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Single-use Plastics

Volume 802: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to reduce substantially the use of single-use plastics.

My Lords, we have reduced annual sales of single-use plastic carrier bags by over 7 billion with the 5p charge. We launched the ground-breaking Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance alongside it. From April, there will be a ban on the supply of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, while our landmark Environment Bill will shift the emphasis towards producer responsibility. It includes powers to charge for single-use plastic items, introduce deposit return schemes and manage the export of plastic waste.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. He will be aware that dealing with litter and fly-tipping costs councils £660 per person per year, and that local councils spend 32% of their council tax revenue on dealing with waste. Does he agree that this cost should be borne not by people in communities but by the people benefiting from it? He may be aware that in the United States, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act has just been tabled in the Congress, which calls for industry to meet those costs. Even better, since this plastic is choking our planet, should we not ban it altogether?

The plastic bag tax itself has not put any additional costs on to local authorities; on the contrary, it has raised substantial funds, which have been deployed through local charities in the areas where it has been collected. On the broader point about the cost of tackling unnecessary or avoidable waste, that is central to what we are trying to achieve in the Environment Bill. Taking the Bill in its totality, it is about shifting the emphasis away from consumer responsibility towards producer responsibility, on the understanding that most consumers do not welcome unnecessary waste from the products that they buy.

My Lords, further to the noble Baroness’s question about banning plastics altogether, at the moment the supermarkets seem to be having their cake and eating it. They are charging us for our plastic bags but not all of that money is going to charity. Some of it is being kept by the supermarkets. Furthermore, they have developed a very tidy line in bags for life. I gather from a recent report that, on average, every family in England has 54 of these bags, which are made of much tougher plastics. On top of that, can the Government not use this year to come up with some systematic, countrywide system to tell people what to do with their plastics—which is which and how to dispose of them? It is a total muddle.

There is no doubt that there has been an upsurge in the use of so-called bags for life, but the net impact of the plastic bag tax has unquestionably been superb for those interested in reducing unnecessary plastic waste. The noble Baroness’s second point, about the ease of recycling, is absolutely right. In the Environment Bill, which has been introduced in the other place and will be here later in the year, we commit to making recycling easier and ensuring a more consistent, comprehensive service right across the country to avoid exactly that confusion, which exists from local authority to local authority. The Bill introduces legislation requiring all local authorities to collect a core set of recyclable materials—plastic bottles, plastic pots, tubs and trays, glass, metal, paper and card, food and garden waste—from households and businesses in England from 2023.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if we concentrate on single-use plastics, there is a danger that manufacturers will just switch to other materials that are not much better in terms of their impact on the environment? Should we not be challenging the whole concept of “single use” and tackling the throwaway society? This requires a much bigger change in mentality than simply, item by item, banning the use of particular materials.

The noble Baroness is right. I make one point about the plastic bag tax. It is often argued that the paper bag alternative is, from a carbon point of view, not necessarily an improvement, but if you look at its environmental impact, there is no doubt that the paper bag is vastly superior to the plastic bag, which can last in the environment, breaking up slowly over anything up to 1,000 years. Paper, of course, decomposes very quickly. If you judge things only through the lens of carbon, perhaps single-use plastic bags might be better than paper bags, but that would be fundamentally the wrong approach to take. I agree with the noble Baroness on the broader point; the Environment Bill is designed to take us to a place where we reduce unnecessary single-use plastic bags consistent with the 25-year plan launched a couple of years ago by the former Prime Minister. Our emphasis on extended producer responsibility is essential and, in effect, means that producers will have to take financial responsibility for the lifetime costs of dealing with whatever they create.

Further to my noble friend’s comments welcoming the success of the plastic bag charge where it has been imposed on large retailers, can he indicate when that same charge will finally be imposed on small and medium-sized retailers, which even the Government’s figures indicate would result in a massive drop in the unnecessary use of plastic bags?

My noble friend makes a very good point. At the risk of triggering a groan in the House, I am afraid that I can tell him only that, having consulted on extending the charge to all retailers and upping it to 10p—something the Government are very serious about—we will be taking the next step as soon as possible.

My Lords, in 2018, the Government promised to review the waste prevention programme. If, as the Minister says, the Government are so serious about prioritising waste reduction, why has that not yet happened?

I think the Government’s record on tackling plastic is pretty robust. We have, for example, world-leading legislation on tackling microbeads. The many billions of microbeads that would have ended up in the environment, particularly the marine environment, will not, as a consequence of the steps we have taken. I have already mentioned the plastic bag tax, and there are numerous other bans on the way in relation to plastic stirrers and spoons and so on. It is unfair to describe the Government’s progress as slow. However, when it comes to things such as extended producer responsibility, they cannot just be invented overnight. It is much more complex and requires us to look at the whole life cycle of individual products. We are working hard to develop the right answers but it is important that, when we introduce them, they are the right answers.

There has been a significant, if perhaps small, increase in the use of compostable substitutes for plastic packaging. What assessment has been made of the genuine efficacy of these materials as far as composting is concerned? What percentage of packaging do we now think is being provided from these materials?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. The problem here is that, quite often, when plastic is sold or marketed as biodegradable, it is not; it simply breaks down into smaller bits of plastic and causes problems further down the food chain and, like much of it, ends up in the oceans. The second problem is that, even where it is biodegradable, if it ends up the recycling stream it can have a very damaging impact on the quality of the recyclate. We believe, however, that biodegradable plastics have an increasingly important role. We published a call for evidence last year to help us consider the development of standards or certification criteria for genuine bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics. We are looking at the responses at the moment and will publish a response very soon.