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Recycled Plastics

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 13 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that a global oversupply of petrochemicals has led to recycled plastics failing to compete with new, and whether they plan to take any action in response.

My Lords, we are aware of the oversupply of petrochemicals in the global market, but this is a matter for industry to lead on. It is estimated that businesses which are members of the UK Plastics Pact have, on average, increased the recycling content of their packaging from 8.5% in 2018 to 24.1% in 2023. The Government will continue to readdress the balance through measures such as the coalition and packaging reforms and the plastic packaging tax.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, there was, for example, three times as much ethylene produced last year as there was demand for it. As with fossil fuels used for energy, is it not time to look seriously on a global scale at restrictions on production, not just working on the demand side, particularly given that we are all bearing the externalised costs imposed environmentally and financially in terms of waste disposal and the companies are taking away profits for unnecessary products?

The noble Baroness raises a very good point. Domestically, we are seeking to increase the supply of recycled plastics and reduce the demand, through regulation and tax, for virgin plastics, but we recognise that whatever we do domestically will not help to solve this global problem. That is why we are a founding member of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution. At the United Nations Environment Assembly in March, we drove through, with Rwanda and Peru, a commitment to see an end to plastic pollution by 2042.

My Lords, the Birmingham expert commission on plastics and the environment, which I chaired, recommended the introduction of a sliding-scale tax on plastic packaging. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will introduce such a sliding-scale tax, which would greatly benefit the environment?

We are looking at all sorts of reforms to our measures. The plastic packaging tax increases with inflation and has gone up to £217 per tonne this year. We are continuing to look at extended producer responsibility reforms and to see whether the work that the noble Baroness has talked about has an application in terms of how we deliver these regulations.

My Lords, we need to use less plastic and actually recycle what we do use. There is enough floating around the planet already; there is no good reason to produce more. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are going to introduce the deposit return scheme in this Parliament, and when they expect the global plastics treaty to be agreed?

On the deposit return scheme, we have a date for implementation of October 2025. Our social research found that 74% of respondents supported it and 83% of our consultation responses supported its implementation. We think that there are 3,000 to 4,000 jobs if we get this right. On the international agreement, as I said, the UK is a founder member of the high ambition coalition, we are driving it forward and we need other countries to do it as well. Some 90% of the pollution in our oceans that comes from rivers comes from just 10 rivers—eight of them in Asia and two in Africa. That is an indication of the global problem that we are facing.

My Lords, there are growing reports of the detrimental impact of microplastics in the food and water supplies, which can indirectly impact on our health. What are the Government doing to further research this problem and educate the public on this risk, and what measures are being taken to mitigate it?

There are human health issues related to plastics pollution and huge environmental damage done. At a recent Ospar convention, I saw a fulmar having its guts opened up for us to look at, and you can see the plastics in its guts system and its gizzard. It just gives you an idea of how many thousands—millions, even—of birds around the world are dying because of plastics pollution. We need to have a greater understanding of the impact on human health, and that is why our One Health agenda is really important in this field.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the deposit return scheme, and said that it would be coming in in October 2025. Why has it taken so long? People are incredibly frustrated about this; they want it introduced as quickly as possible. Is the delay partly because the Government are reconsidering its scope?

No, we want this to be a United Kingdom scheme. The noble Baroness will be aware of complications in Scotland, and we want to make sure that we are introducing this in conjunction, so that we do not have booze cruises from Scotland to England to buy drinks that will not fall within that scheme. We now think that we can work with this. In the context of the whole piece, with our plastics packaging tax, and recycling increasing dramatically over the last decade, we are now requiring households right across the country, uniform across the local authorities, to recycle all six waste streams by 2027. With the bag charge, which has seen a 98% reduction in the use of those, and the introduction of the banning of single-use plastic straws and a whole range of other single-use plastics, I think even the noble Baroness would admit that we are doing our best.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware that Wales led the way in introducing a charge for single-use plastic bags. It was so successful that it was followed in short order by Northern Ireland, Scotland and then England. However, in respect of the ban on single-use plastics, on which, again, Wales is trying to lead the way, I am not quite so sure of the evidence. Will the Minister say what his opinion is of what the effect of banning single-use plastics might be?

Our restrictions on straws, stirrers and cotton buds have had a big impact. These items used to appear on the top-10 littered items lists but no longer do so. According to estimates in our impact assessment, England used 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of single-use cutlery per year, most of which were plastic but only 10% were recycled, so banning these items will have a significant impact on reducing plastic waste.

My Lords, the Minister referred to strong public support for recycled plastics rather than virgin plastics, yet it is clear that the market mechanisms are simply not delivering the products that people can buy. Individual action will not work here. Do we not need to go much further and faster to ensure that we get to the circular economy that the Government stand for, and, indeed, the position where the polluter pays, which is the Government’s position?

Absolutely. The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out our ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The resources and waste strategy, which was published in 2018, sets out how we are going to achieve that ambition, mainly by creating precisely what the noble Baroness said—a circular economy. We are not the single repository of good ideas here so, if the noble Baroness has a suggestion that works with business and the end-user, particularly households, we would be glad to hear it.

My Lords, in response to the question from my noble friend on the Front Bench, the Minister said something about Scotland being different and that being a problem. Could he explain to noble Lords who are ignorant about these things what the problem is and what the solution might be?

I do not want to rake over the Scottish National Party’s grief, but it sought to have a different scheme from the rest of the United Kingdom—for whatever reason we can only conjecture. It is important to have one system across the whole United Kingdom. Many businesses and individuals were fiercely opposed to what was proposed to be introduced in Scotland, and we are glad that the Scottish Government pulled it. We can now move forward with one scheme that is effective across the United Kingdom and can really deliver. Those of us who can remember how deposit schemes worked in the past can see how it can work in the future. What was created in Scotland through certain applications of that scheme would have proved disastrous. We want to make sure that this happens properly across these islands.

My Lords, I understand that some local authorities require seven different recycling bins, which threatens chaos. Does the Minister believe that the answer to our recycling challenge is to increase the number of recycling bins for us all or to make central recycling facilities work much more effectively?

The noble Lord will know that different local authorities have different ways of doing this. There are technologies now that can separate plastics and other recyclable waste, but one undoubtedly needs a separate receptacle for food and various other wastes. I do not see how our proposal would lead to seven different recycling bins; it would just not work in those circumstances.