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House of Lords Hansard
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14 April 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to reduce marine litter and plastics pollution.

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My Lords, we are bearing down on the scourge of litter and plastics pollution that threatens the marine environment. The UK’s Marine Strategy, published in December 2015, sets out a comprehensive list of actions we are taking. Most recently, these include action on plastic bags and microbeads, and work to develop a litter strategy. Given the transboundary nature of the marine environment, we work closely with other countries to tackle litter and pollution.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that there are an estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic afloat in the world’s oceans. They are frequently toxic and are being eaten by aquatic life at all stages in the food chain, from plankton right through to marine mammals. Inevitably, they are therefore finding their way into the fish that we eat. Obviously, we need to take action on this on a number of fronts. One thing the Government could do now is to ban the millions of plastic microbeads found in everyday cosmetics that are flushed through the sewerage system and into the sea. Countries such as the USA and Canada are already doing this. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are prepared to take this crucial first step to clean up the world’s oceans?

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My Lords, I am aware of the volume of pollution and litter in the oceans. The US ban will be phased in gradually, with the final bans not coming into effect until 2019. We are currently working with industry on a voluntary phase-out, which we believe will have the same effect. Indeed, this approach is yielding results and it is predicted that the majority of microbead use in UK cosmetics will cease by the end of 2017. I emphasise that should this approach not work, we support other countries in calling on the European Commission to develop proposals to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics and detergents by 2020.

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My Lords, although marine pollution is a global problem and a global disgrace, litter on Britain’s roads is a British problem and a British disgrace. What does my noble friend have to say? Parliament authorised, in the anti-social behaviour Bill, which got Royal Assent in March 2014—over two years ago—the changing of the rules so that the keepers of vehicles could be subject to a civil penalty if they threw litter. Nothing has happened. The regulations have not been made. Why not?

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My Lords, I should say first that the marine issue is so important because 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources. My noble friend rightly raises the issue of land-based litter and what we should be doing. We are developing and will be implementing the strategic approach to the problem of litter through our national litter strategy. This will include work dealing with littering from vehicles and we expect to make significant progress on this. I shall certainly keep my noble friend informed.

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My Lords, given the contribution of plastic bottles to marine litter, the success of deposit-return schemes around the world and the plastic bag levy here in the UK, what consideration are the Government giving to introducing a bottle deposit-return scheme here?

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I would not want to pre-empt anything and I am afraid that I do not know of the final discussions, if any, on this matter within the national litter strategy. However, I will specifically mention that the noble Baroness has raised this at Question Time today.

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My Lords, steaming across the Southern Ocean some 50 years ago as a young officer, it was pristine but in the mid-1990s, while I was there with a battle group, the amount of plastic there was already disgusting. Going around Cape Horn a year ago, I was appalled to find that there was plastic even there. As a nation, we are responsible for more areas of ocean than almost any other country in the world, because of our dependencies. I understand that we have done quite a lot to look after them. What is being done to make sure that that pollution is not there? I add as a proviso that to enforce things, you need ships—and we do not have any ships. I have a view on that.

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I must observe that the noble Lord is most tenacious in his support of the senior service. The United Kingdom works closely with the Governments of the British Overseas Territories to ensure effective marine management, and the record on marine conservation zones is very strong indeed. Beach-littering monitoring and data-collection programmes are being carried out around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. This was expanded last year to cover the British Antarctic Territory but clearly, there are other overseas territories. The MOD’s vessels have a long history of prohibiting the disposal of plastic waste into the seas.

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My Lords, further to the noble Baroness’s Question in respect of microbeads in cosmetics, why does my noble friend have to wait for the European Commission?

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My Lords, we are not. I do not think that my noble friend quite understood what I was saying. We are working with industry on a voluntary basis to phase out microbeads, and that is working. All I said was that because pollution is a transboundary matter, it is not just for the UK but for the whole world to deal with it. We will deal with it with whichever organisations and whichever communities we can.

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My Lords, which United Nations agencies are the Government working with on this question? Is there a plan for working with these agencies to have some targets for the future about cleaning up the oceans? I declare an interest as president of ACOPS, which deals with these matters.

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My Lords, because this is a serious problem we are working at national level, Ospar level, EU level and international level through the G7 and, as I say, with overseas territories. There is a lot going on.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of WRAP and a borderline obsessive when it comes to litter-picking, especially of plastic off beaches. Can my noble friend tell us how British products compare with those of the rest of the world?

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My Lords, I think I am permitted to say that Unilever, Boots and Colgate-Palmolive have already phased out microbeads. The L’Oréal group will phase them out by 2017. There is a website which shows which products have microbeads. I very much encourage people to go for the microbead-free products.