Environmental Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 15th June 2020.

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Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:43 pm, 15th June 2020

I think you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is a wide subject and people are generally interested in this whole issue of waste and plastics. Of course, my hon. Friend’s point about people is absolutely right. Even with my own children, I still have to teach them what to put in which boxes for the recycling: it drives me absolutely nuts. In the Environment Bill, we are bringing forward measures to align all the collection services, which will, once and for all, I hope, sort out the situation to which he refers.

The proposed measures in the resources and waste chapter of our Environment Bill will transition us towards a more circular economy—I have mentioned that already—which will change the way we consume resources. However, there is much we can already do to address the issue of single-use plastics, so let us now look clearly at what this statutory instrument will do. It will restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds to end users in England, helping to reduce the amount of plastic that pollutes our environment. These new regulations will support the voluntary actions being taken by industry, led by the UK plastics pact, while ensuring that all businesses move to more sustainable alternatives. Our current data show that we use a remarkable 4.7 billion straws, 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds and 316 million plastic stirrers every year in England, which is a huge quantity. This intervention will drastically reduce the use of those single-use plastics by an estimated 95%. When taken in conjunction with our wider policy approach to move towards a more circular economy, this will be another landmark moment, following our carrier bag charge and our microbead ban.

These regulations will be coming in ahead of the EU’s introduction of such a ban. Taking advantage of our new-found freedom enables us to be more flexible and to have a more tailored approach, which will enable us to bring in our own exemptions—for example, the exemption for those with disabilities. Let us look at those exemptions. There is no doubt that plastic is an incredibly useful and versatile material. Plastic straws can withstand high temperatures, such as for tea and coffee, and can be moulded to bend or fit into a particular shape. That allows people suffering from certain conditions, such as motor neurone disease, who struggle to hold a cup to access hot and cold drinks, and liquid foods. My husband was seriously ill and we had to use straws as he got increasingly ill, so we can see why an exemption such as that is important. That is why we have included exemptions in these regulations for accessibility, forensic reasons, and medical and scientific uses.

Following the introduction of the regulations, plastic-stemmed cotton buds will still be available for purchase by individuals who need them. Plastic straws will be available through pharmacies, without any requirement for proof of need, which means that relatives, friends and carers could buy them on behalf of those who rely on the items. Similarly, we are allowing for catering establishments, such as restaurants and public houses, that supply food and drink ready for visitors to consume to continue to provide plastic straws on request—again, this is without proof of need, for the reasons to which I have just referred. In these instances, it will be against the regulations to display and advertise the fact that straws are being supplied, in order to limit the impulse for people who do not need them to request them.

The regulations allow business-to-business sales, for example, between a manufacturer and a catering establishment, to ensure that businesses can supply items to those who need them. We have also exempted other establishments such as schools, care homes and prisons from these regulations on plastic straws, so that they can be made available for anyone in their care who may need them. Finally, there is also an exemption for plastic straws that are classed as packaging. For example, some medicines in pill form are packaged in straws, to be dispensed one at a time. These exemptions for medical, scientific and forensic purposes will be reviewed and updated as we move forward.

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. Local authorities are obliged to ensure that guidance is published ahead of the regulations coming into force, and anyone caught still supplying the items against the rules set out in this legislation could face civil sanctions, such as stop notices or a variable monetary penalty.

Of course, we hope that the enforcement measures will not be necessary. Industry is already making good progress to remove the items from their shelves, and public demand for the items is falling. But the regulations need to have teeth to show that the Government take the issue of plastic pollution seriously. The new regulations send a signal to industry and the general public that we need to think carefully about the products we buy and the materials from which they are made. The regulations will help people to make more sustainable choices, and I commend the draft regulations to the House.