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Single-Use Plastics

Volume 819: debated on Monday 7 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ban (1) the sale of single use plastics, and (2) other single use materials.

My Lords, where evidence supports the case for a ban we will act, as we have with a number of plastic items—straws, stirrers, cotton buds—and as we plan to do on further single-use plastic items. The Environment Act enables us to introduce a range of other measures to tackle single-use items, including a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers, extended producer responsibility schemes and charges on any single-use items, regardless of material.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but why are the Government insisting on consulting on every plastic single-use item separately, when the damage to the environment is well known? We have just finished the consultation on plates, cutlery, and balloon sticks, then there is a longer drawn-out process to consult on wet wipes and plastic cups, and I am sure that there will then be a further delay, then a few more items will be investigated. We gave the Government powers in the Environment Act to introduce a comprehensive ban on polluting single-use items, so why are they not dealing with this on a comprehensive basis? It would be hugely popular. Why must it be done item by item over such a long time?

I very much share the frustrations of the noble Baroness about how long some of these things take, but it is worth pointing out that, as she says, we now have the power to ban products which cause environmental pollution and are harmful to human or animal health and harmful to nature more broadly. The bans that have already been introduced, on plastic bags, for example, resulted in a 95% reduction in sales. Straws, stirrers and cotton buds have reduced by similar amounts and there are many more products in the pipeline where the UK Government are very likely to be introducing the necessary bans.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and the Government on going as far as they have. Is part of the difficulty the confusion over the different types of plastics? On 4 March, the Government produced a press release on post-consumer plastic, which includes household plastic and other uses. Would it not be better for this to be disposed of through issues such as energy from waste, so that we were dealing with two problems at the same time: disposing of plastics and feeding into energy for households to use locally?

My Lords, our approach must put the main emphasis on reducing the amount of plastic being created in the first place. There are vast numbers of items that are made of single-use plastic where there is no justification for doing so, especially since we know that the vast majority of them will end up in the environment or managed inappropriately. This must be the focus, but my noble friend makes an important point.

My Lords, the Government’s resources and waste strategy is to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, which is laudable but far in the future. The plastics pact for businesses and NGOs has called on all plastics packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Will the Minister support this more immediate target for eliminating plastic pollution?

I warmly welcome the work that the pact has done and very much support its ambition. Just a few days ago, the member states of the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to a historic deal whereby we will now be creating a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution. The UK has championed this for a long time. We co-sponsored the resolution, and the aspiration is for this new treaty to become for plastic what the Montreal protocol was in relation to the ozone layer.

My Lords, while it is important to reduce the production of single-use items, there are some which, for health and safety reasons, should be excluded. These include hypodermic needles, medical and cleaning gloves, and medical dust respirators. However, there are others which could be targeted, such as disposable nappies. What are the Government doing to promote the use of washable, reusable nappies?

My Lords, there is a whole range of plastics, not least disposable nappies, where work must be done. We are currently taking advice in relation to wet wipes, single-use coffee cups, and cigarette filters, almost all of which are made of plastics, although as a smoker, I use biodegradable paper filters; they are just as good and you can drop them on the ground without feeling too bad—or, indeed, you could stop smoking. All these items, and there are others, are within the range of what the Government are looking at in relation to the action that we will be taking in the coming months.

My Lords, the Minister will be pleased that the Scottish Parliament passed legislation banning an extensive list of single-use plastics from being supplied and manufactured in Scotland, which is due to come into force on 1 June this year. Of course, the problem is that, because there is no similar ban in any other part of the United Kingdom, if these items are manufactured, imported or sold in any other part of the UK, they can be supplied in Scotland because of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. That is likely to happen, and it will undermine the Scottish decision. Not even Northern Ireland, which should be subject to EU regulations because of the Northern Ireland protocol, has implemented this ban. Was it intended that the United Kingdom Internal Market Act would put a cap on the ecological ambitions of the devolved Administrations, or is this an accident? If it is an accident, can we do something about it, please?

My Lords, I am not convinced that the argument follows. We are among the most ambitious countries in the world in terms of where we are heading in relation to single-use plastics. The European Union is also putting a lot of emphasis on reducing unnecessary single-use plastics, as is Scotland. We may be operating in different ways, implementing different rules and using different tools, but we are heading in the same direction, and there is no doubt in my mind that we are moving to an era where the casual use of single-use plastic is coming to an end.

Do the Government intend to have an initiative with the NHS over the use of plastics, given that it is has been estimated that 133,000 tonnes of waste plastic are produced by the NHS each year, which make up 22.7% of its total waste? Some plastics are important for infection control, yet 13.7% of all this waste is plastic film, often used just in packaging, so the approach across the whole NHS needs to be different from that across other aspects of society.

The noble Baroness makes an important point. Single-use plastics that are necessary within the context of delivery of health services are well known and, clearly, they would not be caught up in the measures that the Government are introducing. Beyond those specific items, the same rules would apply in relation to the NHS. I welcome our gradual abandonment of the use of disposable face masks for even the most ludicrous events. The numbers of face masks abandoned around the world defy belief and have come to dwarf some of the plastic pollution caused by things such as stirrers, straws and balloons that we are all obsessed by. I warmly welcome the world gradually dropping the theatrics in relation to those masks.

My Lords, building on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the powers under the Environment Act, the Secretary of State, George Eustice, has said,

“it’s time we left our throwaway culture behind”.

With that in mind and, noting that the Refill Coalition is bringing in plans to replace plastic—or indeed any—containers for washing-up liquid, laundry liquid, shampoo, hand wash, pasta, rice, cereal, seeds, grains, nuts and dried fruits, will the Government consult on every one of those kinds of packaging, or will they simply tell industry and retailers that this has to end by a certain, reasonable date in line with the UN Environment Programme proposals, so that they can have the certainty to plan for that future?

The problem with government is that, sometimes, you cannot just undermine a sector in a way that has a dramatic impact on its business model without offering the necessary respect that comes with a consultation and having thought through the policy properly. Simply banning these items, which, of course, is where I want to end up, would have a massive impact on a number of different businesses. It is right that the Government should tread carefully when it comes to making decisions which impact so directly people’s business models.