straws, cotton buds or stirrers was unable to meet the Government’s deadline of April 2020?
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction to this SI, and to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. Clearly there is a great deal of passion about this subject. As we have heard, the damage caused to the environment by single-use plastic is understandably a major concern, not only in this House but among the public at large.
When the proposal was first announced in 2018, some 80% to 90% of respondents supported the ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds, but this SI, welcome though it is, deals with only one small part of the plastics problem. It has been long promised and has taken a long time to get here, but at least it is a start, although the most recent delay, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, also highlighted another problem: how easily the progress we are making on single-use plastic can be undone if we are not vigilant.
The use of plastic knives, forks and cups in takeaways and restaurants has surged again, as it is seen as safer than metal cutlery and china crockery. Even the restaurants here in the Lords are distributing plastic cutlery again as standard. Although this is not the subject of today’s SI, it reminds us of the necessity of embedding a change in consumer behaviour and finding safe, reusable alternatives for all forms of plastic. However, while that is the right thing to do, we must be aware of the drift towards easy substitutes, which are often not much of an improvement on the plastic they replace. For example, the global market for paper straws is growing by 13% each year. McDonald’s switched to providing paper straws in 2018 and currently uses 1.8 million straws a day, equating to 675 million a year. None is recycled; they all end up in incineration or landfill.
What measures are in place to prevent this ban simply resulting in a switch from one unsuitable single-use material to another? How will the use of unsuitable substitutes be monitored, and action be taken as required? Where does this fashion for drink stirrers come from anyway? In my childhood, metal spoons did the trick. It worries me that, as with many consumer products, we seem to have been sold a desire for a lifestyle symbol that is neither particularly practical nor attractive, while other, more sustainable, substitutes are available.
The Minister is committed to the concept of a circular economy, in which all materials are used and used again and consumers play their part in sustaining that economy, but we are a long way from achieving that goal and a great deal more education is needed to make it a success. In the meantime, this SI tackles only one small part of the challenge. We have been waiting for legislation on bottle return schemes and a requirement for all remaining single-use plastics to be recyclable and recycled. I agree with noble Lords that we need tighter measures to ensure that we do not simply export the plastics and contaminated waste to countries less able to process it.
We are also waiting for the Environment Bill, which has been delayed again. It would give us the chance to address some of these wider objectives—with, we hope, more ambitious targets than those originally set out in the 25-year environment plan. Can the Minister say when we are likely to receive the Bill in your Lordships House, and answer a specific concern about when the office for environmental protection will be in place and fully functioning, given that its deadline was originally 1 January 2021?
In the meantime, I have some specific questions. First, can he confirm that the exemption for plastic straw use in schools is only for reasons of disability? I am sure that he would recognise that allowing all young people to have access to straws could encourage an expectation which would be hard to reverse as the children get older. Secondly, what is the assessment of the introduction of these bans during the Covid pandemic? For example, would the medical exemption apply in pubs and restaurants if it was used for hygienic reasons? Thirdly, what guidance will be made available to local authorities on enforcement, and what steps will be taken —and indeed what additional resources will be provided— to ensure that trading standards is able to give this issue priority? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed to the debate today. In order for us to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, which is our commitment as a Government, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place to limit the impact of our use of resources on the natural world. Plastics cause incontrovertible harm to the marine and terrestrial environment and we need to act now. These measures are an important part of our wider strategy to tackle plastic pollution; they will serve as an important marker that our reliance on single-use plastics must be reduced.
I will do my best to answer the many questions raised throughout this fascinating debate. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked whether the exemptions were really necessary, and whether we could not simply switch to biodegradable and other alternatives. The reality is that, until the technology becomes more reliable and improves, we believe that these exemptions are necessary. He asked, as did a number of other noble Lords, about the capacity of local authorities to enforce these new rules. I can tell noble Lords that my officials are working with MHCLG to complete a new burdens assessment on this new regulation. Any new burdens will be fully resourced.
My noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lady Hooper, and my near-neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, all in different ways raised the international component of the issue that we are discussing. I emphasise that the UK has shown real global leadership. This is a huge problem: we are told that, by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish, as measured by waste. This is a really big issue. The UK has committed up to £70 million to boost global research and to support developing countries around the world to prevent plastic waste entering the ocean, as well as to develop sustainable manufacturing. This includes the Commonwealth Litter Programme, which is a £6 million programme supporting countries across the Commonwealth to develop national litter action plans, and the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. A technical assistance facility of up to £10 million has been made available to ODA-eligible members to support the implementation of the alliance’s many commitments. There is also the Global Plastic Action Partnership: the UK has committed just under £2.5 million to the World Economic Forum to help leading businesses to collaborate with NGOs and Governments to tackle marine plastic pollution—among many other things.
A number of noble Lords raised the obvious point that this is just one small step. The noble Lords, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Lord Foulkes, Lord Mann and Lord Goddard, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and my noble friends Lord Randall and Lady Gardner, all in various ways made the point that this is one step and we need many more. Of course, I and the Government recognise that much more needs to be done, and our resources and waste strategy clearly reflects that.
I would point out, however, that we have already introduced a world-leading ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products—it was a world first. We have reduced the use of single-use carrier bags by around 90% in the main supermarkets with the 5p carrier bag charge. We have committed over £100 million to support research and development around plastics, particularly the development of smart, sustainable plastic packaging, including alternatives to plastic. We have consulted on a suite of measures to reduce, reuse and recycle more. Among other things, we are creating a consistent service across England, ensuring that a minimum core set of materials is collected by all authorities. We are committed to reforming the current packaging waste regulations to financially incentivise producers to take greater responsibility for the environmental impact of the packaging that they put on the market.
We are committed to introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers in England and to introducing a new tax on plastic packaging that has less than 30% recycled content from April 2022, with any revenue from that going to fund investment in plastic waste and litter. We have also committed to removing consumer single-use plastics from central government offices; Defra, for example, one of the departments that I am representing here today, has already removed single-use plastic cups for sale within the department.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan raised a number of issues around extended producer responsibility and the merits or otherwise of biodegradable alternatives, a point that was also made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. The Government are reviewing the implementation timeline for the proposed introduction of extended producer responsibility. It will be announced soon; I apologise that I am not able to put a date to that.
The thrust of our environment approach, and almost the most important part of our approach to tackling waste, is extended producer responsibility, which for the first time will place the lifetime responsibility for a product on the shoulders of those who manufacture that product. There is a massive incentive in there for manufacturers and producers of products to produce products that last or that can be easily recycled.
On the biodegradable alternatives, there is no doubt that innovative new packaging types could help reduce the environmental impact of plastic if it is disposed of in the right way. However, in the absence of clear standards, we are concerned that claims about the biodegradability of plastic-based products cannot always be verified, and in fact they are simply not always true. Defra and BEIS therefore published a call for evidence last year to help us look at standards or certification criteria for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, and to better understand their effects on the environment and our current waste system. We are currently analysing the responses that we have had, with a view to publishing a government response late in the summer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, congratulated the Government on the exemptions that were included and asked that I commit that we continue to consult with stakeholder organisations. That point was also made by my noble friend Lord Holmes and I am happy to make that commitment here now.
I was asked whether we would be issuing guidance to businesses on how to work with the new regulations and the answer is yes. Defra will publish guidance for businesses and put it on the government website, GOV.UK, to assist them in complying with these new regulations. Local authorities, which ultimately will enforce the ban through trading standards officers, will also be required by the regulations to publish guidance on enforcement, and we will help them to do so.
My noble friend Lord McColl mentioned the problem of microplastics and suggested that that was a more important issue to be spending money on than, for example, climate change. These issues are not mutually exclusive. It is impossible to tackle climate change responsibly without also tackling broader environmental issues and working with nature-based solutions, and it is impossible to restore and protect the natural world in the way that he implies, with which I strongly agree, without also tackling climate change. We have no choice but to tackle both of those looming crises.
On the specific issue that he raised on microplastics, we have introduced one of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products. Microbeads, like all other forms of microplastics, do not biodegrade; they get smaller and smaller and accumulate in the environment. Our ban has eliminated that avoidable source of plastic pollution.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, mentioned the problem of mixed waste. He is right: there is an inconsistency in the manner in which waste is collected. One of the things that we are committed to doing is ensuring consistency at local authority level. He also made the point that driving further with this agenda would be good as part of our green recovery plans, and I am pleased that the Prime Minister has made building back greener and better a key priority not only of this Government but in our international work as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked when the second round of consultations would happen. That will be in early 2021. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, asked whether we were still committed to introducing DRS. Yes, we are absolutely committed to doing so and I can give that commitment now. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked why we have not been bolder. I hope that the answers I gave to previous questions will have reassured her somewhat.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, questioned the focus on something which represents a small percentage of the overall plastic problem. He is right, but 4.7 billion straws being used in England alone is not a small problem. Tackling these visible examples of what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, described as “our throwaway society” is, in itself, an educational process and alerts people to the problem of plastic more broadly.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, criticised the previous Prime Minister for using a derogatory term about environmental measures. Internationally, we have shown more leadership on climate change and environmental restoration than any country that I am aware of, doubling our climate finance to £11.6 billion, and leading the charge on making the case for nature-based solutions to climate change. We have a long history that we can be proud of. We were the first country to introduce legally binding emissions reduction targets and the first major economy to set net-zero targets by 2050. We are the top performer in the EU on resource efficiency and much more besides.
I recognise that I am running out of time. I apologise to noble Lords whose questions I have not answered. I have documented these and will write to them following this debate.
As I have outlined, the regulations will restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds; in doing so, reducing plastic pollution and its impact on the natural environment. We recognise that there is a great deal more to do and the Government are committed to doing so. We are taking steps to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and to explore more sustainable alternatives. These regulations will help us achieve that. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 3.48 pm.