Waste: Chinese Import Ban - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 11th January 2018.

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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.