[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
We come to a debate about Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment. Everyone can see that quite a large number of Members wish to speak. I ask colleagues to bear that in mind when they make their speeches. I may have to impose a time limit. I call Mr Alistair Carmichael to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Another week, another debate on plastics in the marine environment. I welcome the Minister back to her now familiar position. I consider myself fortunate to have obtained this debate, and I am delighted to see such a healthy turnout of Members from all parts of the House.
This issue has become quite fashionable of late. It has certainly come to public attention since the BBC screened its “Blue Planet” series last year. But what people now understand is something that I as an islander, and others who live in coastal communities, have known for some years—that the amount of plastic in our marine environment has been growing exponentially for years and is now a massive danger to us all. People just have to walk along any beach to see that. The part of the world I represent is famed for its clean environment, but the number of coffee cups, food containers, fishing nets and ropes that we find even on our otherwise very attractive beaches provides evidence of that. That is actually the easy stuff, because we can remove it with beach clean-ups, but it does not remain on the beach; it is taken back out to sea and reduced until it eventually becomes much more difficult to remove from the marine environment.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Europe and the USA are responsible for only about 2% of ocean litter? Although it matters not to a dolphin or turtle where the plastic it is being strangled by or choking on came from, that means that those of us who wish to address this subject need to focus on rapidly developing countries with inadequate waste disposal systems.
Absolutely. I read recently that about 90% of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, though, that an awful lot of things are going to have to change, one of which is how we see and think of the marine environment. It has frustrated me for years that things that happen on the high seas are out of sight and out of mind. That applies not just to this issue but to things such as shipping standards. The way we ship oil around the world occasionally comes home very graphically when something goes wrong and there is a major oil spillage.
I come back to how I, as an islander, see the world. So many people see the sea as something that divides us from other places; as an islander, I see it as something that joins us to other places. People who take that view understand that with that attitude comes a shared responsibility for ensuring that our marine environment is as clean as it can be. However, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that what we do in this country is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Inevitably, we will need to work much more closely with people in other parts of the world. I will touch on that later.
The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that we use about 2.5 billion single-use cups, and that only one in 400 of them is recycled. Consider the report in The Guardian today about the way in which wet wipes are changing the shape of our river beds. Thames21 found no fewer than 5,453 wet wipes on 116 square metres of the Thames embankment near Hammersmith. Of course, what starts in our rivers eventually ends up in our oceans.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this extremely important debate. Before he moves off the subject of cups—this may be a matter that you wish to raise with the House authorities, Sir Edward—is it not absurd that we are having this debate surrounded by non-reusable plastic cups? Surely, we in this Parliament should lead the way by replacing them with glasses or at least reusables.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is, like me, a signed-up member of the campaign for a plastic-free Parliament. I was fortunate to be given a coffee glass by the World Wide Fund for Nature as I came to the Chamber. He is absolutely right—that is just one good illustration of how we have become so cavalier about our use of plastics.
We all know—we have seen the pictures—where plastic ends up. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them; plastic debris is lodged on coral reefs, which affects the health of the reef and has an impact throughout the marine food chain; and microplastics are consumed by animals as small as plankton, work their way up the food chain and are eventually consumed by us at the top.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Let me go back to the issue of wet wipes. There is a lot of misleading information on packets, which suggests wet wipes are flushable and leads users to believe that they are biodegradable. In fact, all that means is that they pass through the U-bend and end up in the system, as he described. That is an important advertising and packaging issue, which should be addressed by the makers of wet wipes.
Although I am delighted that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is here, this issue will impact on just about every area of public policy if we are serious about tackling it meaningfully. The Government’s role is probably the most significant, but I am resistant, as ever, to the notion that the Government can do everything for us. There are any number of interests at play and places where behaviour can be changed for the better.
There is a role for us all as individuals—in particular as consumers. If we say to supermarkets, “No, we’re not going to come to you. We will go to a supermarket like Iceland,” which has committed to reducing plastic packaging, every supermarket will soon sit up and listen. I recently got my Friday lunch in the Peerie Shop café in Lerwick, and I was gladdened to find that it now has compostable knives, forks and spoons in its takeaway section. That is not a massive expense, but it is a demonstration of commitment—and a demonstration of that café’s commitment to providing what its customers want. There is a business incentive and imperative here.
There is also a role for local government. The provision and operation of recycling facilities will be crucial. We will doubtless talk about the operation of a deposit return scheme, which I hope will increase massively the amount of material there is to be recycled. In fact, it is a bit like flushable wet wipes—there is no point gathering recyclable material if we do not have the capacity to recycle it. Among the representations I received ahead of the debate was a fairly minded one from Harrogate Water Brands, which produces water. It explained that a lot of the plastic that is described as single use is single use only because we do not recycle it, and pointed out, quite fairly, that only about half the material in the plastic bales that local authorities supply for recycling can be used for recycling, as opposed to 95% in the United States and 99% in France.
There is a role for business. I commend Sky in particular, which has not just run its ocean rescue campaign but, in its business operations, taken the goal of becoming plastic-free seriously. It has a target of being plastic-free by 2020. I was struck by the difference that will make. One company of a reasonable size—but not that big—says that by
“eliminating plastic from all Sky offices…it is estimated we will save 560,000 water bottles and 7 million coffee cups per year through our operations.”
That is a good illustration of a company responding to what its customers would want.
Then there is the role for Government—or perhaps I should say Governments. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), 90% of plastics in the oceans come from 10 rivers, and tackling that will obviously require international co-operation. That is the nature of the marine environment; UK action alone will not be sufficient.
I will have some questions later in relation to a specific international issue, but I hope the Minister will have noted Sky—a significant company but one that is not that big—and its target to be plastic-free by 2020. That goal contrasts, in a way that should raise questions, with the targets set by Government for our economy as a whole, which would take us closer to 2040. When Government action and targets are being so outstripped by corporate effort, perhaps we should consider whether we are being ambitious enough.
I welcome the ban on microbeads, although it is still not complete. A microbead that is washed off someone’s face may not be allowed to enter our watercourse or our oceans, but surely a microbead could enter the watercourse and the marine environment if it came from a suntan lotion or similar. A complete ban on microbeads would be the logical conclusion to the brave and innovative work already taking place.
I welcome the commitment to introducing a deposit return scheme, but the detail remains sketchy. I appreciate that we have yet to hear about a consultation, but we should be able to agree on the broad principles. I commend to the Minister the work of Greenpeace, which has come up with some fairly broad headings that she could do worse than include in her consultation. The first of those headings states that there should be no cost to central Government, with administration funded by the scheme, and cost savings for local authorities. Secondly, the only cost to consumers should be to those who do not return the containers they purchase and pay a deposit on. Thirdly, there should not be a cost for small retailers, for a whole range of reasons—our small shops and retailers are already struggling in the current environment—but there is a strong case for including larger retailers in such a scheme. Fourthly, it suggests charging producers an administrative fee for each container manufactured, and a one-off contribution to start-up costs.
Surely we can agree that, at its heart, a deposit return scheme should include all sizes of vessel—and, indeed, plastic, metal and glass. Only then will it be effective. The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Government have already started down this road, and that is the approach they are taking. I suggest there is a benefit to us all in having a single scheme across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am puzzled by the bottle return scheme. Of course, on the face of it, it is a good thing: in so far as bottles are recyclable, we can bring them back into use and that is great. However, what happens to the non-recyclable materials gathered back through those means? Surely that material will end up in landfill, as it does at the moment. What will we have achieved?
I am not sure that I share the hon. Gentleman’s understanding of what is involved in the return scheme; of course, the consultation is there for that, if necessary. To take his hypothesis as correct, at the very least we would have succeeded in separating the different constituent parts, and that in itself is valuable.
I am conscious of time and the number of Members who wish to speak, so I will try to canter on. The last concern on which I seek the Minister’s comments is the introduction of a so-called latte levy: a surcharge for the use of disposable cups from coffee shops. The Marine Conservation Society recommends something in the region of 25p for each non-reusable drink cup, or indeed a reduction for those who bring a cup to the store themselves. There is a parallel with the plastic bag levy introduced under the coalition Government, which has been a spectacular success: there was an 85% reduction in the use of plastic bags in the first year of its operation. Is that because when we hand over £100 or whatever for our weekly supermarket shop, we think, “I’m not going to spend another 50p on plastic bags”? I do not think so. The introduction of the levy made people consider their behaviour and the impact it would have. I suggest to the Minister that a levy of the sort proposed by the Marine Conservation Society would have a similar impact and could be transformative. I commend it to her for departmental consideration.
I have some technical points in relation to the revision of the EU directive on port reception facilities and how that will impact on campaigns such as the fishing for litter scheme, an initiative run by KIMO that I have supported for many years. In view of the time I have taken—notwithstanding interventions—I will spare the Chamber my comments on that, but the Minister can expect them to land in her correspondence bag in the near future.
Order. I will impose a five-minute time limit on all Back-Bench speeches.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. I suspect that most of us in the Chamber watched “Blue Planet II”, which reminded us—if we needed reminding—of the magic of the natural world. We were sickened by the sight of those giant, swirling plastic continents—some are bigger than France—that we have created. More than 1 million birds and 100,000 sea mammals and turtles die each year because of the plastic we continue to dump—some 12 million tonnes globally a year. We learnt that 90% of all seabirds tested last year were found to have plastic in their gut.
We have treated the environment with contempt, like a giant rubbish dump. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid. It appals all normal people. None of us wants to be part of the problem, but most of us, if not all, are, simply because it is so hard to escape plastic—it surrounds us. There are plastic cups, which have already been identified, as well as plastic water bottles, sandwich wrappers, plastic knives, forks and spoons, plastic straws and plastic stirrers, which inexplicably are still available in so many pubs. Totally unnecessarily packaging encases so much of the food and other products we buy in supermarkets.
We need to recognise and understand that as a consequence of a form of market failure. These things are used for a few seconds but last in the environment for many hundreds of years, and it is not the producers who pay the cost; we all do. This is a clear area where the market has simply failed to spot the cost of these products, which is why Government action is not only important but absolutely essential.
It has to be said that, relative to other Governments and other countries, what we have done is impressive. The 5p bag levy, which has already been mentioned, has been a tremendous success. We have banned microbeads and are therefore world leaders in that department. Our commitment to bring in the deposit return scheme for bottles and other products, and our commitments to ban straws, those absurd stirrers and plastic cotton buds are all excellent. I salute the Secretary of State for the leadership he has shown. Nevertheless, relative to the problem we face, those are baby steps, and we need much, much more.
We need to set up an urgent plan, a roadmap toward a genuine zero-waste society, and part of that must mean banning single-use plastics across the board and making it easier for the recycling business to recycle what we use. It is crazy, for example, that all local authorities have different rules on recycling. That just creates a confusing mess, and the sheer variety of plastics on offer does not help. We should be seeking to limit the range of plastics available, as Japan has done, to make it easier for things to be recycled and to make it certain that those products that are used can be recycled.
Where companies make things that cannot be recycled or repaired, they should be subject to some kind of higher tax, which can itself be recycled to pay to help those companies that are doing the right thing. That tax would, in a sense, be their paying for their own pollution footprint. Where companies are doing the right thing, we should help them. For example, the big retailers are a huge part of the problem today, but they could so easily become a huge part of the solution. The laggards need to be pressed by Government, and the pioneers need to be helped, perhaps through VAT reductions or reduced business rates, which could be paid for through those pollution taxes.
To know what is possible, we need only look at those pioneers. In January, we heard from the supermarket chain Iceland that it was to become the first major UK retailer to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products within five years. Iceland, by the way, was also the first big supermarket to ban the use of palm oil, which is devastating the world’s forests, particularly in and around Indonesia.
I will cut back what I was going to say, or I will run out of time. As has already been said, this is not just an issue for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Treasury, but an international issue, and therefore an issue for the Department for International Development. We have already heard that 90% of waste enters the oceans via just 10 rivers. That must be a priority for DFID, and I think we would find that even those people—not myself, I have to say—who are sceptical of that Department’s existence and our commitment to spend 0.7% of our annual budget on it would find this an issue that we should prioritise. I think Government action in that regard would be met with a big round of applause.
To give one example of those rivers, I discovered this morning that the Yangtze carries 1.5 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year. The Thames carries just 18 tonnes. That shows the sheer scale of the problem coming from some rivers, and it should be a priority.
I have something to ask the Government to do, before I add my complaint about the plastic cups, but I am going to reverse the order. I cannot tell hon. Members how many Select Committees have written to the House authorities saying, “We’ve got to get rid of these plastic cups,” how many individual MPs have echoed those demands in their own private letters, how many people have signed petitions or how many people have joined campaigns for a plastic-free Parliament. It is absurd that the cups are still here. I cannot understand it. Is it apathy? Is it incompetence? Is it lack of interest or laziness? I do not know, but there is no justifiable reason why they should still be here today. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will take that message to the highest levels.
On a point of order, Sir Edward. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has just made is terribly important. It is hard to understand why the House authorities have not taken note of our calls for the abolition of plastics in Committees. Is this not a message that you, as the Chair, should be able to take to Mr Speaker and the Committees of the House, in the hope that they will finally listen to us?
I am sure that all colleagues will exercise their good judgment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to speak in this timely and important debate. I will go back to May 2017, when Greenpeace’s ship the Beluga II visited the Bass rock in East Lothian, bringing with it water sampling equipment to test the microplastics in the area. The Bass rock is important because it is the world’s largest northern gannet colony. The children who came out to see the Beluga II were so excited, enthralled and enthused by what they saw that they took up a beach clean and took it upon themselves—aged between seven and 11—to clean up the beach. They did that having spoken not just to those who come out and advertise such things, but to the scientists who were on the ship, who explained to them the damage that the plastic did.
That work moved on in East Lothian with Surfers Against Sewage, a group that rightly has great interest in what is in the seawater for its sport. It worked with Dunbar primary school, one of only 20 schools to have been awarded the title of ocean guardian, and works year on year with beach cleans of that sort. Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, has said that it is willing to provide the basic equipment for beach cleans. More importantly, it says:
“From grassroots to Government, the time to act is now.”
That is why today’s debate is so timely, because what happens in the very near future will make such a difference to our seas.
We have already heard mention of the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. When the plastic whale, which has also visited Parliament, visited Musselburgh in my constituency, children flocked to see it. But they also went down again with the rangers of East Lothian Council to clean the beaches of plastic. I was privileged to be with them when they were interviewed by Sky. The children did not say they were doing it because Sky was there. They did not say they were doing it just for half a day away from school. They were stunned that people still dropped litter.
These primary school children understand something that, apparently, people forget as they grow older. They were aghast at what they found on the beaches. When it was suggested to them that perhaps it was teenagers who had dropped all the bottles, they said, “No it’s not; it’s adults,” and they picked the bottles up. That is testament to our young people and their understanding of and connection with the environment, which is something to be hopeful about and something we should promote.
In East Lothian, we have a charity called Fidra, which looks at the problem of nurdles. Nurdles are the small plastic balls that go to make all the plastic bottles we see. Nurdles are how raw plastic, for want of a better description, is transported around the world, and they make up an astronomically large proportion of the plastic damage in our oceans. The difficulty is that, much like the microbeads, once they get into the water, they are impossible to get out. Fidra is working hard with companies to change the way that nurdles are transported and to change business procedures, in order to prevent spillages and prevent the nurdles getting into the ocean.
Fidra also uses beach cleans to raise awareness of the matter. Working with children at Yellowcraig, a truly beautiful beach in East Lothian, over 400 nurdles were collected in just five minutes. That is a phenomenal amount to have washed up on a beach. Industrial spillage and mishandling then cause nurdles to float and travel around the world.
I also attended a nurdle hunt in North Queensferry with members of Fidra. While there is a great sense of displeasure from children and parents that this is happening to their beach and their environment, what steps can we take to get that message through to the people who produce the plastics in the first place, to ensure that we do not have to have beach cleans, but can have a policy that prevents it from happening in the first place?
That intervention brings me on to Operation Clean Sweep, an agreement that has come up from the plastics industry and is supported by both the British Plastics Federation and PlasticsEurope. The Operation Clean Sweep manual provides practical solutions to prevent nurdle loss for those who make, ship and use nurdles. The key message, of course, is good handling to reduce pellet loss and pellet use, which in turn goes to the type of plastic being used.
However, the work by young people, volunteer groups and charities will not be enough without political and, if necessary, legislative support. The EU is promoting the target of 2030 as the year by which member states should have phased out single-use plastics. The UK Government’s proposal of a 25-year environment plan appears to be, with all due respect, more of a repackaging of existing policies and previous announcements—I sincerely hope that the repackaging is not in plastic. It is our children who go to beach cleans, and our surfers who use the water. Through the conduit of the plastic whale and the nurdle hunts, they attack this issue with passion, enthusiasm and commitment. Unfortunately, those children will be in their 30s when the Government have caught up. We owe them more than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. Like him, I represent a beautiful area of stunning coastline; it is one of only three constituencies that have two separate coastlines. I grew up in Cornwall and have noticed over my lifetime—growing up and spending as much time as I possibly could on beaches—the increasing amount of plastic being deposited from the sea on to our beaches and how that developed into something that we could no longer ignore. It is almost as though, collectively, the British public have had a lightbulb moment. For generations we have been abusing the seas that surround our country, seeing them as just a dumping site where we could throw anything, but we have suddenly come to the realisation that we cannot go on vandalising the seas that surround us.
A team effort has got us to this point. Hon. Members have mentioned the role that “Blue Planet II” played in bringing this issue to the public’s awareness. There has also been the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign. Newspapers have been involved; the Daily Mail has run a campaign on the issue. That has all contributed to getting us to this point.
I also pay tribute to the Cornwall-based charity Surfers Against Sewage, which I work closely with as chair of the Protect our Waves all-party parliamentary group. That charity has been campaigning since 1990 for us to stop abusing our seas and take action to clean them up and improve the quality of the water. It started by focusing on sewage and recently has been working to address the way plastic is affecting our oceans. Just two weekends ago it mobilised 35,000 people—I understand that it was one of the biggest volunteer mobilisations in the country—to carry out beach cleans right across our country, and they collected more than 65 tonnes of plastic from our beaches in just one weekend. That demonstrates just how much plastic is washed up on our beaches every day of the year.
Just as it has taken a team effort to bring this issue to the public’s awareness, so we now have, I believe, an unstoppable national grassroots movement, which is determined to address this issue, reduce the amount of plastic that we use and stop plastic polluting our marine environment. It will take a team effort to address it, and I believe that much of the pressure will come from consumers as they begin to demand that retailers and industry use less plastic in their packaging. I encourage every member of the British public to use their power as a consumer to force industry to make the necessary changes and cut back on the amount of plastic we use.
Clearly there is also a role for Government. We should congratulate the current Government on the action they have taken to start to address this issue—far more than any previous Government—and we should be proud of them for that. I am talking about the 5p plastic bag charge, which has resulted in 9 billion fewer plastic bags being used in our country, the microbead ban, the action to address straws and cotton buds, and the commitment to find a way to bring in a deposit return scheme to increase recycling.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining those measures, many of which came from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I and other hon. Members in the Chamber serve. That Committee also suggested charges on disposable coffee cups, which has not come forward as a measure. What does he think about charges on disposable coffee cups—the so-called latte levy?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that there has been a team effort within Parliament. The Environmental Audit Committee has played a role, as has the APPG that I chair. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have played a role in sending a clear message that the Government need to take action, and the Government have responded and acted in a very responsible way to start to address that. The coffee cup challenge is a difficult one. It is very easy to say what we will do, but we have to work with industry to find a sustainable solution that will reduce the amount of plastic that we throw away and not do untold damage to our economy in the process. It is therefore right that the Government think carefully and consult on these issues; they must work with the industry.
Only yesterday, I met a company—it happens to be an Israeli company—that thinks it has found the solution to the coffee cup challenge. I hope that it will be able to bring that forward, but we also need to recognise that, in the supply chain, businesses have invested tens of millions of pounds in the current packaging system and it is therefore unrealistic to expect them to throw away that investment overnight and change the way they do things. We need to work with industry to come forward with sustainable solutions to the problem. I would love to see action taken, but we must ensure that it is the right sort of action. It is therefore right that the Government consider the issue carefully, rather than just jumping to a conclusion.
In the time left to me, I will make a point that has already been made. This is a global problem. It is very important that the UK takes a lead—that we get our own house in order so that we can take a lead internationally on the issue—but we have to work with other countries. It was good to see the progress that was made recently with the Commonwealth countries. Many of us would like to have seen more progress, but a step was taken forward, which is very welcome. We also need to use our influence around the world, through our aid budget and the Foreign Office, to ensure that we call other countries to account and that global action is taken to clean up our seas.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing this issue forward for consideration; I thank him for that. All the speeches so far have been excellent. I was raised learning that the Earth is the Lord’s and all within it belongs to Him. I was taught to be frugal and thrifty—or, as the girls in my office say, as an Ulster-Scot I am tight. Perhaps some of the boys, and ladies, in this Chamber will understand what that means. I do not like to buy things unnecessarily; that is a fact. If a mistake is made printing letterheads, the paper is turned over and used for other purposes. If envelopes have lost their stickiness, I put sellotape on them and make sure that they are used. It is a matter not simply of working to keep costs down, but of being a good steward. I believe that that is my job as an individual and one that we should be doing in the House.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) referred to plastic bags. I hail from Northern Ireland: we were the first country in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to introduce charges for plastic bags. We took the lead—we did the business, and everyone else followed. It is great to lead and have others follow; we enjoy doing that. The 5p per bag protocol was perhaps hard for some people to understand, yet as time has progressed there has been no more complaining, as people have got into the routine of putting bags in their cars. People adjust and get used to it; people do what has to be done.
The same goes for the introduction of recycling as a must for the local council. Black bins are collected in alternate weeks and recycling the other week. People have to think before they bin things, which, again, is the right way to do it. What are the results, from a local perspective? The local rates were kept down directly from money saved in landfill costs. Every year 8 child enjoyed a day seeing why we recycle and the difference that it makes. As has been said, it is a case of educating future generations to think differently from us. We as adults do not have the savvy that children have when it comes to litter and recycling, but we need to learn.
Has it been worth it thus far? The report that I read in a national newspaper, which indicated that the number of plastic bags found on the seabed has plummeted, suggests that it has. There have been some good things. It is all very well to be negative and critical, but at the end of the day we have to be positive as well. However, as is to be expected, plastic bags are not the only issue facing the marine environment. We are winning the war on plastic bags, and winning hearts and minds, but more has to be done.
As hon. Members have said, 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into oceans each year. Experts estimate that plastic is ingested by 31 species of marine mammal and more than 100 species of seabird. More than 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used since the Government introduced the 5p charge. That is enough to wrap around the world more than 100 times. It is an outstanding reduction of 83%—good news—but we have to do more. The deep sea is now littered with plastic items, including bottles and fishing debris. The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is touted to treble within a decade. If that does not shock us and make us want to do something, I am not sure what will.
The annual beach survey by the Marine Conservation Society recorded a 10% rise in litter in 2017. September’s “Great British Beach Clean” collected an average of 718 pieces of rubbish every 100 metres. There were 701 items per 100 metres in Northern Ireland—the second worst in the United Kingdom, so we have a lot to learn as well. It is good to highlight this matter, but it is equally important that we bring people along with us to understand exactly why steps are being taken and why we are asking people to remember to bring their reusable bottles and containers, and to stop using straws and so on.
I get the impression that the public are a step ahead of the Government and legislation. They are already prepared mentally and attitudinally to make the change. I spoke to our friends from Plastic Free Dunfermline, a group in my constituency that tries to make our town plastic-free. They talked about not applying levies or negative instruments on people, but being positive by encouraging retailers to provide water in the town’s shops, so that people can take a bottle and have it refilled at any point. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with such simple ideas?
Order. If we have too many interventions, not everybody will get in.
So that more people can get in, Sir Edward, I will not take extra time. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly support what he said.
Many people may knee-jerk react and resist, but we are not eco-warriors on the attack. We should be eco-educators coming alongside people, as that will be more successful. I look to the method of my local council with regard to those who persist in refusing to recycle: three strikes and your bin is not lifted. Then they know what they need to do. The gentle approach has meant that very few bins are not lifted, and people in the borough are coming to terms with recycling in a way that is not offensive but inclusive. That is the approach that the Government—I look to the Minister—should use. We have a duty of care to our environment, but also to help people understand. Our approach must reflect that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this important debate. I stand as the Member for Stirling, a landlocked constituency, but, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the issue captures the imagination of constituents and matters a great deal to them.
I wholeheartedly welcome the recent Government announcement of their intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. I also welcome the Scottish Government’s consultation and proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in Scotland, and there are reports that the Scottish Government might also consider banning plastic straws at the end of 2019. I strongly urge Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Administrations to work together in the development of those policy instruments. The Welsh Government have already said—
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who was about to turn to the Welsh Government, for giving way. Does he agree that Wales has been leading the way in this area as the third best recycling nation? Furthermore, it is very ambitious with a recycling and zero-waste target by 2050. Of course there is more to do, but Wales is certainly leading the way.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The Welsh Government are absolutely right to say that it is good for us to co-operate across these islands. Just because something is devolved does not mean that we should not work together to get the job done, and I hope that that is what will happen. I hope we will not see a divergence when there can be commonality and collaboration.
Recycling is a feasible solution, and stimulating the development of the market for recycled products is essential. In my constituency of Stirling, Graham’s Dairy is working with its bottle supplier, Nampak—also based in Stirling—to develop milk bottles that use significantly less plastic, yet maintain the same rigidity and security for the milk that we all buy. It uses a significant amount of recycled material in its bottles and that pays dividends in costs and allows its product to be more sustainable into the long term.
The innovations by Nampak to create a milk bottle that uses significantly less plastic is worthy of note, as are attempts to make a plastic that will degrade safely over a shorter period. We should never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit and inventiveness of British innovators and entrepreneurs, and we should do everything to encourage it.
There is a lot of talk about a deposit scheme, and I am very much behind that principle. Many of us in Scotland mourn the loss of the Barr deposit scheme. Returning your Irn-Bru bottle for money off your next purchase gave the bottles value and meant that consumers were rewarded for returning them and behaving in an environmentally appropriate way—so the cycle of Irn-Bru drinking would continue. This cyclical economy for waste, in which the packaging is returned and reused, is worth aspiring to.
There are lots of details to be worked out. Packaging is complex; the materials involved are sometimes not as simple as they appear to be and can be remarkably varied. Often the complexity of the materials makes recycling almost impossible and certainly makes sorting more difficult. The issue becomes about how to control what we create and what we demand as a society. How do we simplify and amalgamate our product packaging to ensure that it is simple enough to be disposed of? The issue becomes about how we treat the packaging as a part of the supply chain and how we as consumers behave. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, consumers are ahead of the wave in this respect.
I conclude with an apocryphal story from the constituency of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield). Last week, it was reported that a packet of Golden Wonder crisps from 1967 had been found on a beach in East Lothian. Neil McDonald found the 50-year-old wrapper while cleaning up a beach in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. STV News reported that it had apparently survived half a century beneath the dunes and may have been unearthed by heavy winds hitting the beach. The ready-salted packet of crisps had a promotion on it to enter a competition to win a Triumph estate car. That is how they were able to date the packet of crisps to 1967.
What Mr McDonald said is worth dwelling on in this debate. He was shocked when he discovered the age of the packet and how it had been preserved. He said:
“It was buried under the sand but I could see the corner edging out. I was very surprised, it’s quite frightening how durable these plastics can be. It’s a real indicator that we need to do more to control what goes into the ocean and on the coasts.”
That is incredibly profound and I genuinely believe that by innovating around packaging, both design and material, we can create solutions to the marine plastic challenge, which can then be exported around the world, as has been mentioned by several hon. Members. By innovating to change habits and create new disposal techniques, we can lead the way on systems that can be adopted by the rest of the world.
Order. In an attempt get everybody in, the time limit will now be reduced to four minutes—with no more interventions, please.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate, which is timely and extremely important and means a great deal to me personally. I am a lifelong conservationist. I am particularly interested in birds and marine life. I am a member of my local wildlife trust and, with particular relevance to this debate, a member of the Maritime Conservation Society and a diver. I am not only interested in the things we have been discussing today, but I can see with my own eyes the beauty of the oceans and have a real personal interest in ensuring that they are clean and fit for us and for future generations.
The interest in the oceans and our environment and in keeping them clean and pristine goes way beyond those who simply use them for recreation. The “Blue Planet” programme has of course been referred to. It is intrinsic in all of us that we have an affinity for the natural world, but particularly for the oceans. Perhaps we think of the Apollo photographs with the “blue marble” floating in space, that the oceans and our part in them are all wrapped up together and that they are intrinsic to our feeling for the natural world. Whatever the reason, it none the less matters hugely to us all.
My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), is landlocked, but a great many rivers run through west Oxfordshire and of course flow to the sea. Water pollution and quality are big issues in my constituency; they matter a great deal to my constituents. The statistics bear that out: 12 million tonnes were discarded last year, 80% of which was lost on land, in rivers such as those that flow through west Oxfordshire, ending up in the sea. Only 57% was collected for recycling, although west Oxfordshire has a relatively high recycling rate—one of the highest in the country—but more must be done. We must put a stop to the problem. We must work to eradicate plastics in the oceans, for all our sakes in the years to come.
A lot has been done—I welcome everything that the Government have done. They have already taken great strides, particularly under the current Secretary of State, and things have become turbocharged: banning microbeads; the incredibly successful approach to single-use plastics introduced under the coalition Government; the bottle deposit that has been mentioned already, and which is extremely encouraging; and the ban on straws, cotton buds and stirrers.
However, there is more to do. We must do more on recycling, and the issue must be introduced to people’s education. It is a question of personal choice: we have all had the battle between conscience and convenience, when we go to buy a coffee and wish that we did not have to use a disposable cup, or water and we wish we did not have to use the plastic bottle—but we do. That is why the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign was so significant. We can all get into the habit of using those water canisters every time we go to buy a bottle. The Government are consulting, in the 25-year environment plan, on free water fountains so that wherever people are they can fill a canister for free, without having to buy water and, as a by-product, the plastic they do not want.
In addition, we must simply reduce the amount of packaging that we use. I commend Iceland for its attitude to reducing its plastic use. I echo all that has been said about working with industry. Producers have a role, and there are excellent innovators looking at ways to find better plastics, or to reduce or reuse plastic—perhaps using biodegradable materials when plastics are unavoidable.
The UK is leading the world. The Government have taken necessary and brave steps and the 25-year environment plan is a big part of what they are doing. We are on the right track, but the oceans are our shared heritage. Their health is our responsibility, and we must get things right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate.
The marine environment stretches way beyond our 200-mile territorial waters, but that does not reduce the UK’s responsibilities. However, it is staggering to discover that, as other hon. Members have mentioned, 90% of plastic pollution in the seas comes from 10 major rivers, eight of which are in Asia, the others being the Nile and the Niger in Africa. As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) has said, the Yangtze is a major producer, but the Ganges produces an estimated 900,000 tonnes. That is why I welcomed the announcement by the Secretary of State for International Development of her Department’s commitment to support research and carry out waste management pilot programmes. We should also consider conditional aid. On so many fronts, it is great news: livelihoods and health will be protected, the oceans will be cleaned up and jobs will be provided for some of the world’s poorest people.
Reducing plastic loads by 50% in the rivers ranked in the top 10 would reduce the total river-based load going to the sea by 45%, according to research by Christian Schmidt. There is an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the world. What is at issue is not the propensities of plastic, but what we do with it. If 10 rivers are largely responsible for getting discarded plastic to the ocean, it is obvious, if we follow the 80/20 rule, what our priority should be. The US and Europe are not mismanaging their collected waste; the plastic in developing world rivers is due to littering, industrial and building waste, and poor waste collection. We in the west should, of course, reduce plastic use and lead the way on recycling, but China alone is estimated to cause 2.4 million tonnes of plastic waste. That is 28% of the world total. The US, the biggest consumer country on the planet, produces 77,000 tonnes, or 1% of the total.
Many of those taking part in the debate will reasonably ask Ministers why we are not moving faster in the matters of plastic bottles and coffee cups, and why the 25-year plan is not more ambitious. I am conscious of the time and will cut my speech short, but I shall end with something that the Environment Secretary said recently:
“When it comes to our seas and oceans, the challenge is global so the answer must be too.”
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. In passing, I wonder whether the Triumph car lasted as long as the crisp bag with the promotion for it. I suspect not.
I welcome the debate, at a time when the Government are already being proactive in addressing public concern about plastic waste and, in particular, its impact on the marine environment. The subject is close to my heart, as for 10 years as a local councillor in Ayr I undertook a weekly litter pick—land-based, not sea-based. My thanks go to Cathy, Mary, Ross, Betty and David, and many others who were a great help over that decade. I also thank the local Rotary clubs for their annual contribution to a beach clean that lifts tonnes of litter from the lovely beaches around Ayrshire. However, as has been said, that approach, though welcome, is not the answer.
Discarded plastic places the natural balance of the marine ecosystem at risk, including the lives of many marine species. Off the coast of my constituency is Ailsa Craig, an attraction for tourists and ornithologists. Among the birds that nest on the island are a colony of puffins which were recently reintroduced. It would be shameful if discarded plastic caused a decline in their numbers or indeed the numbers of any other coastal seabirds. I am advised by Plymouth Marine Laboratory that the six commonest seaborne litter items are on the increase year after year. The majority, but not all, come off the land: they are small plastic items, plastic food packaging, wet wipes, which have been mentioned, polystyrene foam, balloons and, not surprisingly, nylon fishing nets. Up to 80% of seaborne plastic has been discarded on land, having found its way into the sea via rivers and estuaries, but at some point it must have been discarded by our fellow human beings in a range and variety of countries throughout the world.
The ban on the manufacture of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products came into force in January 2018, with a ban on their sale to follow. That step forward by the Government is surely welcome. On 18 April 2018 the Government announced their intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. I also commend the Scottish Government. They are consulting on banning plastic-stemmed cotton buds and will have set a determined target to end the use of plastic straws by 2019. The use of single-use carrier bags has fallen by 83% since 2015, which is, again, to be welcomed.
I recently visited a holiday park—Turnberry, near Girvan. Those who run it have, of their own volition, taken it upon themselves to end the use of plastic straws, plastic stirrers and single-use cups. I commend that organisation and any other that has taken up the cudgels to improve the environment. I welcome the Government’s consideration of several initiatives, such as bottle return deposit schemes, bottle refill points and a levy on single-use coffee cups. Amn’t I pleased that I do not drink coffee! I am a tea drinker—perhaps it will apply to tea as well. They are also considering an extension of the 5p charge for single-use carrier bags.
It is important that all nations throughout the world work together with manufacturers and retailers to reduce dependency on plastics. My thanks go to those companies, such as Iceland, that have indicated support for ending the use of single-use plastic. The Government’s 25-year environment plan is to be commended. One could call it ambitious, and it is the right thing to do, but I think it could be more ambitious, and it could be accelerated, because there is an appetite among the British public to end the catastrophe happening in the oceans. The Government can exert better influence. We need, as I have said, to work with other nations throughout the world. With a bit of effort we can end this disaster.
I call Damien Moore. You have three minutes.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our age. I represent the seaside constituency of Southport, which has a long-standing maritime culture, and like all those who have seen the scale of this issue at first hand, I know that it can be solved only by co-ordinated international action.
Just as coal dust in our cities was the unfortunate by-product of the first industrial revolution, plastic in our oceans and maritime environments has become the by-product of the second. It is essential that our Government—indeed, every national Government—act now. I am delighted that DEFRA now has at its helm the most prominent Secretary of State for that Department for a generation, and under his stewardship I am sure that these often under-reported issues will be given the attention they deserve.
It is terrifying that 8 million tonnes of plastic are released into the ocean each year, and with the emergence of the new tiger economies, that number is sadly set to rise. Much of the plastic that finds its way into oceans ends up in one of the main ocean gyres, where it spins around in giant whirlpools, devastating marine life, and is almost impossible to remove. The plastic that does not fall into a gyre invariably floats around the sea until it washes up on land, damaging the local ecology, disrupting tourism and presenting health hazards.
The results of the great British beach clean undertaken by the Marine Conversation Society show that litter on our beaches is up by 10%, with a staggering 718 pieces of predominately plastic rubbish found in every 100-metre area cleaned. Southport’s beach is famously big and stretches out to the horizon. If we apply that statistic to the town’s beach, I dread to think how many pieces of plastic and other detritus are covering it at this very moment. Whether or not they consider themselves to be environmentally conscientious, I am sure that all Members present will share my sadness about that fact.
I am a great believer in the 25-year environmental plan, and a UK with absolutely no plastic waste is an achievable goal, despite the amount of plastic debris discarded every day. A quarter of a century is a long time, and I would be interested to know whether there have been any discussions about reducing that time frame. My constituents in Southport are weary of the damage that discarded plastic has done to the town, the beach and tourism, and they are keen for improvement over the next few years, rather than the next few decades. As we leave the EU, we have the chance to be a world leader in environmental standards, and ridding ourselves of plastic waste is the first step. Be it bottles, bags or microbeads, plastic has destroyed our oceans, killed our marine life and ravaged our maritime environments for too long. It is my hope that we are now on the cusp of serious change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. He made some good points about plastic waste, which is now a fashionable topic. The Government are now at a privileged moment in time in which to take further action on the pollution of our environment, and I hope they take that opportunity.
Members have demonstrated the will to work across the devolved Parliaments. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) made superb points about market failure. He reiterated that there is confusion regarding the disposal of a vast amount of products in our shops. Reducing VAT on such products would be a superb nudge to everyone involved in making and disposing of them.
I thank all previous speakers for their views on this highly important issue. I am delighted to take part in a debate on a topic about which I feel strongly, namely the scourge of plastic pollution on the environment. The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned Barr’s Irn-Bru deposit scheme. How far-sighted of that company, which started in the Falkirk area—[Interruption.] I thought you would like that, Stephen.
While watching the magnificent “Blue Planet”, I was struck by how much we have to thank David Attenborough for ending his TV series with the theme of protecting our marine life. It is a subject close to my heart, and I know the public feel strongly about it, too. Many of my constituents have contacted me about it, and in my work with the Environmental Audit Committee the fight to halt the pollution of our seas by plastic waste goes on.
Scotland has been praised for leading the way in this battle. Nurdle hunt events on beaches in my constituency and East Lothian have allowed people to see how many tiny pieces of plastic litter our rock pools and sand. Because of that, and other awareness-raising events around the country, people have increasingly added their support to combating that creeping threat to waterways. We welcomed the successful UK ban on microbeads, which is a positive move in the ongoing war against pollution. However, the ban covers only products that are designed to go down the drain, which does not even include cosmetics, never mind consumer products. More must be done.
As you know, Sir Edward, many individuals and companies are undertaking good initiatives. For example, on Sunday 29 April I was invited to attend the 100th anniversary of the Falkirk and District Boys Brigade service at Larbert Old church. The Very Rev. Dr John Chalmers, who was a former moderator, spoke and his message was very clear. His speech was captivating. It was about where our planet came from, how it began, and he spoke about “great radiance”, and how we must look after this planet. Those words were not lost on anyone attending the service, especially the young people present. They get the message, and so should decision makers in this place.
Scotland’s decision to charge 5p for a plastic bag was taken up across the UK—I might have a disagreement here with my friend from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—and that was another good move for the environment. Sadly, after Brexit we have no guarantees from the UK Government that Scotland will still be in charge of its own laws for protecting our clean water and land. We must keep pressing for answers, and we will.
On my visits to local supermarket giants Asda and Tesco, it was encouraging to see their work to reduce plastic in their products and packaging. Ordinary items such as cotton buds cause real problems for marine life. Through time, they are gradually broken down into small plastic fragments that are scattered through our waterways. That is a massive problem, and we must all do our bit to help reduce it. The Co-op ceased using microbeads in its products in the ’90s, as did Falkirk’s Scottish Fine Soaps Company.
There is more good news, and creative thinking, in a scheme that involves authors and illustrators, including Quentin Blake and Robert Macfarlane, from the publisher Penguin Random House. That new campaign centres on reducing the use of plastics in the book industry. Authors4Oceans asks publishers, book shops and readers to reduce the amount of plastic they use by finding eco alternatives to the bags, straws, bottles and single-use cutlery that ends up at the bottom of the sea. Even its jiffy bags are going to be plastic free.
The alliance between big business and the public is what gets things done and brings about change. The rising tide of plastic waste in the ocean has been described by the UN oceans chief as a “planetary crisis”. How can we disagree with that? There is increasing public appetite for urgent action. It is a horrific fact that in some parts of the sea there is now more plastic by weight than plankton, and that impacts on the environment, wildlife and people. The quantity of plastic in our oceans grows by about 8 million tonnes per year, and plastic production is set to double.
DEFRA’s marine litter monitoring, which measures the number of items found on the sea floor, found an increase of 150% last year. Meanwhile, the UK approach to this crisis remains rather inward-looking. Let us get away from this silo-thinking. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, the UK seems to lack a clear plan. Although the UK marine strategy acknowledges plastic as a problem in the context of marine litter and as a danger to wildlife, the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into plastic bottles criticised it for its weak analysis. The EAC identified the need for more research, and outlined a basic environmental monitoring programme. Actual measures were sparse—surely the precautionary principle would suggest that we act as well as research the problem. The only monitoring of floating plastics under the marine strategy is a DEFRA initiative to measure the prevalence of plastic items in the stomachs of dead seabirds, especially fulmars, that members of the public have found washed up on the beach. A fulmar is roughly the size of a small chicken, and it only eats plastic that looks like fish eggs—I have here some nurdles; these are what kill the birds—so that plan will not detect items such as floating water bottles.
Marine issues are transnational, and the EU’s integrated maritime policy provides the framework through which the UK and its neighbours strategise and legislate for the future of their seas. What will happen to that co-operation post-Brexit? Amid the uncertainty, we have an onslaught of words and announcements, including consultations on charges for single-use plastics and a deposit return scheme for England. As hon. Members know, the Scottish Government have already committed to such a scheme. Local authorities in England and Wales can issue on-the-spot fines for litter louts, but what about fly-tippers who refuse to pay up?
The Government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme has signed up major retailers and manufacturers to its plastics pact and promises a “resource revolution”. That is good, but it does not go far enough, because there is no enforcement mechanism. The UK Government are taking a soft approach by refusing to implement practical solutions recommended by the EAC such as the 25p latte levy, and instead they seek voluntary agreements with coffee chains.
The UK Government have sought only voluntary agreements for manufacturers and retailers to reduce plastic packaging. Like the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), I would like to use the nudge principle and colour code all plastic bottles and coffee cups in green, amber and red, to make it simple, so that when people have the thing in front of them, they can put it into the appropriate coloured bin. For example, action on microbeads was limited to a narrow class of products, against the advice of the EAC. There is too much reliance on citizen participation, though it is great to clean up litter and collect research data. Austerity is forcing local authorities to cut essential services that are needed to help them meet litter-related targets.
Over the years, I have felt that my concerns with environmental issues have often fallen on deaf ears. I do not feel that any more. I think the public are behind us and we are finally realising that there is no such thing as throwing something away on our poor, choked planet. I will conclude by saying that if you want to change the world, you get busy in your own little corner. The EAC has already done that and it has served this Parliament well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate. Like other hon. Members, on both sides, he articulated incredibly well how taking action on plastic waste will require a variety of approaches, not simply legislation.
Like the constituencies of the hon. Members for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), Halifax could not be any more landlocked, but this is still an issue that many of my constituents feel strongly about. This debate is timely. Although the Government have made some bold announcements about their policies on plastic waste, like other hon. Members I am keen to ensure that the talk is backed up with decisive and urgent action.
Like the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), the shadow DEFRA team has also sought to engage with the House authorities on the prevalence of single-use plastics across the parliamentary estate. We, too, have found that engagement challenging. We are keen to pursue it and make some progress. I join my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) in saying that so often it is children and young people who, on occasion, get a bad reputation for engaging in litter and plastic waste, but often they are among the most concerned about the issue, and are involved in some of the most positive examples we have seen in clean-ups and taking action, which is delivering a benefit to coastal communities.
I am pleased to see the Minister in her place and I am hopeful that she will provide a positive response to many of the issues raised in the contributions, which I thought were outstanding. We heard in shocking detail about the true scale of the plastic waste crisis. Greenpeace estimates that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year—equivalent to a truck-load of rubbish every minute. The waste includes everything we might expect from our throw-away society, from plastic bottles and bags to fruit stickers and disposable razors. We are becoming increasingly aware of the impact this can have on our sea life, with large plastic pieces poisoning whales or entangling turtles and smaller pieces entering the ocean food chain as they are eaten by smaller fish.
Like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and the hon. Members for Richmond Park and for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), I pay tribute to the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” series, which inspired both wonder at the beauty of the world’s oceans, and horror at the way they are being desecrated. The BBC’s natural history unit and David Attenborough deserve huge credit for highlighting exactly why our marine environment must be protected. Since the series was broadcast, it has been heartening to see the war on plastics go from something of a fringe issue to dominating the mainstream political agenda. People across the country are switching to reusable bags, bottles and coffee cups, and retailers are being challenged on social media for examples of excessive and wasteful packaging in their stores. It is good to hear that many events such as this year’s tennis championships at Wimbledon are going straw-free, after handing out 400,000 last year.
The Government have taken steps in the right direction. We are happy to support those initiatives, which play a role in reducing the plastic waste entering our oceans. We have supported the microbeads ban and have continually called for action on straws and a plastic bottle deposit return scheme. We welcome the approach of addressing plastic waste not simply as a national problem, but as an international problem that requires international co-operation—a point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). However, we are keen, where appropriate, to push the Government to go faster and be bolder wherever possible across this policy area.
Labour has a keen record of protecting our marine environment. I must mention that one of the proudest achievements of the previous Labour Government was the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This created a system for improving the management and protection of coastal ecosystems. It is in this tradition that the shadow DEFRA team has been working on a number of campaigns to tackle plastic waste and protect our sea life.
The Minister and I share a passion to see plastic straws become a thing of the past. Last year, I wrote to the top 20 bar and restaurant chains in the country, urging them to adopt a “straws on request only” policy and asking them to stock biodegradable straws only for those who do require them. The response was positive and several major chains responded with a commitment to remove straws from their businesses. Upon realising that plastics have crept into tea bags, Labour’s DEFRA team sent letters to the top tea bag producers, urging them to consider plastic-free alternatives. Responses are coming back from these firms and it has been reassuring to see the appetite for action on this specific product, which is just one of so many products that we will need to consider redesigning.
We recognise that the priority for marine pollution at present is stopping plastics getting into the oceans. This will of course require changing consumer behaviour and business practice, as well as improved product design. It will also require Government leadership to encourage recycling and incentivise making single-use plastics unavailable. Yet our concerns about this Government stem from the fact that they have failed to bring forward a single piece of primary legislation on any of their announcements on the environment since the last election. The deposit return scheme for plastic bottles really highlights how the Government’s environmental policy is quick to get the headlines, but much slower to take action in reality. The Secretary of State has now confirmed that a consultation on the specifics of a deposit return scheme will have to wait until the conclusion of the ongoing single-use plastic tax consultation by the Treasury.
The Minister will already be aware that, as a country, we use 13 billion plastic drinks bottles every year, but more than 3 billion are still not recycled. Why is it taking Government so long to introduce a deposit return scheme, when 700,000 plastic bottles are littered every day? We are told to expect a date of 2020, but with so much uncertainty at present and timelines sliding across a range of DEFRA policy areas, when will we see a commitment that a deposit return scheme will be introduced?
It is a similar story with coffee cups. Some 99.75% of disposable coffee cups used in Britain are not recycled. In 2011, it was estimated that we threw away 2.5 billion coffee cups a year in the UK, and the figure will have inevitably increased since then. A poll for The Independent found that 54% of the public support a latte levy of 25% on all drinks sold in disposable cups. Businesses are taking the lead, as we have heard, with Starbucks trialling a 5p surcharge at 35 locations across London, and Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee and Greggs all offering discounts for bringing a reusable cup. The Secretary of State seemed to be taking serious action on the issue. As hon. Members may remember, in January he highlighted the issue by handing out reusable coffee cups to all members of the Cabinet. Yet once again, after a few good headlines, the action failed to materialise when the Government rejected the latte levy in March. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what steps, if any, the Government are planning to take to tackle the problem of disposable coffee cups.
To add to this inaction in preventing plastic waste, we are also concerned about the Government’s approach to recycling the waste that is already produced. Progress on recycling must be driven through a comprehensive framework. Hon. Members will be aware that the EU has brought forward a target of 2030 for phasing out single-use plastics. Compare those ambitious targets with the Government’s 25-year environment plan. While the EU is outlining exactly where targets need to be met, the Government’s plan states that they will be developing ambitious new future targets and milestones, but that it will take 25 years to tackle single-use plastics. I am glad that the Government have now agreed to support the EU targets. However, it is concerning that, as we leave the EU, we stand to lag behind our neighbours on this issue.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention that cuts to local authorities have impacted on their ability to collect waste in a timely and efficient manner, as we have heard. An increasing number of councils are opting for collections every three weeks, with many introducing increased charges for bulky waste or garden waste collections. Although some of the Government’s work in this area is certainly welcomed, we would all like to see efforts go much further.
There is undoubtedly an international element to this work, as we have heard. I hope that the Minister can explain why, despite the profile given to the issue of marine pollution and plastics at the recent Commonwealth summit, only four Commonwealth countries joined the Government’s clean oceans alliance.
To conclude, we look to the Minister to allay our fears and show that the Government are about actions as well as headlines. I hope that she will commit to taking the boldest steps to combat the consumption and littering of single-use plastics, which do so much harm to our cherished marine environments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. I am pleased to inform the House of our progress in addressing the global issue of plastic pollution in the maritime environment. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked passionately about wanting to introduce biodegradable straws, and I am pleased that we will be able to do that in due course. We must be able to prevent and tackle waste wherever it appears, which is why it is important to work on a domestic and a global scale. We work with multilateral organisations, such as the G7, which is developing a plastics charter, and the UN on the clean seas initiative. Through the International Maritime Organisation, we collectively oversee the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, which is of similar importance.
At the Commonwealth summit two weeks ago, the Prime Minister outlined her key priorities for oceans. The 53 nations set out a Commonwealth blue charter, which highlighted the key things for tackling issues affecting the blue sea. It was important that we could work together to find an interest in how to develop the responses to some of those challenges, particularly those that focus on improvements to oceans and plastics.
During the Commonwealth meeting, we announced with Vanuatu that we had set up an agreement in which Commonwealth member states will join forces in the fight against plastic pollution by pledging action and enterprising approaches, such as the global ghost gear initiative, which seeks to encourage the greater removal of one of the most dangerous forms of marine litter. Seven countries have come forward so far in support of the alliance: New Zealand, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, St Lucia, Fiji and Sri Lanka. Engaging companies and non-governmental organisations will be essential to meet the challenge of plastic pollution.
The Commonwealth clean oceans alliance will work in partnership with the World Economic Forum, Sky, Waitrose, Coca-Cola, Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature to share expertise and experience and push for global change. The Prime Minister also announced £61.4 million in funding to boost global research and to help countries across the Commonwealth stop plastic waste entering the oceans.
Our deposit return scheme has been highlighted. It is key that we want to boost recycling rates and reduce littering of those bottles. As has been said, it will be subject to consultation later this year. One of the challenges of the DRS is that in this country we use more plastic material in the on-the-go environment than any other country around the world. It will take some time for us to come up with the context to put forward because we have to recognise that the process that individuals use, and the way the scheme is processed, is quite different in Norway, Sweden and Germany, which I went to see. We need to consider how we can bring the scheme in line with transport activities. On-the-go activity needs to be considered to ensure that, instead of people throwing plastics away to be disbanded or having always to take them back to their homes or to a particular supermarket, there are potentially ways open to submit them at a rail station or something similar nearby.
We have already committed to reforming our producer responsibility schemes to better incentivise producers to be more resource efficient. We are already talking to industry and other groups about how we might reform the packaging waste regulations to encourage businesses to design their packaging products in a more sustainable way, to encourage the greater use of recycled material in those products, and to stimulate the increase of collection, reprocessing and recycling of packaging waste. As part of the upcoming resources and waste strategy, we will set out options for the kind of packaging waste producer responsibility system that we think will work best to deliver our ambitions.
Earlier this year we announced our world-leading ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, which will finally come into force before the end of next month. Furthermore, we have announced that, subject to a consultation later this year, we will remove the sale of plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England. We will consider, however, that straws may be required by some consumers who suffer from disabilities and other medical conditions. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland highlighted, Scotland has also announced a consultation on those matters. We are keen to continue to work with the devolved Administrations so that we share ambitions to take things forward. We will recognise that as we take steps forward.
Our plastic bag charge has been in place since 2015. To give credit to the other nations, England was the last to introduce it. We have had huge success since then, with more than 9 billion bags being taken out of circulation. We have announced that we will take further action on all plastic bags, and in the short term, newsagents have started to take proactive action. Recent research by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science showed a decrease in the amount of plastic bags found on the UK’s seabed.
We will continue to look at ways to reduce plastic waste. Improving and encouraging the removal of high-harm material such as ghost gear should be encouraged. In his spring statement, the Chancellor launched a call for evidence to seek views on how the tax system or charges could reduce waste from single-use plastics. We need to get better at understanding potential forms, sources and types of impact of different types of marine litter. The Marine Management Organisation is looking at evidence in English seas for that. To improve understanding about the origin of litter and its potential extraction, we are working through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation to improve capability to mark fishing gear, which supports our guidance in UK waters. Ropes, lines and pots are marine litter of the highest harm type. To reduce that threat, the UK co-leads an action group with Sweden within the OSPAR convention to develop and promote best practice for the fishing industry and competent authorities.
The Government cannot do it alone. We support initiatives such as Fishing for Litter, the beach cleans run by the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage, and the other work that people do every day to clean up our seas and look for new ways to reuse and recycle what is recovered. We are pleased that Morrisons has recently announced that it will sign the global ghost gear initiative. We are delighted to be supporting the ground-breaking UK plastics pact that was announced last week, which brings together more than 40 companies, NGOs and the Government with the aim of creating a circular economy to tackle plastic waste.
I hope that I have provided the House with a satisfactory outline of what we are doing to reduce plastic waste in the marine environment. We will continue to work with other countries, NGOs, industry and experts from across the board to go further.
Before she finishes, will the Minister give way?
I hope Alistair Carmichael will have 30 seconds at the end.
I appreciate that the Minister is not feeling very well this afternoon, and I commend her for persevering none the less.
I thank the Minister for her attendance and engagement with us. It is apparent from the debate that there is broad agreement across the House. We accept that the Government have done a lot in this regard, but we look to them to do more. The more they do, and the faster they do it, the more support they will get across the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government policy on reducing plastic waste in the marine environment.