Waste: Chinese Import Ban - Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 2:07 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 2:07 pm, 11th January 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking following the Chinese ban on imports of plastic and other waste.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have put down their names to speak in this debate. I declare my interest as a member of a local refuse collection authority.

The Question is about the ban by China on yang laji—or foreign garbage, as it may be translated—comprising 24 varieties of low-level waste, including paper and plastic, which started at the beginning of this month. I declare that I have a lifetime love of paper and a lifetime dislike of plastic but, most of all, I have a lifetime hatred of waste. I remember back in the Liberal Party in the 1970s, when we declared that we should as a country move towards zero waste. The in-phrase is now “zero untreatable waste”; people seem to be catching up with us. We have the 5p plastic-bag charge in operation, which I remind noble Lords was a product of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government. The Daily Mail likes to claim credit for it, but who cares really?

Today, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s new environment plan—I have not read it yet; it has 151 pages, apparently—and launched herself as an environmentalist and the saviour of the planet. That is okay, so long as it happens. It is perhaps more down to Sir David Attenborough and his “Blue Planet” series. But let us not mock. To quote Shakespeare’s Brutus:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune …

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures”.

Whether the present concentration on plastics and plastic waste is a result of the Daily Mail, the Liberal Democrats, Xi Jinping or anybody else, the tide is flowing, and let us float or sail on it while it lasts.

My noble friend Lord Teverson asked an Oral Question on the same subject as a sort of taster for this short debate. The Minister said in reply that the Government,

“has been working with key partners and issuing guidance”.

It would be helpful if the Minister shared the guidance with us. To the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, he said that,

“it is clear that we need to do better, and that is why we are working on this issue”.

The Minister is always helpful and friendly with his answers and his responses to Members of this House. A little more hard fact and detail today would be welcome.

The Minister had no clear answers to a question from my noble friend Lord Teverson on the storage of plastics and the problems of potential pollution and fire hazards, responding similarly to a question on incineration asked by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He said that landfill was a “last resort”. The problem is that local authorities and others may quickly come to find that landfill is the only resort. Can the Minister not only provide some answers to my noble friend Lord Teverson’s questions on pollution and fire hazards but say whether the Government are expecting and encouraging more incineration in the present short-term crisis?

In answer to a question on alternative markets for plastics from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—who, no doubt, will press this later in this debate—the Minister said that,

“we need to address this issue on a global basis”.—[Official Report, 9/1/18; cols. 115-16.]

Is the Minister saying that it is a question of new and more markets for the products of recycling and remanufacture of plastics, or are he and the Government looking for new markets for our waste, to dump it somewhere else? Will he give us an assurance that, in particular, we will not try to dump more waste on other countries in the third world such as in Africa, which already suffer badly from toxic waste from Europe? Michael Gove said that the UK must “stop offshoring its dirt”. Is that an absolute commitment, and how will it be achieved?

Finally, how much EU waste goes to China and what joint solutions are we seeking within the European Union and the internal market to try to solve this problem? Is it not a bit ridiculous that we are trying to leave the European Union internal market when it is so valuable when issues and problems like this come up?

The statistics are eye-watering. Between 2012 and 2016 the UK exported 2.5 million tonnes of scrap plastic to China. The developed world consigned some 7.3 million tonnes of used plastic to China in 2016 alone. China’s scrap paper imports in 2016 were a massive 28 million tonnes, 3.8 million of that from the UK.

The new ban—which, I have to say, in many ways I welcome because it is making people wake up to the problem—threatens to destroy the business model of the UK waste industry together with its supply chain, and threatens to leave local authorities firmly in the lurch. The chief executive of the UK Recycling Association, Simon Ellin, told the BBC that he had no idea how the problem could be solved in the short term:

“It’s a huge blow for us … We simply don’t have the markets in the UK”.

The UK organisation RECOUP, which recycles plastics, said the China ban would lead to stockpiling of waste and a move towards incineration and landfill. Do the Government agree? Peter Fleming from the Local Government Association said:

“It’s a challenge—but mostly in the short term… and we will cope”.

Local authorities cope, but increasingly in unsatisfactory ways. My own local authority is being forced by the county council’s scrapping of the recycling subsidy—because of its financial problems—to go on to four-weekly instead of two-weekly recycling collections. We do not want to do it but we have no alternative whatever. We are going the wrong way and we need help from the Government, which means more money.

The UK has been slow to react to the China ban. As we know, Defra is working overtime on Brexit agricultural and fisheries reform, producing a two-year late, 25-year environmental plan, which, at last, has been published today. We welcome that and look forward to debating it in your Lordships’ House. Will the Minister give us an assurance that he will do everything possible to get a debate on the new plan in this House as soon as possible? We seem to have a lot of time for debates at the moment. Defra is also planning to get thousands of new environmental laws on to the post-Brexit UK statute book, and, no doubt, that is taking up some time.

According to the Prime Minister in her speech this morning—which I enjoyed watching on the television—plastic waste is one of the great environmental scourges. We must reduce the demand, reduce the amount of plastics in circulation, increase the recycling rate and rationalise all the different kinds of plastic that bewilder all of us who are not chemists by training. We agree with all that, and we might add some more things. As well as Defra, what is the role of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in achieving these aims? A lot of them will require a lot of investment and changes in the working practices of the companies involved in all this work, most of which are in the private sector. How will this be achieved and what is the role of that department?

To increase the recycling rate there is a key role for local authorities in both collection and disposal. Yet they are all, without exception, suffering from fewer resources, less funding—it is being slashed year by year—which inevitably impacts on recycling. This morning the Prime Minister said that we will “lead the world”. That was a bold thing to say, and we will all try to hold her to it. However, in the short term, if the processes cannot make money, they could just stop. If there is nowhere to store the stuff, it could just stop. If councils cannot sell on the recyclates they have collected, what will they do then? To quote Simon Ellin again:

“It could be chaos, it really could”.

How did it come to this? We have short-term solutions based on short-term financial benefits, setting aside longer-term environmental damage and paying no attention to risks, including the ability of China to take massive short-term decisions. It is a product of global neoliberal economics and a classic case of its fundamental flaws. There seemed to be good reasons at the time. To quote Brutus yet again:

“Good reasons must, of force, give place to better”.

We now have an opportunity for a better system in a whole range of environmental areas, including recycling. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Baroness Redfern Baroness Redfern Conservative 2:18 pm, 11th January 2018

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for bringing this timely debate to the House today following the announcement of the Chinese ban on imports of plastic and other waste. Regrettably, we have relied on China to deal with our waste for far too long—in fact, now for over 20 years. It is therefore important that the Government’s 25-year plan will send a strong message to everyone about the commitment to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited.

There is no doubt that public support for recycling is at a real high, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, just mentioned, particularly in response to the BBC’s “Blue Planet” series. Britain currently ships around two-thirds—approximately 500,000 tonnes—of its waste to China for recycling each year. With a view to finding new destinations in the short term, UK recycling firms are now having a hard look at other manufacturing countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam. However, we have to begin to manage more of our waste. We are told that the UK uses 13 billion plastic bottles every year, with only 7.5 billion being recycled and the rest going to landfill. That is a massive amount for any country.

We have a real challenge to address not only in the short term but in the longer term, so it is so important that we build a coherent waste strategy with real meat on the bone. There is no doubt that China’s decision will cause some major issues in the short term, as I alluded to earlier, so there will be a need for joined-up working between government, the Environment Agency, local authorities and all other interested parties to carefully manage the situation before us.

People support recycling and want to do all they can to address the problem and help reduce pollution, so it is disappointing to know that recycling rates have plateaued in the last five years. Therefore, consultation with industry is vital on a well-designed deposit return scheme with inbuilt incentives, in particular to stop the accumulation of plastic products in the environment that adversely affect wildlife, wildlife habitat and indeed humans. Industry must take more responsibility for the environmental impact. I know that taxpayers would be willing to pay more for single-use plastics but surely the manufacturers of these cups should bear the brunt. However, I welcome the Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme, to which the Government will have committed £3 billion by 2042 to support investment in a range of facilities to keep waste out of landfill and increase recycling levels.

The clean growth strategy, published on 12 October last year, sets out an ambition for zero avoidable waste by 2050, cutting the total amount of plastic in circulation, reducing the number of different plastics in use, improving the rate of recycling, supporting comprehensive and frequent rubbish and recycling collections, and making it easier for individuals to know and understand what goes into the recycling bin and what goes into the general rubbish bin. However, that is a long way away, and confusion still reigns in many cases.

The general public are a captive audience. That was borne out when the 5p charge was put on plastic bags, taking 9 billion bags out of circulation and reducing usage by a whopping 83%, and with more than £66 million being given by supermarkets to good causes from the 5p charge. I certainly look forward to seeing and walking down the plastic-free aisles in our supermarkets very soon. The banning of the manufacture of personal care products containing plastic microbeads only two days ago was a great start.

We are all too well aware of how plastic pollution can unfavourably affect the land, waterways and oceans, with marine animals in particular being affected through entanglement or the direct ingestion of plastic waste, or through exposure to chemicals within plastic that cause interruptions in biological function. I personally find it very difficult to see those heart-rending pictures. We are now witnessing an increase in the volume of plastics in the ocean, with decomposition being slowed down. It is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder 400 years, a disposable nappy 450 years and a fishing line 600 years to degrade.

Many UK councils are working hard to increase their recycling rates but others have to raise their game significantly and quickly. England is well down the list of countries in the developed world, ranking 18th and with an average recycling rate of just 42.8%. The time has come to act. The environmental legacy that we leave for our future generations has to be better, so we really must take up the challenge. We have to be bold, we have to improve and manage our recycling, and, in particular, we must take a long, hard look at our future infrastructure now that the Chinese have put a ban on imports of plastic and other waste.

Finally, I hope that this will not be an opportunity missed and that we will see bold new measures being taken in the next few weeks. The situation is indeed urgent. We need the detail and we need the bite. Quite simply, we cannot afford to sit back and wait.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 2:24 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Greaves on bringing forward this debate. It is not only topical but incredibly timely in view of the fact that the environment strategy was launched today.

My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, have already mentioned the BBC programme “Blue Planet II”, which has to claim quite a lot of the credit for sensitising the public to just how severe the problem is. However, credit must also go to the organisations that have been working on this issue for years. For example, the Marine Conservation Society has been carrying out beach surveys and looking at the different types of plastic and the build-up of plastic—from the little things used to clean ears, such as Q-tips and so on, through to the big plastic items that we have all seen on beaches. The work of the Marine Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace has meant that the public have become more and more aware of this issue, even before seeing “Blue Planet II”.

I think that consumers are now willing to act but they face a really confusing scenario. The Prime Minister is quite right: you need a degree in chemistry to interpret what is on the back of some packets. For example, earlier I was looking at the back of a pack of wet wipes. Some people might assume that these wipes are just paper impregnated with liquid, but that is not the case. They contain lots of plastic, which is why you cannot flush them down the loo, and presumably the time they take to degrade is similar to that of a nappy.

Industry, too, will need a big incentive when it comes to considering what to do about packaging. At the moment, the incentive is all on the side of producing packaging that is good for marketing. Therefore, my first question to the Minister is: what sort of incentive can the Government consider to encourage industry so that recyclability is built into the design of products? I shall give your Lordships an example. When you buy a pair of scissors, you might find them just hanging on a hook in the shop with a price tag on them, but all too frequently they are packaged with a cardboard backing and a very hard plastic front so that you need another pair of scissors to cut open the packaging to get to them. Why on earth is that product packed in a plastic bubble?

Retailers could start to demand from industry that items come with less packaging. We must also think about online retailers. For example, if your Lordships have ever ordered a very small item from Amazon, such as a camera, they will know that it comes in a box of immense proportions. It looks as though you are going to unwrap a giant item but the box is filled with polystyrene packaging. For a start, that could be shredded paper instead, but the item could have been packed in a much smaller box and it would, I am sure, still have been quite safe. Plastic-free aisles are welcome but we will have to make sure that they do not just disincentivise getting rid of plastic from the rest of the items in the supermarket.

The Government will have their work cut out. Back in 2010 they set about a bonfire of quangos and regulations, and year on year they have cut funding to local authorities. As my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out, local authorities do not have any slack. They cannot increase their capacity to run pilot schemes and so on with a view to improving recycling collection rates. The Government should look at why Germany’s recycling rates are so much higher than ours. Germany, South Korea and Slovenia have the highest rates. What are they doing that is so right? Perhaps the biggest blow will be the loss of the EU circular economy package as we face Brexit. That would have been very helpful, and I hope that the Government will still consider adopting it in its entirety.

My second question is: what about biodegradable plastic? I do not have a firm view on it but I understand that it is confusing the issue. On the one hand, biodegradable plastic is made from processed corn starch, but for it to biodegrade it needs to be at 50-plus degrees centigrade. Therefore, it would be ideal to go into an anaerobic digester along with the food that it is wrapping, but if it goes in with other plastics it will mess up the recycling scheme. It was the subject of a UN environment programme report in 2015, which highlighted some of these issues.

Finally, I hope that here at Westminster, and in all public buildings, we will do a few things to ensure that we do not need so many water bottles—for example, there should be more freely available drinking water. Our disposable cutlery should be made of wood, but downstairs in the canteen it is plastic, and straws should be made of paper. There are a number of things we can do. However, if this Government want to leave things in a better state, they do not have the 25 years of the environment plan in which to do so; they have just two or three years at most.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 2:31 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing this debate, and I draw attention to my interests set out on the register, including my work with the Water Industry Commission for Scotland and as an honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities and the Rural Affairs Group of the Church of England General Synod. Also, for five years I had the privilege of chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in the other place.

The question that we must address this afternoon is how to dispose of plastic and other hard-to-dispose-of waste such as wood, packaging and so on. Of the 13 billion plastic bottles used in this country every year, only 7.5 billion are recycled, leaving 5.5 billion to be put in landfill, littered or incinerated. In 2017, 30,000 tonnes of waste paper, cardboard and plastic were exported to various destinations outside the UK from north and east Yorkshire alone. We can, and must, learn from and work with other countries to identify best practice, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said.

The EU circular economy breaks with tradition and moves away from the linear approach of make, use and dispose of products, to that of recover, reduce, recycle and reuse. I have family in Denmark whose domestic and municipal waste is sent to energy-from-waste and distance-warming plants. This brings direct benefit to the local community. For many years, my aunt and uncle have benefited from low-cost heating and hot water. Closer to home, my husband has led the way by gifting me for my birthday a lifetime-use plastic bottle, adding to the heavier glass bottle he gifted me previously. I now realise that I was a little churlish in not thanking him more fulsomely at the time for doing his bit for the environment.

Many of your Lordships will be familiar with SELCHP—the South East London Combined Heat and Power plant. Although it was built, as the name would suggest, for combined heat and power, it was only years following its construction that combined heat and power was triggered to benefit local residents and local councils disposing of waste.

In Denmark, the Danish oil and natural gas industry—DONG, as it used to be called—has successfully fitted distance-warming schemes to the benefit of local communities, and it believes that it could easily retrofit distance-warming schemes in London and other major UK cities. Will the Government examine the cost and potential disruption that that would cause in this country?

What are the issues? In my view, the primary issue is one of public perception. We must move away from the inaccurate and outdated term “incineration”, which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, himself used, to the more modern and efficient concepts of energy from waste, combined heat and power, anaerobic digestion and other well-known technologies.

For plastic bottles, will the Government look at adopting a self-financing deposit and return scheme as a matter of urgency? The infrastructure needed is minimal and could use the existing facilities of a supermarket, for example. It requires charging a deposit to the consumer at the time of purchase and providing a returns facility, usually a hole in the wall. It will require relevant facilities at which these plastic bottles and containers can be disposed of in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. Crucially, the initial deposit is then returned to the consumer. Frankly, the cost of producing and disposing of plastics is just too high. Will the Government also address the vexed issue of disposal of waste from businesses in rural areas where the collection distance for outlying businesses is high, as is the cost of disposal in existing facilities?

I have a couple more questions for the Minister. How do we convince the public, who are averse to chimneys and any form of emission, that energy from waste or combined heat and power is a safe, regulated and controlled way of disposing of plastic and other types of waste? Will the Government encourage industry to invest in new technologies for new types of biodegradable plastics that would, for example, degrade when exposed to water in rivers or the seas? Will the Government revisit the producer responsibility obligation with a view to reducing packaging in the first place, and give real teeth to the Prime Minister’s view that plastic waste is a scourge of our time by reducing plastic at the product’s manufacturing source?

Urgent action is required to prevent littering and the pollution of our rivers and seas. I am delighted that north Yorkshire is leading the way by disposing of waste that previously might have gone to landfill but now goes to a local energy from waste recovery plant. I welcome the 25-year environment plan setting out our determination to leave the environment in a better state than we found it and outlining steps for a cleaner, greener Britain. But can I take it as read that we will meet all our existing obligations at the time we leave the EU, including the circular economy package and the existing regulations that are currently being revised? Can the Minister also square the circle of how, in the context of the 25-year environment plan to secure a cleaner, greener Britain, fracking would be allowed anywhere, in particular in the beautiful countryside of north Yorkshire, or above, below or in the North York Moors National Park?

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 2:37 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for bringing forward this topical and timely debate, which enables us to give immediate feedback on the Prime Minister’s speech today on the 25-year environment plan. Being an optimist, I had hoped for some concrete measures in the speech, but, sadly, it was underwhelming. I am told that it was very lyrical: I did not pick that up. I did spot that absolutely nothing new was said on climate change and there were no strong measures, or even suggestions, for legislative change that could actually make a difference. I do not understand how the Prime Minister can claim that we as a country are leading on climate change when she is about to give the green light to more fracking, we are still banning onshore wind development, we are still trying to build new nuclear power stations and we are giving tax breaks to oil and gas. None of those things will help us have a cleaner, greener, safer planet. At the end of my few words, I will make a few suggestions to the Government for things that could be brought in fairly quickly and would make a difference, so that people like me could then say to the Government, “Well done”. That would be a wonderful day.

I realise that many of us have said similar things today. We are all concerned about the China ban. The ban on recycled waste going to China will lead to a UK pile-up. The big problem for me and many other Greens is that the UK is on the verge of burning more waste than we currently recycle because our recycling is failing for all sorts of reasons. It is not that people care less about recycling—in fact, people care more and more about it and diligently separate their waste—but some councils, perhaps because of contracts that they have got locked into with incinerator companies, pile all the waste back together and throw it into incinerators. The public really do not like that and incineration is not the way forward. The point at which we will incinerate more waste than we currently recycle is getting nearer because of the China ban.

There is a logic to generating some electricity from waste that we cannot recycle or reuse. That is meant to be a last resort, but it simply is not that any more. We have created instead a market-driven system of incinerators that constantly need to be fed. As restrictions have been placed on sending rubbish to landfill, our waste has been diverted into these newly built incinerators rather than into increased levels of recycling. Burning waste is not good for climate change, and there are fears over the health impacts because of the weakness of air pollution monitoring systems.

However, it is the sheer waste of resources through burning that offends me so deeply. Incinerators are the ash-producing products of our make, break and throw away culture and, as such, have to be rethought. I do my best to refuse, reuse and recycle, but sometimes that is difficult. I have sought out shops where you can pick up your vegetables, weigh them yourself and pay at the till. You do not even need paper bags, let alone plastic bags; you can put everything in your big shopping bag. It is possible to do so, and many greengrocers have always done it. It is only the rise of huge supermarkets that has encouraged so much wrapped waste. The classic story about the Marks & Spencer cauliflower steak involved a slice of cauliflower that was wrapped in plastic and put on a plastic base. Organic coconuts have also been wrapped in plastic. If ever a fruit had an impermeable, safe exterior it is a coconut.

The Prime Minister’s speech was underwhelming, without any real sense of urgency to deal with a situation that we all care about. None of us can any longer say that we do not understand it or do not know what is happening. The design of housing is part of the problem—we had a housing debate earlier—but that is also part of the solution. Green solutions do not encompass only recycling or stopping incineration, they encompass everything. For example, good design of blocks of flats means that people can recycle easily. They can also recycle their food waste which at the moment is being thrown away by nearly every council in London and the UK.

The China ban shows the folly of a strategy that relies on exporting our recycling and burning the rest. A charge on incineration would level the playing field, and that is one of the ideas that I shall put forward. Companies and consumers need a steer and a nudge. It is not enough to urge companies to have plastic-free aisles, you have to legislate for it.

In a spirit of Green generosity I shall list a few measures that could be brought in, some fairly quickly, and would show that the Government are taking the situation seriously. First, on the issue of using less, plastic-free aisles would be wonderful but it should be mandatory and not left simply to urging companies to introduce them. We have to ban plastics that we cannot recycle; they are not a sensible way forward any more. We must bring in an incinerator charge so that companies are paying the true cost of burning valuable resources. We must also ban the building of more incinerators; we have plenty at the moment. We must insist that any materials used by manufacturers and producers have a minimum recycled content, so that they understand the need to use recycled materials. The Government could bring in tomorrow a deposit on glass and plastic bottles, and I look forward to that. Quite honestly, nature does not waste anything—and neither should we.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 2:44 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for allowing me a quick intervention in the gap.

I congratulate China on banning the export of waste. Why should it be the world dumping ground for this kind of waste? We should look after our own waste.

However, there are many other examples to which I hope the Minister will respond. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his excellent introduction, talked about west Africa. However, there was a case—reported only in Private Eye because everyone else was threatened with legal action and unlimited fines—of a chemical that was sent to west Africa in such secrecy that anyone who mentioned it would be liable. As the Daily Mail reported on 23 April 2017, toxic waste, chemicals, phones, fridges and so on are burned in the most awful circumstances for the people working there. The reason why is that it is cheaper to do that than to recycle in the European Union. I hope the Minister will look at this because it comes down to price in the end.

The same applies to the breaking up of ships on the beaches of India—one of the big growth countries in the world—and Bangladesh. Again, the workers are subject to awful toxic fumes, dangers and so on. What are the Government doing to make the IMO, which is responsible for this, prevent such things happening?

I am pleased that the Prime Minister has made a Statement on the environment today but we need action. I hope that the action taken in this country will set an example to the rest of the world.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Greaves for securing this timely debate. I declare an interest as a district councillor.

The ban that China has imposed is a wake-up call and requires urgent and sound legislation to ensure that we are not overwhelmed in a tide of plastic, nor our precious landfill sites filled to overflowing with preventable waste. China has quite rightly put its corporate foot down.

We have been lax in separating our plastic waste, with different types of plastics being mixed together. The classification has been confused. Some local authorities provide good leadership; others could do more. The pollutant of the plastic drinking bottle is key. Underground users are encouraged during the summer months to carry a bottle of drinking water with them. This is wise advice as the heat can sometimes be stifling, but does it have to be a single-use bottle?

There has been much discussion in the press about the availability of drinking fountains, with praise for local authorities that have introduced them in their larger parks and recreation areas. When I was a child, every park, no matter how small, had a drinking fountain. The larger parks had plenty to cope with the demand.

The Secretary of State has said that Ministers were reflecting on a proposal from a Commons committee for a 25p charge on disposable cups. Only reflecting? Why not a total ban? Ceramic mugs with rubberised lids are available that are easy to carry and last for many years. It is not difficult for consumers to carry them with them as they go to work and to get them refilled at their favourite coffee house.

I want to see action now on reducing plastics and other pollutants, as do the majority of the public. As we have heard, this morning the Prime Minister launched the eagerly awaited environmental 25-year plan. There is much to commend in the plan and I hope to have the chance to read its 151 pages later today.

However, for us on these Benches it does not go nearly far enough. The Prime Minister has pledged to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. I shall probably be dead by 2042. Yes, I want to be able to say that I played a part in leaving a decent environmental legacy for my children and grandchildren, but I also want to see a great deal less plastic in our rivers, lakes and oceans now, not in 25 years’ time.

As we have heard, under this plan supermarkets will be urged to introduce plastic-free aisles. This is a start, but will a busy working mother, with an agitated and bored child in her trolley, have the time to negotiate first the plastic-free aisles and then go back to the other aisles to find the items she needs that are not on the plastic-free shelves? I doubt it. All aisles wherever possible should be plastic free.

The extension of the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags to all retailers in England is long overdue. The Government will fund plastic innovation and commit to helping developing nations tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste, including through UK aid. I know that this will make a big difference to African nations. I understand that the document will cover many policy areas, including managing land sustainably, enhancing nature and recovering wildlife, and protecting and improving the global environment. All those are important but they are not the subject of our debate today. Like my colleague, I look forward to debating the plan in this Chamber in the near future.

Reducing the amount of unrecyclable waste that is produced in the first place is key. What is needed is recyclable packaging, saving considerable amounts of money and energy while protecting the environment. It is essential to tackle the waste problem at the beginning of its source and journey. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee showed in its report published on 22 December last year entitled Plastic Bottles: Turning Back the Plastic Tide that progress is being made in some quarters. Defra has announced that maximum litter fines will almost double to £150 from April 2018. New fines will be introduced for the owners of vehicles from which litter is thrown—hurrah, but they are long overdue.

Last December, all 193 countries in the UN signed a resolution to eliminate plastic in the sea. The resolution requires all signatories to start monitoring how much plastic they put in the ocean and to explore ways of making it illegal to dump plastic waste. It is to be hoped that the date for this elimination is not 2042. The drinks industry is moving forward with Lucozade Ribena and Coca-Cola at the forefront, but not all companies are signed up. Legislation, not just encouragement, is required to move them all forward.

This short debate has flagged up just how critical is the need to take action now. I am encouraged that across the Chamber we are all of one mind and one aim, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many points that have been made.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:51 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling what has turned out to be a highly topical Question for Short Debate. There is clearly a need for an urgent response to the growing threat of waste mountains with the likelihood that the waste will either stack up or be burned, neither of which is a desirable outcome. I know that a number of noble Lords have made that point. I have to say to the Minister that the Government’s reaction so far seems to have been a great deal of talking but not much action. Michael Gove rather gave the game away last year when he was quoted as saying on this issue that he had not given the matter much thought, and I do not take much comfort from the subsequent Written Statement that has been produced. It talks about Ministers working with the various stakeholders and so on, which is fine, in order to,

“understand the potential impact of the ban and the action that needs to be taken”.

That is fine, but the problem is here and now, and we have known about it for the last six months. It is not about monitoring or understanding the problem, it needs action now to stop an environmental crisis developing.

The Written Statement also refers to the advice issued by the Environment Agency to exporters. But, frankly, this states the obvious, which is that waste which does not meet China’s new standards will be stopped and that alternative methods of disposal should minimise the impact on the environment where possible. Can I ask the Minister whether further advice will be issued to waste and recycling companies about what urgent action they should take to deal with their surplus plastic waste? Also, what response was sent to the letter from the recycling trade associations who wrote to Thérèse Coffey in September urging the Government to send a high-level delegation to China to negotiate a new secondary materials trade agreement? Does the Minister agree with a point that has been raised by every noble Lord who has spoken in the debate: we should no longer be relying on poorer nations to process our waste and instead have an obligation to recycle and reuse our own waste?

Ultimately, the Government need an urgent plan to implement the waste hierarchy, focusing on reduction, reuse and recycling. Of course we welcome the recent initiatives on deposit schemes for single-use bottles and possible charges for single-use coffee cups. We already know from the charge on plastic carrier bags that these measures can be effective and that they are supported by consumers. But we need to do much more to cut down on plastic packaging and ensure that all plastic conforms to a standard that can be easily recycled and reused. I agree with the point made by most noble Lords that consumers are now far more aware of the dangers of plastic in our environment, so the challenge is for manufacturers. They need clear incentives as well as obligations to respond to the public pressure for change.

Along with waste reduction, we need a new focus on reuse. The circular economy is an excellent blueprint to shift business practices so that in the future we will concentrate on extending the useful life of products through resale, repair and refurbishment. All waste should be redefined as a potential resource, with a requirement that its value is maximised. The steps already taken by Scotland and Wales to become zero waste nations are a great example that the UK Government should now embrace and follow. I shall echo the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. How do the Government intend to respond to the EU circular economy package which is currently being finalised in the EU? Is it their intention to adopt this directive in full once we have left the EU?

Finally, the Government need to address England’s poor performance in recycling. As we have heard, we have one of the worst recycling rates in the modern world and our performance has plateaued. Misplaced localism has led to myriad different collection systems and an unco-ordinated processing infrastructure. We have heard of different examples of how they do it better abroad, something we have all witnessed when we travel. For example, in Germany, nationally all bins are the same and their high-volume production makes the unit costs much cheaper than in the UK. Obviously, that makes economic sense. Meanwhile back in the UK, MHCLG provides grants to councils to encourage weekly collections of residual waste, which incentivises the wrong consumer behaviours. Moreover, the separation of municipal and commercial waste creates two parallel systems dealing with the same raw materials and encouraging unnecessary duplication.

These are just some of the problems that are holding back our drive to improve recycling rates. We believe that central government need to play a much more interventionist role in tackling these inefficiencies. The Green Alliance estimates that the UK could support around 45 high-quality closed loop plastics recyclers, but again an emphasis on the quality of the plastics is paramount, along with the need for uniform collection systems to make this proposal work. As I said in a debate earlier this week, the Government need to support these developments and provide business support for the technologies that can make them happen. I hope that in his response, the Minister will be able to tell us about the urgent action that is being taken and reassure us about the longer-term strategic vision. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:58 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for securing this debate on the recent China waste restrictions. As a number of noble Lords have said, it is topical and timely following the launch today by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State of the 25-year environment plan. It makes new commitments on resources and waste, and aims to fulfil our manifesto commitment to leave the environment in a better state than when we found it.

I hope that noble Lords understand that of course I am always keen to debate Defra matters both in this Chamber and outside. It is way above my pay grade to suggest that there should be a debate, but perhaps I may say that I will actively encourage one, and your Lordships’ comments today have been most helpful in that regard. However, I hope that noble Lords will also understand that I can say very little more.

So many questions have arisen that in order to do justice to them, I will have to promise to write to noble Lords. In that way I can do justice to all the detailed comments. The 25 year environment plan also commits to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042. I can well accept that no one wants to wait until that year for it to happen and work has already begun. I grant that it is a very small beginning, but as of this week there are no more plastic cups in the House, and in have come glass beakers. This is the sort of example we must set. We have said in the plan that we want central Government to do these things. I am looking around at noble Lords and I have already seen some plastic cups. We need to address these issues ourselves and set an example.

I emphasise that it is a priority globally. China takes more than 50% of the world’s waste in paper and plastic. Waste paper and plastic have indeed been important global commodities and the Chinese market has been an important destination. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, we in this country have been sending 12% of our plastic waste to China. Interestingly, that is 0.4 million tonnes a year. Interestingly, Germany is sending 0.6 million tonnes, and Japan and the United States are sending 1.5 million tonnes. I am pleased that since 2010 our levels of plastic sent to China has dropped from 0.7 million tonnes to 0.4 million tonnes. The UK also exports a considerable amount of waste paper to China—41%. Based on the information the Chinese have offered to the WTO, our assessment is that mixed plastics and paper will no longer be accepted but there are indications that there are materials, such as old corrugated cardboard, that will not be subject to a total ban.

Since July, when we first heard about the China restrictions, it has been a priority for us to put in place immediate and longer-term actions. The Government continue to clarify the details of the restrictions through the EU and to China via the WTO. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the Environment Agency has issued fresh guidance to exporters to ensure that operators are clear on their duties to handle waste, given the restrictions and tighter environmental standards. In addition, it will require fire protection plans for all sites storing any combustible waste.

In addition, we are already seeing evidence that some operators have found alternative export markets. We are also seeing companies embrace new technologies. For example, Viridor has said it is exploring new applications for recycled plastic and opportunities to enhance its polymers investment programme. We are working closely with industry, the Environment Agency, WRAP, local authorities and all interested parties.

In the short term, we recognise the need for new markets. Where new markets or domestic reprocessing are not available, any alternative, such as energy recovery, has to follow the waste hierarchy. Landfill is an absolute last resort. I am interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh said, and in the example of North Yorkshire. Energy from waste provides a valuable contribution to the treatment of waste that cannot be prevented, reused or recycled, and ensures it does not go to disposal in landfill. I am mindful of the importance of this to the environment. I say to both noble Baronesses that the Environment Agency regulates all the energy from waste plants and operators must comply with the emissions limit set by the industrial emissions directive to prevent or limit pollution by emissions into air, soil, surface and groundwater. The Environment Agency inspects such facilities regularly. Also on landfill, since 2010 landfill from England has fallen by 64%—there is more to do, but we are going in the right direction.

Looking to the longer-term investment, under the waste infrastructure delivery programme the Government will have committed £3 billion by 2042, supporting investment in a range of facilities to keep waste out of landfill and improve recovery of waste. That is obviously a continuing investment as facilities are opened. This is not about this happening in 2042, but about a continuing programme.

We have also published a number of recent strategies with a spotlight on resource efficiency—for example our recent litter strategy, which aims to have substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, were absolutely right to refer to the waste hierarchy and the circular economy. The new resources and waste strategy will build on the firm foundations of the waste hierarchy and our commitment to increased resource efficiency, and to move to a circular economy. In autumn last year the clean growth strategy set out our ambition to have zero avoidable waste by 2050 and announced that we are exploring changes to producer responsibility schemes. The detail of this will be set out in the resources and waste strategy.

On biodegradable plastic, which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to, we are committed in the 25-year environment plan to look at technological changes. This is a particularly interesting area. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned our liaison with BEIS, which is very important. We worked with BEIS very closely to develop the contribution to the industrial strategy, which is also about an ambition to double resource productivity by 2050.

A number of noble Lords referred to the Government’s call for evidence on managing single-use drinks containers. Our working group will report to Ministers shortly. I cannot prejudge what it will say, but I look forward to it very much. We are also working with the Treasury on a call for evidence this year, seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastics waste.

My noble friend, Lady Redfern, is right to speak about the 25p charge on single-use plastic, which, as has been said, we are looking to expand in the 25-year plan, and the ban this week on microbeads in cosmetic products. This is part of action now that we need to build on. I particularly say to the two noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that I think what the Secretary of State outlined as his four-point plan when he chaired the industry round table on plastics is where we should be on tackling plastic waste and I hope your Lordships will agree: cutting the total amount of plastic in circulation; reducing the number of different plastics in use; improving the rate of recycling; and making it easier for individuals to know what goes into recycling bins and what into general rubbish. This is the way we need to work, with rigour.

As the China restrictions come into force we will continue to devote our energies here and abroad on this issue to ensure we not only manage this in the short term, but bring forward new solutions, such as through new technologies. My noble friend Lady McIntosh also raised this; I am interested in the plastic technology platform as part of the funding to support the industrial strategy, which is hugely important. The Chinese decision underlines why progress is imperative. We must reduce the amount of waste we produce overall. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and other noble Lords that we need to reduce the amount we are exporting around the world.

We all need to play our part—government, industry, stakeholders and consumers—to ensure that we use our raw materials wisely, produce less waste and increase our recycling and recycling standards at home, adhering to the waste hierarchy. I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said. It is right that we record the inspiring work of interested organisations that, year in, year out, have worked on these matters. The outcome of the 25-year environment plan, alongside the clean growth strategy, the industrial strategy, the litter strategy and the forthcoming resources and waste strategy are all where we have to show that there is action in a progressive fashion, now, in the medium term and the long term. But I am absolutely clear that the fulfilment of all these will have a profound and beneficial impact on the planet and our environment. I believe—this is why I look forward to future debates in this honest adventure of a better planet and a better country—that there is so much of what has been discussed by your Lordships on which we can surely all unite.