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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:20 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 5:20 pm, 26th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Holly Lynch, who told us about the situation that her constituents are facing. It has also been a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches, and I observe that today must be “west midlands day”, because I have heard many excellent speeches from new colleagues from the region. I welcome the Bill and its protections, which will improve air and water quality, restore habitats, create the Office for Environmental Protection, and introduce measures to deal with the impact of plastic waste, on which I will focus.

As somebody who spent 30 years in the packaging industry and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry, I recognise public concerns about litter and where plastic waste ends up. I heard about that on the doorstep during the general election, because litter in our communities has an impact on local environments and the plastic waste finding its way into the oceans has an impact on the global environment. Both are harmful, but both represent the waste of a valuable resource. I have heard many Members today talk about the harm and damage caused by packaging ending up in the wrong place, but I want to take a moment to consider the role of packaging, because we sometimes forget what it is for.

Packaging enables the safe transfer of goods, particularly of food items, ensuring that they are received by the customer in peak condition. The second important role of packaging is not only to provide customers with convenience when picking up their daily food needs, but to give them information about what the product contains. That is of particular importance for food, given concerns about food allergies, nutritional content and sell-by dates, but instructions for use are important in respect of other items. However, that information is absent when people fill their own containers, for which there is a trend in retail.

The final role of packaging is to prevent food waste. Recent innovations, such as resealable packs for cheese and meat, are important in enabling households to get the most out of their food budgets and ensuring that purchased food is consumed. We must not forget that the disposal of food waste is a problem because it creates gases. There is a case for suggesting that the harmful gases given off by food waste cause more environmental harm than an inert plastic product bobbing about in the ocean. I am not suggesting that that is desirable, but we need to consider the relative harms.

If we accept that there is a role for packaging, we need to consider the steps to minimise its impact. The Bill encourages a reduction in the amount of packaging and refers to recycling. There has always been an incentive for manufacturers to use the least amount of material to do the job that the packaging is being asked to do, and the industry has undergone a process called lightweighting over many years. For example, starting in 2007, Coca-Cola worked with WRAP to reduce the weight of the 500 ml bottle from 26 grams to 24 grams, saving 8% of raw material and reducing the need for 1,400 tonnes of PET a year.

A large part of the Bill is about improving recycling in several ways. First, it extends producer responsibilities by increasing obligations on packaging manufacturers. The industry accepts that it needs to do more and has transformed its approach since the days when I worked in the sector, when there was little regard for what happened once the product had been used.

Consistency in local authority domestic waste collection is also important. People are confused by what goes where, and variation leads to confusion. That needs to be addressed, and I support the intention to simplify labelling on packaging so that what can and cannot be recycled, and which bin to put things in, becomes clearer to consumers. There also needs to be consistency in the use of terms. Why say that something is recyclable if the facilities do not exist to recycle it?

Part 3 addresses deposit return schemes. There are details to consider, but almost all producers in the industry accept DRS. Coca-Cola has an ambition to ensure that all its packaging is recovered so that more is recycled and none ends up as waste or litter, and in early 2017 it confirmed its support for a well-designed DRS.

A DRS must consider a number of items. It must have clear objectives, and it must increase the quality and quantity of the material collected. Quality is about making sure that there is less contamination, and I disagree with my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson—biodegradable plastic is not helpful, because it is a contaminant in the waste stream.

Secondly, on increasing quantity, there is no point incurring the costs of a DRS—reverse vending machines cost up to £15,000 each—if it does not increase the amount of material recycled. There is real concern about displacement and the fact that people who currently put bottles in their domestic household waste stream will take them to the supermarket to get their deposit back, which will not increase the amount that is recycled.

We need to consider the number of return points and whether there will be one at all sales points. Will cafés and restaurants be included? Will the scheme provide an exemption for small retailers that lack the space to install a reverse vending machine? There are serious questions for the Minister about who will pay for it. Given the lower volumes from smaller retailers, how will we make certain that it is cost-neutral for them? The Minister needs to sort out what happens to unredeemed deposits. Not every bottle deposited will be redeemed, so where will those bottles go? Who will manage it?

Finally, we need to ensure consistency with Scotland. I did not hear Deidre Brock say that it would make much more sense and be better for consumers, retailers and beverage producers if we had a UK-wide system. Britvic, which produces soft drinks in my constituency, says that it will otherwise need two separate stock units, one for Scotland and one for England and Wales, which does not make sense.