Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the statutory instrument before the Committee today was laid before this House on 4 March 2021. The Government are committed to eliminating plastic waste and the terrible effect it has on the environment. The use of single-use plastic items and their inappropriate disposal continue to raise significant environmental issues.
Unlike other materials, such as paper or wood, plastic can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. If released into the environment, items such as single-use plastic bags can damage habitats and endanger wildlife, as plastic items are often mistaken for food by animals. Furthermore, plastic that escapes into the environment will eventually break down into microplastics, which permeate our food chain as well as ending up in our soils and seas, the full impacts of which are still being uncovered. Even when single-use plastics are properly disposed of, they will typically end up in landfill or be incinerated, which releases carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So action is needed to curtail the use of single-use plastics and their release into the environment. The proposed measures in the resources and waste chapter of our Environment Bill will transition us towards a more circular economy and change the way we use and consume resources by keeping them in the system for longer to extract maximum value from them, but there is much that we can already do to address the issue of single-use plastic, including through our highly successful carrier bag charge.
This statutory instrument will amend the Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 to extend the requirement to charge for single-use carrier bags supplied to customers to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises and will remove the exemption from charging from airport sellers. It will also increase the minimum mandatory charge for single-use carrier bags from 5p to 10p.
Since the charge was first introduced in 2015, the Government have successfully prevented billions of plastic bags being sold and ending up in the ocean and environment. We have seen a reduction in the use of single-use carrier bags by 95% in the main supermarkets and more than £150 million donated to good causes. As a result of the carrier bag charge, the average person in England now buys just four bags a year from the main supermarkets, compared with 140 in 2014.
By extending the charge to all retailers, Ministers want to see bag usage cut significantly in small shops as well, with customers incentivised to use long-life bags made from more sustainable and environmentally-friendly materials. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises circulated around 3.2 billion single-use carrier bags in 2018, which accounts for more than 80% of the single-use carrier bags in circulation in England.
This intervention is a strong marker of the Government’s intention to clamp down on single-use plastic pollution and protect our environment for future generations. When taken in conjunction with our wider policy approach to transition to a more circular economy, this will be another landmark moment following the straws, cotton buds and stirrers ban in October last year. To reduce the burdens on businesses, reporting requirements on the number of single-use carrier bags sold annually will not be extended to businesses with fewer than 250 employees.
We are determined to get this right, and it is vital that businesses and the public are informed about what they can and cannot do. Guidance will be published shortly after these debates explaining the legislation in detail to businesses and the public. Informal guidance has already been shared with businesses to help them prepare for the upcoming legislative changes. To ensure compliance, we have given trading standards authorities the powers they need for this type of restriction, for example, to enter and examine premises they suspect are in breach of the law. Anyone found not to be charging for single-use plastic bags in line with this legislation could face civil sanctions such as stop notices or a variable monetary penalty. Of course, we hope that these enforcement measures will not be necessary, but the regulations need to have teeth to show that this Government take plastic pollution seriously.
These new regulations send a signal to industry and the general public that we need to think carefully about the bags we use and the materials from which they are made. The regulations will help people to make more sustainable choices and are an important step towards a more circular economy. I beg to move.
My Lords, this order, with its 10p charge, will have little effect on a huge problem that is well known to this Minister, with his long and admirable track record on the environment.
I have a single question, which I have already notified to the Minister’s officials. Why do we not just set a date in law, perhaps up to two years beyond which it would be unlawful to sell or supply single-use product packaging in the form of a plastic bag that is not fully biodegradable? Here, biodegradable is to be defined as being capable of decomposition by bacteria or other living organisms within a six-month period in any conditions, to include open disposal sites or the natural environment. At the moment, no such product exists.
Secondly, why not set clear minimum standards on the distribution of a reusable bag for life to include biodegradability requirements with a two-year delay but with an extended biodegradability lifespan of up to two years? I understand that such products are on the cusp of availability but lack legislative incentive and are therefore uneconomic to produce. I support the Green Alliance’s proposal for a 70p bag, but it should be top-sliced by law to fund biodegradability research on a bid basis. I also argue that prices should fall as biodegradable target thresholds are met, perhaps to zero for single-use products.
What would the impact of such measures be on manufacturers, distributors and consumers? There would undoubtedly be a shock wave throughout the packaging industry, with howls of protest followed by a measured response and, ultimately, the inevitable avalanche in original thinking, with new products. This is Britain, and that is our forte. Coronavirus vaccine research and research into AIDS antivirals offer clear pointers about how the public and private sectors respond and work collaboratively when faced with crises and problems that require early resolution. Plastic pollution is a crisis.
As to the position of distributors, in which I include the retail trade, they will inevitably encounter problems over price and availability. Experience from Ireland suggests that a major shift in reusable bag usage occurs when consumers are faced with sharp increases. Our objective must be to reduce, reuse and recycle if we are to clean up the environment.
During my research, I spoke to an E Dyas store employee who expressed concern over increased pilferage, as it would be more difficult for till-keepers and shop assistants to monitor and police the handling of goods in store if E Dyas was to pursue the approach that I am advocating. She pointed to resistance even to single-use bag charging. These problems clearly need to be addressed, but they are not insurmountable, perhaps with an element of paper substitution.
Finally, on the impact on the consumer more widely, our objective must be to influence personal conduct. I believe that heavy charging for bags in the period of change will help to educate a population with mixed views on environmental protection. I have no doubt that there will be resistance. In a conversation with Mr Zak Lowe of Euro Packaging, Birmingham, a highly informed expert in this trade, with 20 years’ experience, his emphasis was on public education. I am afraid I am not convinced that that is enough. However, he had an open mind. I hope that the Government talk to people like Zak. He stands on the front line and would be a good sounding-board for reform by government.
My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, particularly about education. I am not generally in favour of banning anything, but I say to the Government that the fee they instigated for single-use plastic bags has been remarkably successful. I therefore applaud further movement. However, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, did not mention how many bags for life are bought. The Green Alliance told me in a briefing that a staggering number of bags for life have been bought and some people buy one a week, which rather spoils the point. I would like the Minister to reply to that.
The Minister talked about plastic and litter pollution, which is what this order is about. He said, “Action is needed”, and, “The Government take the issue of plastic pollution seriously”. So do I, and so do most people in this Committee. May I take the Minister back to 24 September, when I asked him a Question about how to educate the public? Education surely starts with children. I know from experience, and I suspect other noble Lords know as well, that if your children are banging on at you about something, apart from a swift clip on the ear, which is not allowed these days—certainly not in Scotland—you tend to have to pay attention to what they say. I suggest, as I suggested on 24 September, that every school should spend one afternoon in a child’s education—in year 6, say—picking up litter. If children learn that picking up litter is what one should do rather than throwing it, it will eventually—it will take time, possibly a generation—permeate through all sections of society and all age groups. Frankly, it seems a very simple thing to do.
Unbelievably, the current lockdown has led to a huge increase in litter on beaches and in beauty spots. One might have thought that people would go out in the Peak District and not leave litter, but the contrary is true. I was in Devon at the weekend—legally, I should say—with my extremely ill mother-in-law. On Dartmoor, there is a huge issue of people going out and dumping litter. We need to educate people. It is not difficult. It does not have to be about banning things or big fines; we just need to educate people and to start with children in schools. As we all know, children are very keen on environmental matters, if things are presented properly, so I suggest that the Minister goes back to the department and considers what I said to him on 24 September: that I would be happy to join him in a meeting with an Education Minister to explore ways in which we can introduce—perhaps informally to start with—into every child’s education an afternoon picking up litter. I did it when I was child; I still do it at nearly 70 in the lane outside my house. My children do it—not all that happily nowadays, in their 20s—to help me. Let us educate children.
There are issues, of course. When I first raised this in the House about three years ago, the Labour Front Bench spokesman accused me of wanting to send children back up chimneys, which seemed slightly far-fetched because I do not. I want children to realise the consequences of dropping litter. There are real safety issues on roads, but there is a safety issue every time a child crosses the road. I plead with the Minister: if we, as a Government, really are going to take litter and plastic pollution seriously, action is needed—to quote his words back to him—and we need to educate children on litter.
The order in hand goes some way, so let us applaud that, but to the Minister—he does not just say all the right things but is, I know, really committed to environmental improvements—I say this: this is one way we could do it and make our lanes, roads and cities a great deal nicer, and, indeed, save a huge amount of money in the long term on clearing up litter.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak on this instrument. Like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I absolutely agree that the Minister has a fantastic and admirable track record on the environment. As previous speakers have said, in future, we should be thinking about an overall plastic ban. However, I appreciate that, on the basis of statistics such as those the Minister outlined, the initial 5p charge for single-use carrier bags has been a huge success since it was implemented.
The statistics say that the potential rise to 10p will bring an expected overall benefit of more than £780 million to the UK economy, up to £730 million for good causes, £60 million of savings in litter clean-up costs and carbon savings of £13 million. I would like to ask the Minister about that £730 million for good causes. I see a range of good causes on the government website, but would it not be a good idea for the money made from plastic bag charges to go towards something specifically to do with the war on plastic? We need to incentivise customers to use long-life bags made from sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. I am not sure whether the Minister has come across Toraphene, an environmentally friendly artificial plastic that costs the same as plastic bags. What about making its use compulsory, as an alternative?
As the Minister will know, I have a habit of listening to schoolchildren. This morning, I spoke to the wonderful children at St Augustine’s, in my home town of Burnley. In this time of coronavirus, they have done some innovative work with their local pharmacy to give the elderly some good ideas when they go to collect their prescriptions, keeping them motivated and inspired. They have drawn lots of pictures to make people happy. Something that struck a chord with me was a young child talking about getting rid of plastic and making sure that our oceans are plastic-free.
This is an important instrument that will act as a further deterrent and raise significant money. We need to work out what the Government should do to enhance the education programme further, as previous speakers have mentioned. Overall, the 25-year government plan fits into that. On the subject of cleaning plastic from our oceans, beaches and other areas where it has become an unfortunate cancer in our society, may I ask the Minister what the scope is for using gasification instead of incineration, which still causes pollution and adds to the problems with our ozone layer?
It is heartening to know that the higher charge will come into place but we have to do much more. I think that this will ultimately end in a ban on plastics but, in the meantime, I recognise that this is a positive step forward to add to the previous decision, which the statistics and the evidence show is working well.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this measure. I shall concentrate my remarks on the effectiveness—or otherwise—of the proposed increase in the charge for disposable carrier bags from 5p to 10p, subject to the existing legislation.
The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, reminded me of hearing, possibly apocryphally, during my days as an undergraduate at University College, Oxford, about a thesis aired by the former and eminent professor of jurisprudence at Oxford, Professor Goodhart—a fellow at Univ, and subsequently master of our college. He put the academic case to his students at a tutorial in college that the optimal way of ensuring total compliance with road traffic law was to issue no fines or penalties but place the name of everyone who had committed an offence into a lottery, draw the tickets each year on New Year’s Eve and execute the unfortunate individual whose name was drawn first. So, he argued, the incidence of traffic violations would be solved, and began interesting tutorials challenging students to consider the principles of proportionality, deterrence and behavioural patterns.
When the levy was introduced at 5p and followed by Scotland, which I expect again to be the case on this occasion, my neighbours living in Scotland, on the Ayrshire coast, welcomed the fact that after Scotland’s original introduction of the charge in 2016, the number of carrier bags found on Scotland’s beaches fell substantially—in fact, by 40%. The Marine Conservation Society determined that there was a further drop of 42% between 2018 and 2019. Adding a value to throwaway items results in long-term behavioural change.
The statutory instrument in front of us today challenges us to question the effect a price rise from 5p to 10p will have on behavioural patterns, if any, and whether a move to 10p, 20p, 50p or, indeed, £1, would have a significant or marginal deterrent effect. Simple changes to our daily routines need catalysts for change, and these charges are a good example. We should also keep in mind the importance of a single coin facility, so it is worth considering whether a 10p, 20p, 50p or £1 charge would meet the relevant punitive threshold and provide the tipping point to see a major change in the use of single-use carrier bags.
For my part, I believe that those who argue that moving to 50p would generate unnecessary controversy are out of touch with public sentiment—and, indeed, the views expressed by the Committee today—as the value of the deterrent is critical in considering what further shifts in consumer behaviour would result. At present, we alleviate our consciences with an associated policy of contributing to good causes. However, ultimately, an entirely successful scheme would result in no money coming in at all.
Of course, this charge applies not just to single-use plastic carrier bags but to all single-use bags; it is not simply about plastic. However, as the Minister has pointed out, this policy must be part of a panoply of measures to encourage good environmental behaviour overall, with the ultimate end of single-use carrier bags in the non-exempted category. The Marine Conservation Society and, in particular, Dr Laura Foster and her team, have done some excellent work on the campaign to add value to throwaway items, but we are a long way from the day when I can walk at low tide on a calm afternoon along Prestwick beach and not have to constantly pick up suffocating plastic washed up on the coastline, which is catastrophic to the marine environment. While I welcome this step, it is only a step, a means towards an end, not an end in itself, and I am not convinced that such a marginal change will see behavioural changes compatible with the proposed charge.
In closing, I hope that the Government will simultaneously make further progress by introducing bag deposit/return schemes, similar to those for drinks containers to encourage people to take back their drinks containers and carrier bags. I also believe a tax on on-the-go items, such as coffee cups, water bottles and plastic cutlery would encourage people to carry reusable cups and bottles, help reduce litter and increase recycling rates. I also support imposing a ban on single-use plastic when dining in restaurants and cafés. As we support this measure today, we should not lose sight of the fact that we still use well over a billion bags a year in the UK. We should be encouraging bags for life. Fortunately, there are other ways to reach the goals, which I share with my noble friend the Minister, without resorting to Professor Goodhart’s challenge.
My Lords, we have moved quickly from the moderate social democracy of the Minister’s proposals to the radicalism of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, with his high charges and potential executions. I perhaps do not go quite as far as the noble Lord in some of the hints and suggestions that he proffers to the Minister. However, the Minister is a young lad and he does not have the memory of most of us in here—perhaps not all but certainly that I have—of remembering a life before the plastic bag, when one could buy one’s shopping with paper bags, or indeed had one shopping bag in which most things were ceremoniously placed, and we were all the better for that. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that the general public, led by wise elders with that experience, have taken very readily to the fact that they do not want to pay for something that is quite superfluous and often a nuisance but which, being very British about it, most are too embarrassed to reject when given, because they do not want to upset or offend the shopkeeper.
Therefore, if we increase the price, people will be even more pleased—not less—because people do not want things they do not need. There is no additional use. I congratulate Morrisons. I am a new convert; I believe that a second delivery arrived this morning just as I was leaving of Morrisons products—traditional products, of course, from the north of England. Nevertheless, there were no plastic bags. I am almost inclined to say that that will be a supermarket of preference, but perhaps the Co-op will quickly catch up with them. But how sensible! I do not need loads of plastic bags for something that is delivered at home.
The Minister needs to look at other departments. Let us have an all-government approach. Someone can go down the road and throw out their McDonalds package, and they can be fined, of course—but how about taking their licence off them? A six-month ban for throwing such rubbish out of a car on to a public highway would affect behaviour and be good not just for the environment but for the safety of every other driver and, indeed, those walking or conveying themselves by other means alongside a highway.
What about this building—the disgrace of all disgraces, the mother of Parliaments, the Palace of Westminster? The Lords is somewhat better than the Commons in the fact that in the Lords it is possible to have—I am certainly offered—non-plastic cutlery. If you go down to the Commons, not just do you get plastic cutlery, but if a simple soul like me wants merely a bowl of porridge and cup of coffee on a morning, they have to have a plastic-wrapped plastic knife and fork along with a plastic spoon. Can the Minister not have words, using his authority, on this absurdity? A spoon would suffice, preferably a washable metal spoon, perhaps made in Sheffield from stainless steel; that would suffice very well—I have managed all my life on them. I do not need a plastic substitute for it with all the other garbage.
When you go for a cup of coffee, in this place like everywhere else, you get a takeaway. But hang on a minute—I do not want to take it that far, I just want to sit down and have it. I would quite like a mug or a cup; a mug will do fine, not a plastic-embossed paper cup with a plastic lid placed on top of it with my health and safety. I have managed, as we have all managed all our lives, for the whole of the last century, to drink tea and coffee out of cups and mugs. We have not needed to have disposables for it. That culture needs changing.
The Minister has a key role, as we all do—but his young energies should be put to this, and this place should be an exemplar not a laggard in dealing with plastic.
I also welcome this statutory instrument and the regulations before us today and congratulate my noble friend on introducing them so lucidly. I declare my interest as the chair of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme, through which I work closely with the Association of Convenience Stores.
What is curious is that plastic bags are a relatively recent phenomenon. While it may seem very quaint now, I remember that when I went shopping as a youngster with my mother, she always had material or cloth bags, and several of them. I am not quite sure how we disposed of that habit as easily and quickly as we did to embrace this relatively new culture of plastic bags.
I would like to hear more from my noble friend about how the Government intend to incentivise non-use. That is the problem—we can charge for plastic bags as much as we like but, if they are there, we will continue to use them. I do not think brown paper bags are an alternative because when they are wet, as I have found, the produce just slips out of your hands and ends up on the floor. It will be interesting to see how we can explore more positive alternatives.
While I welcome the order, it is some considerable time since the consultation, to which my noble friend referred, concluded on 22 February 2019. I wonder why it taken quite this long to table the amendment order before us today.
I want to press my noble friend on the start date when the regulations will come into effect. Can I assume that the start date is confirmed as 30 April? If that is the case, it does not give businesses very long to introduce the new provisions of the order.
Having said that, I welcome the fact that the Government are going to be sending less to landfill overall and that we will be seeking to recycle more. It is interesting that Denmark has a very good record on reducing single-use plastics and plastics overall. While it was very quick to incinerate and it did so effectively, it is now going away from incineration towards more recycling. We should pause to recognise just how effective many of the recycling schemes by our councils have been, and we should all encourage those which perhaps do not have such a good record to recycle more. However, it is good that my noble friend expressly stated the implications and consequences of the order before us for the circular economy.
I want to press my noble friend on how the Government will prepare customers for the changes, in the sense that it will no longer be a voluntary charge in smaller stores but will be compulsory. I am sure we are all only too aware of the somewhat unwarranted and potentially aggressive responses that have been seen from certain customers going into stores of all sizes—large and small stores—who fail to wear a mask when asked by those working in the stores for what reason, if they are not exempt, they are not prepared to wear a mask. It is important that we understand precisely how the Government will prepare not just businesses but customers, who are going to be the end users, that they will have to pay these charges now.
Otherwise it is fair to say that businesses are embracing the order. The sector has widely adopted voluntary charging before now, and certainly the Association of Convenience Stores welcomes the exemption from reporting requirements for small businesses.
With those few remarks, with the precise request that I have made that we look to incentivise non-plastic bag use and the use of other materials, having pressed my noble friend on specifically what the Government are doing to encourage those entering small stores to be aware of the new provisions and, lastly, having asked to understand precisely when the order will take effect, I welcome the order.
My Lords, like all other noble Lords in Grand Committee today, I support this statutory instrument and thank the Minister for his eloquent introduction.
This measure will certainly be a means, but still only one step, in helping to tackle the damage that plastic causes to our environment. It is no surprise that I support it since it was the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government who championed the introduction of a levy on plastic bags. Given the success of charging for single-use carrier bags in driving down usage, it is right that we now raise that charge to help to drive it down even further, as the Government’s impact assessment indicates that it will.
Equally, I support extending the obligations to all retailers. I was not persuaded at the time of the merits of exemption. Indeed, a number of representatives of small businesses said at the time that they did not oppose being included, so I see the measure as a belated rectification of that.
Having said that, I have three questions for the Minister, which I informed him of in advance. First, why are the Government making the reporting requirements less onerous for franchises? In the draft guidance to retailers on the reporting and record-keeping requirements, there is a section which states that if you are part of a franchise model, whether you report and keep records depends on your size and not the size of the franchise overall. If you own 10 corner shops, each staffed by 24 full-time equivalent people, your total staff head count of 240 people would be below the 250 FTE threshold and you would not have to report. That is different from the way that franchises are dealt with in the current packaging regulations. There, a franchise is covered by the requirements depending on the size of the franchise overall, not the size of the individual franchise businesses. In other words, you could get out of doing anything only if the franchise as a whole fell under the de minimis threshold of how much packaging you used each year.
Will the Minister explain the rationale for the decision to introduce less robust reporting? While it is reasonable that a single family-owner corner shop should not have to report and keep records on bag use, many franchises which are perfectly capable of recording and reporting this information via their head office will not have to as long as they make sure that none of their individual franchises employs more than 250 people. If you run a few corner shops but are part of a franchise, you would get your single-use carrier bags via its head office to reduce packaging run costs and maintain consistent branding. The head office could therefore provide the information for all franchised shops to obey the reporting requirements. Without this, we will not know whether all smaller shops are charging for bags unless local authorities mount secret shopper expeditions. Frankly, given how hard-pressed local authorities are, we know that that is just not going to happen. This is an unnecessary exemption and a retrograde step.
Secondly, do the Government have any plans to introduce mandatory reporting for bags for life? The reporting requirements for single-use carrier bags will change next January, but there is mounting anecdotal evidence of a shift from single-use carrier bags to bags for life. Research in 2019 found that the 10 largest retailers were handing out more than double the number of bags for life anticipated in the Government’s initial impact assessment. There have been welcome initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to one of them: Morrisons’ commitment to stop selling plastic bags for life. That it says it will remove 3,200 tonnes of plastic and almost 100 million plastic bags every year gives a sense of the scale of the remaining challenge—as I would call it, the plastic drift from single-use carrier bags to bags for life.
The drift may be accentuated by the low cost of these bags for life—20p when I asked in my local Sainsbury’s at the weekend, whereas Green Alliance and the EIA say that Ireland charges the equivalent of 70p, which has led to a 90% reduction in sales. There is also the fact that the money that retailers make on bags for life is all bottom-line profit; unlike with single-use carrier bags, they do not have to donate the money to good causes. I therefore urge the Government to require retailers to report so that the data can be collected so that we will know the size of the bag-for-life market and can determine whether a rise in their cost is now needed.
Finally, I welcome this statutory instrument and other government action, such as the ban on plastic cotton buds, straws and stirrers. Other initiatives, such as the proposed tax on plastic packaging, the Environment Bill’s delayed bottle deposit return scheme and the confirmation in a recent Written Answer to me that the Government are minded to ban oxo-degradables, which break down into tiny microplastics, will all be welcome when they eventually see the light of day. In the meantime, there is a real need to tackle myriad other single-use plastic items bloating our supermarket shelves in coffee pods, teabags, single-serve sachets, biscuit trays and fruit punnets, to name but a handful. What further steps are the Government taking now to help retailers get similarly problematic and unnecessary plastic off our supermarket shelves and to enable consumers to play the part they really want to play in tackling plastic waste to protect our precious environment?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this SI. We have ranged far and wide in this debate, even going as far as public executions, but I want to concentrate on the specifics of the SI. Like other noble Lords, I do not oppose the basics of it. However, I must say to the Minister that it is, quite frankly, embarrassing that it has taken the Government so long to bring this proposal forward. Wales introduced a fully comprehensive charge on single-use bags back in 2010. We had to wait another five years before the UK Government introduced a half-measure ban in England applying to larger retailers.
Now, in 2021, the Government are finally catching up with the good practice that the devolved nations have had in place for years. This is despite the fact that, three years ago, the 25-year environment plan committed to extending the application of the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers and despite the fact that the public consultation on this proposal ended two years ago, in February 2019. That consultation showed there was enormous support from consumers and considerable support from businesses for the proposal, so it certainly does not feel that this simple and popular proposal has been anywhere near the Government’s priority list.
However, we welcome the proposal before us as far as it goes, but I have a number of questions which flow from it. First, we support the increase in price from 5p to 10p for a single-use plastic bag, but can the Minister clarify the impact this is likely to have on the sale of the more substantial bags for life, which are currently sold at between 10p and 30p? As has been said, there is an added incentive for supermarkets to prioritise the sales of these bags as they can keep all the income without making a donation to good causes. Already there is evidence that the 95% reduction in single-use plastic bags has seen a corresponding increase in the purchase of bags for life, with the average householder buying 57 bags for life a year according to research from Greenpeace. Has any consideration been given to a substantial increase in the price of bags for life? It has been suggested that a price of 70p would prevent the perverse consequences of this policy change, following the example of Ireland, which priced the bags at 70 cents and thereby cut their sale by 90%. Otherwise, is there not a danger that more bags for life will be purchased for single use, with the consequent increased damage to the environment?
Secondly, why have the Government exempted SMEs from using a proportion of the money raised from the sale of the bags to donate to good causes? This provision has worked well for the larger supermarkets, so I am not sure that the argument that it would be too complex to administer really holds water. Most small shops have a charity box and many are part of larger franchise arrangements. It seems wrong in principle that they should benefit from a new revenue stream for selling goods which pollute the environment. Also, will there be a requirement for the supermarkets which already administer the 5p charge to donate all the additional 5p to good causes given the additional administration in increasing the price will be negligible? Does the Minister agree with my noble friend Lord Khan, who rightly made the point that donations should be made to charities specifically involved in protecting the environment or clearing up the litter that plastic bags cause?
Thirdly, back in 2019, the resources and waste strategy set out a plan for resource efficiency and a circular economy which included an ambition for all plastics to be biodegradable. As my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made clear, the environmental damage caused by single-use bags would be somewhat mitigated if there was a requirement for them to be biodegradable. What steps are the Government taking to prevent plastics, including plastic bags, that are not biodegradable being in circulation?
Fourthly, why are the enforcement mechanisms restricted to being
“light touch, pragmatic and complaints led”?
This issue was raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. There is some concern that trading standards and local authorities simply will not have the resources to ensure that the ban is truly effective. It would be helpful if the Minister could comment on that.
Lastly, what further plans do the Government have to make the manufacturers of single-use plastic bags more responsible for the environmental damage that they cause? Both the resource and waste strategy and the Environment Bill talk about extended producer responsibility based on the principle of “the polluter pays”, so when are we going to start charging the manufacturers for producing these bags rather than putting the onus on the consumer to change their habits? That is much talked about as a policy but we are yet to see real action. Perhaps the Minister could reassure us that the comprehensive extended producer responsibility package will be introduced into the Environment Bill. I give notice now that that is an issue that we will pursue when the Bill comes before us in the Lords.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate today. In order for us to leave the environment in a better state than we found it for the next generation, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place to limit the impact that our use of resources has on the natural world. Plastics are causing incontrovertible harm to our marine and terrestrial environments and we need to act now. These measures are an important part of our wider strategy to tackle plastic pollution and serve as an important marker that our reliance on single-use plastics must be reduced.
I will do my best in the time that I have to answer the questions put to me by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked, effectively, “Why not simply ban single-use plastics?”, a point echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. Like both noble Lords, I wish to see an end to plastic waste, full stop. Clearly this statutory instrument alone is not going to achieve that, but it is just one part of a much larger of package of measures. For example, in October 2020 we introduced restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, plastic stirrers and plastic cotton buds. In 2018 we banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, a world first at the time. We are seeking powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, introduce a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers and reform the packaging waste regulations. The Environment Bill will also provide powers to introduce extended producer responsibility measures to make producers bear the full cost of the environmental impacts of their products. We are also taking action to boost the quantity and quality of recycling—a consistent set of materials will need to be collected from all households and businesses in England—and to ensure clearer labelling on packaging so that we know what it is that we can recycle. We are ready to do much more if and where necessary.
My noble friend Lord Robathan initially expressed a concern about the principle and the idea of banning things. When it comes to individual responsibility, I would instinctively agree with him, but he would probably agree with the point that I am about to make: the use and disposal of single-use plastic imposes a heavy cost on all of us and indeed on the world that we share. This happens against our will, in most cases. It is an area that needs, merits and justifies intervention.
My noble friend stressed the importance of education and suggested that every single school should spend time litter picking. That is a suggestion that I fully agree with. I will convey his message to the Department for Education, and if need be I will involve him in those discussions. It is very hard to disagree with him. Young people are very much instinctively onside. I have never spoken at a school where I have not been asked questions about pollution, particularly plastic waste, so there is no doubt a market there waiting to be tapped.
Education and awareness are already a key element in the litter strategy for England. Around 70% of schools in England, for example, are already members of the Eco-Schools programme, which is run by Keep Britain Tidy. Schools can also participate in challenges such as the Keep Britain Tidy Great Big School Clean, the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean and the Canal & River Trust’s Plastics Challenge, joining other community-minded individuals to tackle litter all over the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, made the important point that in reducing plastic waste we are saving an enormous amount of money at many different levels. He has made the specific suggestion that the £730 million raised through this charge should be reinvested—recycled, if you like—into the waste and plastic agenda. That is a valuable suggestion and one that I will take back to the department. The only thing that I will say from a personal point of view is that I think the remit should be relatively broad, focusing broadly on the environment as a whole, given that the effects of plastic pollution are predominantly environmental.
For a second time in a week, the noble Lord has stressed the positive interactions that he has had with schoolchildren on this issue. My very first school visit to Parliament as an MP shortly after I was elected in 2010 was with a bunch of children from Barnes Primary who were accompanied by a giant papier-mâché whale, which they wanted to take to No. 10. It would not fit through the door, so we had to go to Parliament Square. This whale was made by the children as a direct response to the sad death of the whale that had been seen—I am not sure that it was swimming past Parliament, but certainly it got caught in the River Thames. When it was dissected shortly afterwards, its belly was found to be full of plastic waste and, in particular, plastic bags. That was rightly very shocking for the children, so they wanted to engage in a protest.
The noble Lord asked about gasification. I am unable to give a proper, authoritative answer, I am afraid, because I am not qualified to do so, but I shall get back to him and will ask my officials to help me to respond in detail to him. I know he will agree that the key is to stop producing products designed only to be used for seconds or perhaps minutes which then take centuries to be disposed of.
The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, talked about the balance between deterrence and raising funds for good causes. He questioned whether raising the charge to 10p would have much of an impact. The evidence that we have suggests that it would, but he is right that alone that additional charge is not enough. I hope that I have provided reassurance in answers to other noble Lords that this is just part of an overall strategy. He suggested that we should ban further single-use items; he knows that we have banned plastic stirrers, straws and cotton buds, but I wholeheartedly agree with him that we should look for opportunities to go further.
That point was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, whose passion for this subject I very much share and enjoy. He made the point that, on the whole, people neither need nor want much of the plastic packaging or throwaway items that we are given—and he is right. Most people, when they go to a shop to buy a spring of parsley, do not particularly welcome the brick of plastic that encases it, which is why the emphasis in our approach to tackling plastic is very much to move away from consumer to producer responsibility.
The noble Lord is also absolutely right that we should be leading by example here in this place. It is appalling that we are still offered plastic cutlery and wrappers in this House; it is lazy and irresponsible, and it is completely unforgiveable. We should be leading by example, and I am certainly not going to pretend that I disagree with him on that point. On the resource and waste strategy, we committed to removing single-use plastic from the central government estate, including the Palace of Westminster, and the results of that exercise will be incorporated into the greening government commitments from 2020 onwards. As part of that, every department’s progress will be published annually in the annual report. Some departments are reporting early success, but we do not yet have all the published statistics. I certainly hope to see good results and, if not, I shall certainly use my office—and I know that my colleagues in Defra will do the same—to press for real and meaningful results. Much of this waste is inexcusable.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about the coming-into-force date, which we described on being the day after the day on which it is made, rather than having a specific date. We were concerned that the packed parliamentary timetable as a result of Covid-19 and EU exit could result in delays to debates and Parliament proroguing before the instrument had been debated. To avoid the instrument being withdrawn and relaid in the next session, we decided to specify the coming-into-force date as simply the day after the day when it is made. However, I stress that in August last year the government response to the consultation made it very clear that the extension and increase of the charge would enter into force in April 2021. The announcement was widely publicised in all the national press, broadcast and media, and Defra considers it reasonable to assume that businesses are aware of the Government’s intention that these changes would come into force in April. Indeed, I believe that we secured a number of front-page news stories on this issue.
The noble Baroness also mentioned paper bags, describing them as not a particularly good alternative. I shall slightly distort her question here, if I may, in order to wedge in an important point. If we judge an item only on the basis of its carbon impacts, we can end up with a perverse answer. Yes, paper bags need to be reused three or four times to have the same carbon impact as single-use plastic bags. But it is wrong to look just at the carbon impact. Plastic bags take centuries to decompose. They are routinely mistaken for food, and choke hundreds of thousands of animals, particularly marine animals. They cause terrible littering and blight, and even when they break down, on the whole they become micro-plastics, which then enter the food chain and poison everything in it, including us. So simply taking a narrow carbon approach is misleading and wrong.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked what we are doing to prepare customers. Again, we believe that the change we are introducing is pretty widely known—but maybe the odd customer will turn up at a shop unaware of it. We have to be realistic about that; it is unavoidable. Some customers will go to a shop without being fully prepared. But it is unlikely that they will make the same mistake twice, or three or four times. The choice is there: bags will be there, available for purchase. But ultimately, we are talking about behaviour change. That does not normally happen overnight, and we need permanent reminders that we are, we hope, moving on a path towards minimising our impact on earth—on the planet—and reducing our environmental footprint.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked several pertinent questions. I shall focus, if she does not mind, on the issue of franchises—the subject of her main question. She asked why we are exempting shops that are part of a franchise. All franchises, regardless of total and individual size, will be required to charge for single-use carrier bags. That we know. The noble Baroness’s interpretation of reporting obligations is correct, as franchises will be judged on individual size and not on that of the franchise group as a whole. We made that decision because we recognise that such businesses usually operate independently, so do not benefit from the economies of scale available to large businesses. However, retailers with a chain of shops will be counted as a large retailer if they have more than 250 employees. We are currently exploring options to introduce reporting for producers of plastic packaging as part of their obligation under the Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007. Any bags used by individual franchises will be reported on through that mechanism, which will, I hope, avoid unnecessary burdens.
Incidentally, the noble Baroness was right to say that many smaller retailers did not initially want or welcome the exemption included when this initiative first came in a few years ago. As someone who, as part of the coalition Government, campaigned hard for this change, I made that point many times during the debate. I too see this as a sort of catching up, or the correction of an initial flaw.
The noble Baroness asked, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, whether the Government had plans to introduce reporting on bags for life. We are reviewing the reporting for single-use carrier bags, and we will consider extending the reporting requirements to bags for life as part of that.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked what further steps the Government were taking to get other problematic plastic off our shelves. In addition to the measures that she mentioned, we are delivering on promises from the resource and waste strategy through seeking powers in the Environment Bill to do a whole range of things, including: charging for single-use plastic items; introducing, as I said earlier, a deposit return scheme; reforming the packaging waste regulations; introducing greater consistency in household and business recycling collections; and more besides. We are currently assessing whether there are additional items for which a ban would be suitable and proportionate, and I would welcome ideas from her and her colleagues—and, indeed, from anyone else who has taken part in the debate—as we undergo that process.
That brings me to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I thank her for prior notice of her questions, and for her and her party’s support for this measure. First, she too asked what the Government were doing about bags for life. I have addressed part of her question already, but I should add that bags for life are designed for multiple reuses; that is the whole point of them. Customers should therefore be encouraged to reuse them. If they are reused sufficiently, they have a lighter environmental impact than single-use bags. Clearly, if they are used only once, they do not. There will be an increase in the number of bags for life—we know that—but the policy change will lead to an overall reduction of at least 24% in the number of bags across all types. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that bags for life are not a proper long-term solution. They are not. The more progressive and thoughtful supermarkets are already planning their switch away from all plastic bags; a number of noble Lords have mentioned Morrisons.
The noble Baroness asked whether we will hike the price of bags for life, as did a number of noble Lords. We are considering that as part of the post-implementation review. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, suggested that money should be recycled back into plastic and waste-related causes. Again, I will convey that message, but I would prefer money to be recycled into a wider remit, something environmental and local as far as possible.
Secondly, the noble Baroness asked how the UK will encourage manufacturers to take responsibility for plastic bags. We are committed to introducing a new, world-leading tax which will apply to businesses producing or importing plastic packaging which does not meet a minimum threshold of at least 30% recycled content from April 2022. Combined with our reform to the packing producer responsibility system which will apply to all packing, including single-use plastic bags, it will change economic incentives by encouraging more use of recycled plastic and drive up recycling rates. We are doing what we need to do to shift the emphasis away from consumers to producer responsibility.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked why all plastic bags—
I am sorry; we are running out of time.
I apologise. I think I have answered the questions that were put to me and any more is merely an indulgence, so I will simply say that we are taking steps to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and to explore more sustainable alternatives. This draft order will help us to do so, and I commend it to the Committee.
That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 5.21 pm.