Plastic: Environmental Threat and Recycling - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 7:43 pm on 19th December 2018.

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Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

To move that this House takes note of the threat to the environment posed by plastic and the case for improved recycling.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative

It is a great honour to introduce this debate today. I have been pressing for urgent action on plastics and recycling for 18 months, and yesterday we saw the publication of the Government’s strategy on waste and resources. It is also Christmas, when we can all try to use less plastic and recycle the waste we produce. I am grateful to the number of distinguished participants here this evening. I think we are all here to learn, and I especially look forward to the comments from my noble friend Lady Vere of Norbiton.

In seeking this debate, I was motivated by the growing concern on all sides of the House about plastic in the oceans, on land and in the waste stream. This poses a huge threat to the global environment and therefore to mankind; it may also pose a threat to human health. Additionally, our recycling system, which could not of course solve the problem completely, is not fit for purpose, as the government paper implicitly acknowledges.

I agree with the paper, however, that the problem is important, and of course it involves all sectors of society, including national and local government, manufacturers, retailers, food service, consumers, the media, NGOs and the international community. Policies need to be sold to all these groups. Fortunately, this is a policy area where most people are anxious to do the right thing if we explain properly what we are about. The same goes for Governments and companies, as is shown by the large number of members of the UK Plastics Pact.

I am especially grateful to the many people who have written to me before this debate with helpful suggestions. This all shows that the issue is one that touches on many. I refer to my entries in the register of interests, especially my retail shareholdings.

Before coming to policy suggestions, I need briefly to set the scene.

The characteristic of plastics that causes the problem is their relative indestructability. The physical basis of this problem of indestructability is that most plastics are polymers: they consist of enormous molecules in long chains made by the use of clever processes, mainly invented by British scientists in the 1930s. These major scientific achievements have greatly helped to increase human welfare but, like many other advances, plastics have a downside. The enormous molecules of which they are composed are difficult to break down. Most are not attacked by water, which erodes most other materials over time. Some can remain unchanged for centuries unless they are treated vigorously, for example by incineration.

The consequence is that, as more plastic is produced each year, the world gets to contain more and more until we become enveloped in plastic both at sea and on land. The Library Note states that production has increased over time and that best estimates are that, globally, some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced to date. That is more than a tonne per person on our planet. Moreover, a staggering 79%—that is well over 6 billion tonnes—is still present in the environment.

There are now enormous quantities of plastic at some locations, notably in the oceans, and it is being detected in ever more incongruous and dangerous places: in our own bodies, in fish and in animals’ stomachs. It litters the ocean and often litters the countryside. After its initial use, plastic is usually useless and permanent. So plastics are a growing threat, and we need to take major action to prevent their build-up and to remove much of the existing discarded waste.

The scale of the problem, I suggest, can be seen by looking at my day. I start by cleaning my teeth with those brilliant interdental brushes—made of plastic and wire, and not recyclable. When I have a bath, I have moved back to soap from shower gel to avoid the packaging. However, new soap is needlessly wrapped in plastic. For breakfast, I have switched from prunes to dates as they come in a box, but the yogurt pot is plastic, luckily recyclable. The FT arrives on the doorstep in plastic. The dishwasher tablet is wrapped in plastic.

When I go off to the House, my Freedom Pass is plastic—a good use, to my mind. In the Bishops’ Bar, I get 25p off my takeaway coffee by bringing in a beautiful reusable metal and plastic cup, given to me at Lord’s cricket ground. It has lasted much better than the blue bamboo one given to me by the chair of the Environment Agency. The Order Paper is of course paper; I could dispense with it and rely on my iPad if the parliamentary website was a bit less clunky.

Then I do some shopping, which is where things get difficult. Most clothes contain some polyester or an equivalent, even if they are silk or wool; they wear and wash better. Plastic is now even becoming fashionable in its own right. When my bulging cupboard needs a clear-out, I take the discards to the Salisbury charity shop, but I am conscious that they will be waste and hard to recycle all too soon. I have a cup of tea with my daughter-in-law, who shops at the anti-plastic shop in Wandsworth and promotes recyclable plastic fashion—apparently, fishing nets from Sicilian waters are making excellent eco-nylon yarn. However, my granddaughter wears disposable nappies containing plastic and goodness know what.

Food shopping is even more difficult, despite the fine efforts in recent years of many supermarkets. Bags are now charged for and recycled, so I bring my own. Meat is on black plastic trays—on which more later. Most vegetables and fruit are wrapped in thin, unrecyclable plastic to keep them fresh. Spread and butter are sold in unrecyclable packs.

At my London home for supper, if I look round there is lots of plastic: table mats, the kettle, leads and plugs—I could go on. Before going to bed, I put out the rubbish. Food waste is in a special bin, which is very good—well done, Southwark—and I have a big bin for mixed recycling, which is much easier than in Wiltshire, but in neither place am I clear about what I can recycle, and the packets do not help. On a typical day, I might also talk to my noble friend Lady Jenkin, who has done so much to highlight waste issues, but she is, sadly, but suitably, at a WRAP board meeting.

Looking at matters broadly, we can do several things to reduce the threat from plastics. First, we can innovate, for example by developing alternatives to plastics or new plastics that degrade much more quickly. Secondly, we can produce and use less plastic, whether degradable or not, as a consequence of other scientific or technical advances. Thirdly, we can regulate further to reduce the use of plastic and the permitted means for its disposal. Fourthly, we can recycle more plastic so that the volume of plastic in the environment grows more slowly or even ceases to grow. Fifthly, we can try to reduce the plastic already present globally, especially in the oceans.

This last point is a good example of the fact that there is a clear international aspect to the problem of plastics, as “Planet Earth II” showed us so vividly. For example, plans to reduce pollution in the oceans will need to involve all coastal states and ships if it is to be effective, and it will cost money, which brings me to my first suggestion. Development aid, including our own, should be spent on tackling the major pockets of plastic in Indonesia, the Chinese sea and elsewhere. This would be a good use of the 0.7% devoted to development and help coastal communities involved to improve their beaches.

Historically, much UK waste, including plastic waste, has been exported. I fear that we rather lost sight of the fragility of this arrangement. The recent decision by the Chinese greatly to reduce their imports of plastic waste shows how unwise it is to rely on others to solve your own problems. However, if we are to deal with the plastic already in the oceans, it is clear that progress can be made only on the basis of international co-operation. Can the Minister tell us whether there are any signs of progress in this area, including the use of development aid?

We now have a government strategy, and I welcome the fact that it is comprehensive and full of ideas. It makes many important and detailed proposals. They will need careful study. However, I am somewhat concerned on two counts: first, at the prescriptive nature of much of it, as, where possible, we should try to work with the grain of human nature and economic interests; and, secondly, at the lack of detail on the economic aspects. The environment is very important, but everything has a cost and we need to take decisions in the full knowledge of what they cost.

I am conscious that the strategy and the last Budget introduce new charges on producers, processors and consumers and a great deal of new regulation. Some of this rightly affects plastic. My challenge to the Minister, as a Conservative, in taking these policies forward and putting individual items out for consultation is that a proper assessment must be made of the cost impact and compliance costs for all concerned, including small business and consumers. The latter, for example, will face new charges on the drinks they buy and a doubling of the levy on carrier bags. Can the Minister kindly give an undertaking that this individual costing and its publication will happen? We need to look at these proposals through an economic lens as well as an environmental one. That is the way to sustainable growth.

I turn now to some broad needs, as I see them. From my earlier analysis, it is apparent that there is an urgent need to produce materials—possibly new plastics and possibly not—that can fulfil the same function as present plastics more efficiently, either because less of them is needed or because they are more easily recycled. In principle, this can be encouraged by the use of both carrots and sticks. The Government proposed the use of the stick of taxation in the Budget. I worry about the complexity and compliance costs of such a tax and, unless it is a high tax, it may not change behaviour quickly enough.

This brings me to my next suggestion. How about carrots, perhaps funded from the revenue? Is there scope for support for much more R&D, perhaps in the context of whole sectors and the industrial strategy? In view of the environmental threat, the transformation of plastic feels a higher priority than some other areas. Plastic is also a product of the oil-refining industry, which is threatened by climate change. This makes such R&D doubly urgent.

The instinct of Governments today is often—too often—to regulate. There is a place for some of this, and I believe that the single-use plastic bag charge has been beneficial in changing behaviour. A ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds may also be justified. Substitutes are available, but the volumes are small and therefore the impact on the overall problem of these measures would be small. More significant would be control of plastic use in disposable nappies, sanitary ware and coffee cups. It would be good to find an economic incentive for manufacturers of these things rather than just to impose a ban or a charge, which is always passed on to consumers. We need good ideas.

I turn now to recycling. We have discussed this several times in response to Questions I have asked in this House. There is heightened urgency with the closure of the Asian market. It was highlighted this week—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, for this—when the Royal Statistical Society published the winning international statistic of the year, which is that 90.5% of plastic waste has never been recycled. In England, where we try to recycle, I am more than ever convinced that one of the main factors reducing the effectiveness of our schemes is the lack of consistency across the country in what is recyclable and in what consumers are expected to do. This confuses the public and inhibits public and private investment. We need to reflect on whether the proposals in the government paper are optimal in this regard. Uniformity should take two forms. The bin systems need to be the same and manufacturers need to mark all plastic items with a common recycling label system.

However, we always need to allow for technological advance. The recycling company Viridor tells me that it has good hopes that a major step forward on recycling black plastic will be made soon. If so, that would be a welcome change, which I see is not covered in the government paper. We also need to recognise that at times of low oil prices, recycling plastic is, given present technological possibilities, barely economic.

In conclusion, it was useful to be reminded in recent tributes to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on his 70th birthday that he was expressing concern about waste and plastic more than 40 years ago. The situation on the ground gets worse with every passing day. We must act now conscientiously and vigorously.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat 7:57 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I sincerely thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for that powerful introduction to this important debate. Over the past couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of meeting a number of equally forceful campaigners on plastics, including a delegation of women from the tiny Pacific state of Palau who have launched a pledge to tackle the manmade pollutants in their oceans and three women from Hampshire who have launched plastic-free Winchester and are harnessing the power of social media to stimulate community action to ensure that that town reduces the amount of plastic. They are inspiring women doing great things on plastics, but I am afraid I would not use the adjective “inspiring” with respect to the proposals which were launched yesterday by the Government in the waste and resources strategy and to how they intend to tackle the huge problem of plastic. I shall not repeat the statistics which were so well set out for us by the noble Baroness.

There are a number of welcome initiatives in the waste and resources strategy, but it lacks urgency in the face of the challenges. The Government’s aim is to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Compare that with the target in the UK Plastic Pact, which was launched this year by WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which already has 67 major businesses signed up to it. The target is for the elimination of all single-use packaging and for all plastic packaging which remains to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. That is the size of target for which the Government should have aimed.

There are a number of welcome initiatives in the waste and resources strategy and, as the noble Baroness highlighted, there is a welcome focus on recycling at the kerbside, which is not a panacea but is critical if we are going to tackle plastic pollutants. I think the phrase in the document is that kerbside recycling has flatlined. That is code for the Government admitting that we will not hit our target of 50% recycling by 2020. Places such as Flanders in Belgium are already hitting targets of 70% of household waste removed from landfill, so we need to do more.

It is good that the Government propose to do more on mandatory labelling. As the noble Baroness said, it is crazy that people do not know which plastics to recycle. It is great that the Government are thinking about mandatory packaging, but they make it absolutely clear in the strategy that all finance for and communication on that will be for business. Of course business must play its part, but when it comes to people’s health, we have the fantastic government “five a day” campaign, which really helps get the message across. Here, we are talking about the health of our planet, on which we as humans rely. Would it not be great if our Government had an equally impressive communication strategy on recycling?

The document also says a lot about extended producer responsibility. For those who are not geeky types who focus on such things, that is about incentivising producers to segment, return products or design out, so that products can be repaired, reused or recycled. That is really important on plastics. There are two areas, one of which the noble Baroness mentioned: clothing—textiles—and tyres. Both have a huge amount of plastic run-off, yet the Government propose only two extended producer responsibility schemes by the end of the next Parliament. The Secretary of State talks about being a world leader on the environment. I point out that France already has 14 mandatory schemes, so more action is needed.

It is also disappointing that there is nothing in the document about cotton buds or stirrers. It says only that the consultation has ended, as it did at the start of December. If the consultation has ended, why did the Government not take the opportunity yesterday to say that we would ban stirrers, plastic straws and cotton buds? I raise this because I suspect that it may be going the same way as the latte levy on cups, which was not introduced.

I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, in that I think planning and legislation have a place. We saw with the plastic bag levy, introduced under the coalition, just how successful such initiatives can be. Incentives such as levies drive up involvement, which can encourage recycling.

Yesterday’s initiative was welcome, but it lacks the urgency we need. Our oceans are being polluted now, our countryside is being blighted now and our greenhouse gas levels are rising fast. We need urgent action. Although we welcome what the Government have done, we need faster action.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 8:03 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, my congratulations must go to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on securing the debate and on the number of Peers taking part in it as we approach the rise of Parliament tomorrow. The environment is being threatened by the amount of waste that is either fly-tipped or just left, and plastic that has been dumped in towns, villages, the countryside and on our seashores.

Discarding or dumping of waste is inexcusable, and each of us needs to look at ways in which we can play our part. I was fascinated to hear my noble friend’s reflection on things plastic that she incurred daily. I accept that at present our recycling system is not fit for purpose, but I welcome the waste and resources initiative and think that there are some good ideas in it that we can follow.

I go back to the CPRE’s winter news, which highlighted the work of local groups. At every litter pick, the volunteers counted the bottles and cans they found and, of that, 34% of the litter was drink bottles made from plastic. The waste and resource strategy published yesterday indicates future aspirations. Back in 2015, as my noble friend said, larger shops were required to charge 5p for a single-use plastic carrier bag. The scheme has been successful. In 2016-17, 2.1 billion single-use carrier bags were sold. From this, I understand that £66 million was raised, which was donated to good local causes, including the environment, education, health, the arts, charity, heritage and sport, to mention a few, often chosen by staff and customers alike. The new strategy suggests introducing a 10p per plastic bag charge. If that happens, will the same amount be given back to local places or will it be collected nationally for bigger projects that the Government might want to carry forward?

Litter dumped on our beaches is a disgrace. In a recent article, it was reported that volunteers had collected 27,696 single-use drink containers from 500 beaches. Of these, 15,820 were plastic bottles, 8,672 were cans and 516 were cartons.

Recently, the papers have been reporting on individual efforts being made around the country. The Government’s publication Litter and Littering in England 2016 to 2017 reflected that 11,900 litter incidents were reported in apps. Another occasion saw volunteers taking part in the Great British Beach Clean, which collected 744 items of litter per 100 metres of beach, the majority plastic or polystyrene. It is a huge problem.

In a recent Written Question, I asked the Government what plans they had to use our fishing fleet to collect plastic from the seas around the UK. In the reply, my noble friend Lord Gardiner wrote about the initiative which supports fishers in Scotland and south-west England collecting litter during their usual fishing trips. I understand that a review is under way into what more can be done to reduce plastic in the marine environment. How soon will these plans be forthcoming?

It is said that one cannot deal with black plastic, but I am really glad that my noble friend mentioned it. Viridor, a recycling, resources and energy recovery company, has been running pilots around the country that have proved that it is not only technically possible to identify black plastic but that this material can be transformed into new plastic packaging. Together, working with partners and retailers, this new scheme has the potential to divert huge amounts of plastic away from landfill and, more importantly, prevent virgin plastic entering the marketplace in the first place. The company is a founding signatory to the UK Plastic Pact, which aims to make 100% of plastic packaging recyclable by 2025, with 80% of it collected for recycling.

We should surely review not only the amount of plastic that can be collected but what is used in the first place. Why, for example, are tins of dog food wrapped in packs of six and then rewrapped? Why are building bricks covered with plastic when there are other means of securing the load? Many products need to be plastic wrapped—particularly food, for health and safety reasons.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will the Government include a recycling obligation on tins in addition to plastic bottles? Secondly, the waste resources strategy aims for all of us to reduce, reuse and recycle more, but will timetables and targets be set to bring those worthy aims into reality?

Photo of The Bishop of Salisbury The Bishop of Salisbury Bishop 8:08 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for her persistence on plastic and for securing this debate. In the light of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, I observe that I enter the debate after three inspiring women.

I want to say “Well done” to the Government on the resources and waste strategy announced yesterday. It must be a bit of a relief to find an issue around which there is a good level of agreement for us to work on, but it means that there is a danger of complacency in the face of such an urgent task. In welcoming the government strategy, I also welcome those who have urged the need for more detail and smart goals, but it is set in the right direction, which is good news. In churches at the moment it is Advent, which is a period of preparation, not just for Christmas but for the coming of Christ in judgment:

“Now is the time to awake out of sleep”.

It is the time for this debate but I want to shout, “Sleepers wake!” There is an urgency in what we do, here and now. Plastics are incredibly useful, and we have overused them and misused them. They pollute and have got into the food chain and, thanks to “The Blue Planet” and the like, we now know this at more than an intellectual level and want to do something in response. Just before the shortest day, we need what Chris Rapley, professor of climate change at University College London, calls “dark optimism”.

Last Lent, the Church of England encouraged a plastic-free Lent. It got significant take-up and a lot of media attention. Those who tried to do it found it incredibly difficult, like the day the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, described in her opening speech. It is not just about supermarket packaging or eliminating plastic on the Parliamentary Estate—I wrote this with my cheap plastic pen after eating a salad from a plastic container downstairs in the River Restaurant. However, it would be a good start to address those sorts of issues. What is really needed is a change of behaviour that reduces, reuses and recycles plastic and all goods. The attention is currently on recycling, and we could certainly do much better, but we also need to reduce our consumption and reuse in a way that eBay, charity shops and church sales often facilitate.

This is a spiritual issue. Earlier this year, I spoke at the European Christian Environmental Network meeting in Katowice. I met some Norwegians there who were building Hope Cathedral with a roof made of plastic claimed from the sea. It is beautiful, transformative and creative—an imaginative project that does something beautiful with what is proving so harmful. It speaks to the human condition, lifts the spirits and points to what we need to do. I probably ought also to say that they asked me to be a patron, and I gladly accepted.

However, I am not so heavenly minded as to think that we simply need to encourage one another with the beauty of holiness, although a healthy respect for and reverence of creation is a good place to start. We need a framework of good law to support our actions. “Most people want to do the right thing”, somebody said on the radio the other day, “but if doing the right thing is made difficult, they won’t do it”. As we have heard, recycling rates are in danger of stalling and not meeting the 2020 target, so it is good to see the proposals that have been made to regenerate recycling arrangements across the country, and good to see the engagement of business in helping to create and pay for these improvements. But there is still so much more to play for in the care of creation.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 8:13 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I echo the comments made by previous speakers in welcoming my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe’s determination to get this debate. I intend to comment on one or two of her observations, but I was pleased that she set the scene with broad observations, which affect not only our society but society around the world. Talking of which, the vision that probably struck me most distinctly this year appeared on Sky: Henderson Island in the Pacific, an unpopulated island absolutely strewn with plastics of one form or another. It is such a depressing sight, and it ought to be a wake-up call to everybody.

Before I make other comments, I should declare my personal interest: I am an adviser to A Plastic Planet, which shares many of my views. Sian Sutherland is a personal friend, and I am a great admirer of the efforts that she and others in A Plastic Planet have put in, along with other, similar organisations.

Although I am strongly opposed to the overuse or the unnecessary use of plastics, I am not a fanatic who says that they do not serve a purpose in society. They clearly do. I have a bad back and I am conscious of weight issues. Also, because I originally come from the fast-moving consumer goods sector—more of which in a second—I am very conscious that many products need CO2 to maintain them; therefore they have to be wrapped in plastic. However, I should probably acknowledge to this Chamber and to others that it is all my fault. I was the head of personnel at Coca-Cola who negotiated with the staff and the factory management at Pudsey factory in Leeds for the introduction of the first ever plastic bottles in this country. I look back at what we thought was a wonderful achievement of the 1970s. I now view it with a fair degree of guilt and embarrassment. But times change.

I will address my comments specifically to three areas. My noble friend Lady Byford and other noble Lords have already referred to the first, which is the question of the 10 pence charge on plastic bags. Earlier this year the Government said that they would do something; as yet, we have heard nothing. I despair when I go to a shop—a small premises—and somebody buys one can of lager, or one bottle of olive oil, and what happens? It is put in a plastic bag. As we have seen from the major supermarkets, people would not take a plastic bag if they were required to pay an extra 10 pence for it. I ask the Government: please introduce that charge quickly, as they promised they would, and to do it on the basis of all stores, not just the major supermarkets.

Secondly, I address my comments to the hotel and restaurant industries. Comments have been made about unseen elements. We talk about what happens in supermarkets, but huge amounts of plastic are used in the supply of vegetables and fruit into hotels and restaurants. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe referred to keeping it fresh, but we do not need to keep produce fresh if it is going into a hotel or a restaurant and coming straight out as a meal on that day. I therefore ask the hospitality industry to take a serious look at what it is doing, and ask it, please, to turn to the suppliers of fruit and veg and other products—I have had good discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in the Services Committee here on the subject—and say, “No, we will not accept products in plastic, because we do not need it. We have a turnaround of a day or two”—whatever it may be—“and that does not necessarily apply to freshness”.

I shall make an observation just before I come to my third point. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe talked about her day; the other day I opened a 450-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes. I say that not as an advertisement; to be honest, I was appalled that the cornflakes took up about 50% of the pack. I ask Kellogg’s publicly to open three, four or five of their packs of that size or others and measure the amount of utterly unnecessary waste packaging. I cite Kellogg’s, but I am sure there are only too many other examples.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe made a comment about keeping things fresh in the supermarkets. That was true but it is not necessarily true any longer. Shopping habits have changed, and people shop much more often now than they used to. Waitrose is a good case in point; it has cited that change in shopping habits. I have been round major supermarkets in the last few days. It is staggering how many of the wrapped products are cheaper than the unwrapped ones. Asda has virtually nothing unwrapped; it has changed to unwrapped sweets, but nothing else. Morrisons appears to offer a lot of unwrapped products, but most of its products are cheaper if they are wrapped. Sainsbury’s, which I was in today, is the opposite: the majority of products are cheaper unwrapped. It cannot be logical to wrap products and then charge less for them than when they are sold unwrapped. Society can change, and ought to.

Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 8:20 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, like others I commend my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe. She should be excellent—she was a senior civil servant, a special adviser and a very successful businesswoman and a Minister. She has all the ingredients for preparing the policy paper, legislating and implementing the policy, and working with business to achieve it. It has been a delight, after a wearisome autumn of somewhat tedious ill-tempered debates, to find ourselves discussing in a rather more harmonious and constructive style. Her five-point plan is utterly to be recommended.

My noble friend Lord Hayward said that the present situation was all his fault—I was thinking that it was all my father’s fault. I was enormously proud when he worked for the plastics division of Imperial Chemical Industries in Welwyn Garden City. This was a magnificent product. ICI developed its products through the last century, and this product was massively popular—a miracle product that was going to be cheap, convenient and indestructible. It was wonderful for keeping food fresh, making materials look magnificent and attractive in the shops, and making clothing. All across the waterfront, plastic was the future. But, as with asbestos but on a much wider scale, we have now lived to see it very differently.

With more than 8 million tonnes of plastic entering our seas each year, and consumption increasing rapidly, research by the World Economic Forum and, as has been said, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, on the new plastics economy estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our seas.

I am with those who say that the Government should be praised for their serious and dedicated action on the environment, and specifically on plastic pollution. It is extraordinary that a five-pence plastic bag charge has had such a dramatic effect, reducing carrier bag use by 83%. Over my dead body will I pay five pence for a plastic bag, because for me, as for the right reverend Prelate, this is a fundamental spiritual matter. Maybe I am stingy, but I am a natural recycler, and I do not want to spend five pence more than I have to.

I need to let the right reverend Prelate know that at St Margaret’s carol service on Sunday night—where my husband, who is the Parliamentary Warden, was reading the lesson—all of us in the packed church were given candles. At the end all the candles were taken back to be thrown away—and then they were going to do the same on Christmas Day. So I have negotiated with St Margaret’s Church Westminster: I am having all those candles, although they will be a little singed at the top. I am following the right reverend Prelate in a campaign against conspicuous consumption and in favour of thrift.

The excellent Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey, has announced her landmark policy on microbeads, preventing manufacturers adding that harmful form of plastic to cosmetics and personal care products. With cosmetics, we can all see the amount of plastic on the outside and the inside—all a way of making us feel good and beautiful, even if we are a hopeless case. This action puts us at the forefront of the international fight against plastic.

This year the Government set out their 25-year environment plan, including the objective of cracking down on all marine plastic pollution and eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. So this is an exciting moment: sustainability is at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy, as well as the Clean Growth Strategy. Making efficient use of recycled resources and preserving the value of our natural capital are crucial elements of these initiatives.

With our entrepreneurial and innovative culture, there are myriad business opportunities in protecting the environment. Many years ago, when I was in the Department of the Environment with my noble friend Lord Caithness, Mrs Thatcher, having fought the miners, the economy and the Falklands, turned her attention to the environment. We were out saving the ozone layer. My charge was to make people use unleaded petrol, so we went through all the different mechanisms—the “polluter pays” principle, evidence-based policy, getting business on side to see the economic opportunities, and using the media to persuade people of the case, all of which are very important.

We now have the wonderful David Attenborough, a man of great fame and prestige, leading the campaign, but at that time we had “Blue Peter”. There was a terrible moment when all the seals in the North Sea fell ill, and I was attacked ruthlessly—worse than by Jeremy Paxman—by “Blue Peter”, which said, “It’s all pollution”. Our then boss, the late Nicholas Ridley, said, “No, it’s not. I think it’s a virus”. As with all such matters, it took two months for the evidence to come through, so I was bullied by “Blue Peter” for two months, until it turned out to be a virus.

We need all the different components on side. There has been an impressive display of people in business giving us their examples. Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s are all letting people know, with positive PR, what they are doing to be environmentally friendly and responsible. Consumers, too, need to know what to do. I am exasperated beyond belief when I want to be good but I do not know how. Sometimes I think that recycling is all about producing masses of plastic dustbins and containers all over the place, and people have no idea what they are supposed to put into what. As my noble friend says, if we can make it simple, that will be really important.

I want to talk about evidence. A wonderful team at the University of Hull has been looking at plastic pollution. Professor Jeanette Rotchell and Dr Catherine Waller have conducted important research into pollution from microplastics—those small barely visible fragments—entering the environment. They found that 100% of samples of mussels from UK waters and from British supermarkets contained microplastics or other debris. Every 100 grams of mussels we eat contains approximately 70 pieces of microplastic. With the British Antarctic Survey, they also found that microplastic has even spread to the remote Antarctic wilderness, where levels were 100,000 times higher than they expected. Professor Dan Parsons from the School of Environmental Sciences is leading this work with the Natural Environment Research Council.

This is an exciting day. I am getting very friendly signs from the Minister, so I commend my noble friend’s Motion to the House.

Photo of Lord Vinson Lord Vinson Conservative 8:27 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for instituting this timely debate on the disposal of plastic waste, the scourge of the planet. The subject is of particular interest to me because at one stage in my life I built up a plastics business employing 1,000 people. That experience convinces me that the best way to treat plastic waste is to recycle it where it is economic so to do, and then incinerate the inevitable balance, turning that energy into heat through CHP—combined heat and power units. This is the nub of my speech today.

The practice of such incineration is widely followed in many other countries—not least Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden—and they do not have the problem of plastic waste disposal that we have. Here, the London Corporation has shown the way by pioneering incineration, and the Deptford plant heats 2,600 homes from that incineration heat.

How has the world got itself into this terrible mess with plastic waste? There is nothing inherently wrong with plastics. It is totally wrong to demonise them, because, as has been mentioned, they are one of the world’s greatest inventions. The car industry depends on them, and our electrical systems would not work without them. We use them in our homes for plumbing, and much of our food would deteriorate unless it was wrapped in plastic. Plastics are versatile, cheap and highly durable—hence the problem: their very durability is their snag. People are confused. It is not the use of plastic that is the problem, but its disposal.

Most plastics are thermoplastics, which means that they can be re-melted, but some, mostly the harder plastics, are thermo-setting, which means they cannot be re-melted. These are the ones that are harder to recycle. A lot of components are mixed types, so sorting, although it sounds easy, is in practice a nightmare.

Both sorting and recycling are fundamentally expensive and mostly uneconomic as the end product costs more than the virgin raw material. The hidden cost has to be borne by somebody, ultimately the consumer, and, as ever, the poor will pay. We should bear this in mind before we go mad on recycling. It also raises the question: what can be done with the inevitable scrap at the end of any sorting process? How do you sensibly recycle old carpets, ladies’ nylon tights, shoes, clothing or car parts? There is only one answer to the disposal of mountains of unrecyclable plastic material, and that is to incinerate it, as the Nordic countries do.

Tragically, over the years, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and EU directives have been biased against incineration. Consequently, we have sent our waste overseas for cheaper fingers to deal with. Understandably, they do not want to do it and only a fraction of the scrap sent to them has actually been recycled. The balance has been dumped or incinerated in open fires and a great deal of it has found its way back down into rivers and into the oceans, creating the very problem that concerns us today.

Even if it were possible to recycle a greater quantity of plastic waste, what does one do with the bulk detritus? What is the alternative to incineration other than burying it in landfill? Surely this is wholly unacceptable on environmental grounds, and landfill rubbish gives off toxic fumes. Do we really want mountains or islands of waste? Landfill should be taxed to encourage combined heat and power units. It is true that early incineration plants gave off a minute fraction of fumes—nothing compared to an erupting volcano. Those are what should be stopped if we are really concerned about massive amounts of chemicals getting into the atmosphere—of course, they cannot be stopped, but we must get these things into proportion. Even the small quantity of fumes given off by incineration can now be dealt with by scrubbing the gases as they pass through the chimney and using the residue ash as road fill. No disposal is perfect, but nor is dumping stuff in the ocean.

All the projections show that we shall be using oil or gas to generate electricity for many years until we get clean nuclear to take its place, so why not incinerate waste plastic instead of using oil, turning that heat into electricity? That would be an effective form of recycling.

The plastic waste problem is a wonderful example of the law of unintended consequences. Ideological good intentions have turned disposal into an environmental disaster. The fundamental cause of worldwide problems of plastics disposal has been the intransigent attitude of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which encouraged the EU to be against incineration. In objecting to the minor contamination of incineration, they have been instrumental in creating the catastrophic sea pollution we see today. I sincerely hope that the Green movement will see the error of its ways. Meanwhile, if we replace plastic packaging with paper, millions of trees will have to be felled to meet the new demand for paper. What does this do to the environment and the CO2 that those trees would otherwise have reduced? We should let the trees grow and get on with their unique ability to extract CO2 from the atmosphere; we should continue to use plastic but control its disposal.

I hope those who have been against plastic incineration will see that, paradoxically, their good intentions to date have done more harm than good. Post Brexit, even though to start with we are bound by the EU waste directive—a bit of madness—I hope we can interpret it more sensibly. There really is no sensitive alternative to incineration, and turning plastic scrap back into heat or electricity makes total common sense. Cremation is best for both humans and plastic.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative 8:33 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on securing this important and timely debate. My remarks will touch briefly upon three themes and how they interconnect: first, the so-called circular economy; secondly, necessary adaptations to measures which so far have not achieved enough; and thirdly, within this process, how the United Kingdom can take a lead and give useful guidance.

The notion of a circular economy is much to be welcomed; as opposed to a linear approach, it takes in many aspects together. Thus, while looking at environmental benefits, it sets out to promote economic ones as well. A recent report has indicated that a faster development of circular economy activity could create about 500,000 jobs and reduce unemployment by 100,000. Does my noble friend the Minister agree with this concept and that estimate?

As several of your Lordships have already implied, central to success are more efficient designs to make it easier to recycle plastic products, to improve the separate collections of waste and, not least, to create markets for recycled and renewable plastics. To what extent are such aims now focused and co-ordinated within the Government’s new plans?

Given that existing expedients have so far underperformed, there is the obvious need to adapt and further develop them so that they do better. For example, it has been objected that too much emphasis has been put on recycling targets for the collection system. The result is that councils and waste management companies collect resources for which, at the moment, there is no market. Both the environment and the economy then suffer. Of course, businesses want to use recycled products. Yet we are exporting valuable materials which instead could assist clean jobs and stronger competition. If my noble friend the Minister should concur with this stricture, what steps will the Government take to redress it?

Regrettably, signs of incompleteness are also well demonstrated in what we come across here every day. A typical instance corresponds to what my noble friend Lord Hayward has just mentioned, such as shops and stores which manage to replace plastic straws with paper ones, only to present the same customers with plastic cups. Apparently, many states elsewhere have gone further than we have: Botswana, Chile and Peru have announced that they will ban plastic bags, bringing the total number of countries supporting the United Nations Clean Seas campaign to over 50; while India has pledged that it will eliminate all single-use plastics in the country by 2022. Can my noble friend say what commitments the Government will make in the latter regard? In the next few years, how does the United Kingdom intend further to assist international plastics control and improve recycling? And can she provide proper evidence and reassurance to us that, post Brexit with these matters, we will, therefore, give efficient guidance and leadership in Europe and beyond?

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Conservative 8:36 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on securing this debate on a subject of increasing importance and public awareness.

We have come some way since 2007 when, with a foresight that matches her business acumen, Anya Hindmarch launched her I’m Not a Plastic Bag campaign, forcing the overuse of plastic bags into the public consciousness. Following that, of course, Wales, and not the coalition, led the way in 2011 by charging 5p for single-use bags, resulting in a 71% fall in their use. England followed that lead in 2015 with similar results, but this has not compensated for the dramatic increase in the production of plastic.

There is now no doubt at all that the ubiquitous use of this incredibly versatile material is causing real and long-lasting damage to the environment. Worse, the actual production of plastic uses up valuable and scarce resources. Sir David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet” series shocked us all into acknowledging the harm that we are casually inflicting on marine life—and, indeed, on our fellow man.

Recycling is the best method of dealing with waste, but too much ends up in landfill. The UK plastic packaging recycling rate has increased significantly since 2010 but, even without China, we are exporting too much of our waste to poor countries, thereby passing the buck to some of the world’s most disadvantaged peoples.

But there is hope and there is indeed good news. New technology can help mitigate some of the harm that this plastic mountain is inflicting. Some of these technologies are supported by £60 million of government funding, and this has encouraged companies to develop innovative alternatives to fossil fuel-based products. This has involved experimenting in the use of substances as diverse as seaweed and the by-products of whisky production.

This is particularly necessary today, for, as oil prices have fallen, they have dragged down the cost of virgin plastic, which is made from oil. In many areas, it now costs more to recycle old plastic than to make new. When plastic was expensive, recycling helped offset the expense of recycling less profitable materials such as glass. The fall in price has had ripple effects across the industry, driving up the costs of recycling generally.

As costs have risen, a combination of technological advances has made other options increasingly viable—notably waste-to-energy incineration. Defra published its report on energy recovery from residual waste in 2014 and concluded, after studying much of the evidence, that energy from waste is generally better than landfill in terms of environmental impact. It also has little impact on health.

However, pure incineration itself cannot provide the whole answer. It is only 25% efficient, and the waste heat at the end of the steam-powered generating process is ejected into the atmosphere. Agile Energy Recovery in Inverurie, Scotland, is developing an alternative model that is 80% efficient. The company has identified ways to use the waste heat so that efficiency is maximised. This involves taking waste plastic which has reached the end of its life as a consumer product, at which stage it has become so degraded that the alternative method of disposal would be landfill. The Inverurie Energy Park established by this company is helping in the proposed development of a community-owned and run district heating network that could be provided by this power plant. It might also help secure commercial advantage for local businesses through competitively priced electricity and heat from the plant.

So plastics are also a valuable resource—too valuable to be put into landfill. Its value lies in its content of carbon and hydrogen, with a similar energy content to conventional fuels such as diesel. Through another technology—cold plasma pyrolysis—waste plastics can also be converted into hydrogen and methane for energy and ethylene, which is the major building block of most plastics.

The chemical recycling company Plastic Energy, with its technology headquarters in London, is another great example of a firm that combines addressing the problem of plastic pollution with creating an energy resource. It is a world-leading pioneer in the chemical recycling of plastic that cannot be mechanically recycled. It applies a patented thermal anaerobic technology process that turns this into a synthetic hydrocarbon oil which the company has termed Tacoil. This substance is then used to make new virgin, food-safe plastic.

Finally, I note that scientists at Swansea University are developing a chemical process that will convert plastic waste into hydrogen through a photo-reforming process using solar energy. Although only at proof-of-concept stage, in five years’ time we might well be able to produce cheap hydrogen from this fossil-fuel reforming.

These are all exciting technological solutions to a problem that represents an enormous threat to the world we inhabit. Not only do many represent examples of the circular economy promoted by WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact but they might even allow us, one day, to run our cars and heat our homes on plastic bags.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee 8:42 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, but I really want to congratulate her on having fixed two postponements so that this debate takes place one day after the Resources and Waste Strategy came out. I do not know how she did it but that was fantastic planning—if only the rest of the Government had that capability. However, that is for another day.

I welcome the Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy. It is a good document but, exactly as my noble friend Lady Parminter said, it needs to be taken forward quickly and with much more urgency. The intentions are great—it is all about actions—but at the end of the day I question, as in many other areas, whether Defra has the time, ability and bandwidth to implement it with all the other important responsibilities that it has at the moment in terms of fishing, agriculture and the environment. That is one of the fundamental questions and I am not sure that the Minister will be able to convince me, but we will see.

I will not go through the statistics that the noble Baroness has already gone through, but the history is interesting. I too believe that plastics are one of mankind’s greatest inventions; the issue is how we use them. We are absolutely right to focus on single-use and very short-term plastics.

I remember the 1960s, which came after the post-war utilitarianism and shortages that I did not experience. Suddenly in the 1960s there was an explosion of the disposable society. We actually almost celebrated disposable plates, disposable clothing and all that sort of stuff. We even had BMC cars with built-in obsolescence and rusting. The whole idea that you could throw things away was somehow thought to be a part of modern society. Indeed, we had that linear economy of “take, make, throw”. Exactly as the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said, I am pleased we are now finally moving on to the concept of a circular economy and the idea of natural capital. That is the background to what we are talking about today.

The big thing that brought my attention to the problem is personal experiences. About five years ago when I visited Buenos Aires, I was admiring the anglers on the city coastline on the River Plate. I went closer to see them, and stretching out some yards and metres from that shoreline was a regular wave of plastic detritus. I wondered why that was not being cleaned up. Then last year, when I went to Cairo, there were whole tributaries of the Nile in urban areas where you could not see the water; they were full of plastic. That is why, in my remaining three minutes, I will talk about the international side of this.

Some 40% of plastics are produced in Europe and North America and some 30% in China—that is where it is all made—but the staggering statistic is that some 10 rivers in the world are responsible for 90% of the plastic that goes in the litter bins of our oceans. Eight of those are in Asia, primarily South-East and East Asia, and two in Africa—the Nile and the Niger. The problem is very much international. The question is: how do we help, as part of that global challenge? One of the things I was pleased about in the strategy that came out yesterday was that it has quite a large chapter on international aspects of this problem. I was interested and pleased to read about the amount of work, research and effort we are putting into international areas—particularly in Commonwealth countries, I noted, but in fact the major difficulties and problems are in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. How will we increase this aid and try to help the 2 billion households in the world that do not have any refuse collection facility at all to make sure that the problem is overcome?

Part of the problem is our waste exports of some 50,000 tonnes a month, as others have talked about. That is considerable. As we saw in the National Audit Office report earlier this year, the amount of control we have over that is severely limited. I very much welcome the fact that the Environment Agency, perhaps rather late, has decided to introduce a proper crime unit. Waste crime is a real issue, and I would be pleased to hear from the Minister that the EA will have sufficient resources.

I am going to stop there, except to say that we must not let this subject take emphasis away from our policy on climate change and the reduction of species and bio- diversity in this country. We have to deal with plastics, but we have to deal with those other areas as well.

Photo of The Earl of Lindsay The Earl of Lindsay Conservative 8:49 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for securing this debate and, in doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of BPI Pension Trustees Ltd and an adviser to British Polythene Industries, which is now a division of RPC Group plc.

In respect of the 80% of the globe’s ocean plastic waste being found in or around eight or nine Pacific rim and African countries, it is an uncomfortable fact that some of that waste originates in the United Kingdom. There is a direct link between the lack of plastic recycling in the UK and the plastic pollution found in Asian and African rivers.

Why has the United Kingdom become so dependent on overseas markets for the export of our waste-collected plastic packaging? Too many waste collectors and waste management businesses in the United Kingdom have found it simpler and cheaper to export these materials to countries where labour costs are low and environmental controls are seldom enforced. As a result, investment in the United Kingdom’s recycling infrastructure has fallen well short of what is now needed to address the challenges we face.

We urgently need a thriving UK plastic recycling sector. To achieve this, actions are needed to stimulate markets for recycled plastics and to encourage the recycling sector to invest in additional capacity and new processes. I therefore welcome the Government’s proposals, announced by the Chancellor in his last Budget, for a truly circular economy, encompassing extended producer responsibility, and linked to an increased use of recycled plastic in all-new plastic packaging. That is a good start.

However, a substantial increase in our recycling capacity is unlikely to take place if UK recyclers remain uncertain about the market for their products. I therefore want to suggest three further actions that are needed. First, there needs to be a determined commitment from producers and retailers to specify the use of recycled plastic, as opposed to virgin raw materials, in all non-food packaging and indeed, in other plastic products.

Secondly, local authorities and their waste management contractors need to have a much greater focus on the segregation of different material types at the point of collection. Over the last 30 years, their focus has been on the tonnage collected, regardless of the differing quality of the materials recovered for recycling. This matters with plastic recycling, and it has been another key factor in the UK becoming so dependent on export markets where overseas markets can afford to accept co-mingled and heavily cross-contaminated plastic waste for recycling.

Thirdly, the Environment Agency must properly enforce regulations relating to the export of plastic packaging for overseas recycling. To date this has not happened. If these three actions were implemented, alongside the Chancellor’s recent commitment to a circular economy, we could look forward to a plastics recycling sector in the UK that is fit for purpose.

Finally, I should welcome yesterday’s publication by the Government of Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England. It is another major step in establishing policies and actions for ensuring that we move towards a truly circular economy for plastic packaging, as well as tackling the problems of waste crime. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was quite right to raise that. I have two questions on the strategy that I want to put to my noble friend the Minister. First, it is a strategy for England. How joined-up is waste strategy across the United Kingdom? To what extent are the UK Government working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have an effective UK-wide strategy for waste?

Secondly, can my noble friend assure us that policies, actions and regulations arising and flowing from the strategy will be rooted in science and evidence, such as full life-cycle analyses, and not merely driven by emotion?

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:54 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for the way in which she introduced tonight’s important and timely debate. Earlier this year, I asked what studies had been commissioned into burning large amounts of plastic waste. I do not share the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, for what he described as collective cremation.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, in his letter of 26 February replied:

“The Government has not commissioned any specific studies into the environmental hazards of burning large amounts of plastic waste and has no current plans to do so”.

In the House of Commons, I took part in the Environment Select Committee’s inquiry into acid rain. We were very clear about the effects of emissions on both people and the environment. How much carbon dioxide do we expect to be released annually because of plastic incineration? I am disturbed that we are pressing on with this approach, without properly considering the consequences.

In that same reply the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, told me that 60% of plastic waste comes from packaging, with only 40% recycled; we have heard a lot on that theme this evening. He said that the Government want councils to collect,

“a consistent range of materials including plastic bottles and pots, tubs and trays”,

and to “accelerate this process”. I hope the Minister will tell us what impact the reduction in rubbish collection by local authorities, which say they simply cannot afford to maintain weekly collections in many places, will have on that strategy.

The Prime Minister wants supermarkets to implement plastic-free aisles. However, in supermarkets such as Tesco, it is still 50% cheaper on average to buy fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic than it is to buy loose produce. Little wonder then that hard-pressed customers, certainly in poorer areas, buy produce wrapped in plastic. Tesco is trialling a welcome reward system that pays customers 10p for every plastic bottle they return. However, Tesco’s Jason Tarry says:

“We would urge the government to move to a single, nationwide approach to waste collection that makes it much easier for people to recycle”,

perhaps echoing a point made by the noble Earl just a few moments ago. The point Mr Tarry made was that the UK has more than 300 different recycling collection arrangements. Wales, with a collection blueprint that most Welsh councils are signed up to, has unified its collection system, reaching its recycling target of 64% of household waste four years early, whereas in the United Kingdom as a whole, we still only recycle 43.2% of household waste.

Then there are plastic bottles by the billion. Last week I asked the Government how many plastic bottles are used in the UK each year; what proportion is recyclable; and whether, in their view, cans and glass bottles do more harm to the environment than plastic bottles. I also asked whether polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, has a lower carbon footprint than forms of alternative packaging; why there is only one site in the UK able to recycle PET for use in food-grade products; and what assessment they have made of the absence of such facilities on plastic waste exported for recycling. Perhaps the Minister can give us the answers to those questions in her reply this evening.

At present, the UK recycles 57% of the 13 billion plastic bottles used each year, but 5.5 billion plastic bottles escape household recycling collection. They are littered, landfilled or incinerated, or end up in our rivers, seas and oceans. The National Audit Office says that, in the first quarter of 2018, the UK recycled around 250,000 tonnes of plastic, but only 85,000 tonnes of this was recycled in the UK, with the rest sent abroad. In this dirty game of pass the parcel, we have replaced China with new foreign destinations, including Malaysia, Poland and Indonesia, where the plastic can end up in landfill. One estimate for the level of CO2 released into the atmosphere in shipping 28,000 tonnes of plastic across 8,827 nautical miles to Malaysia comes in at around 11,464 tonnes of CO2. We add thousands of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere to send plastics to a country that does not even always recycle them.

Last March, I asked the Government when, and how, they intend to respond to the projection by the Government Office for Science that plastic in the ocean is set to treble by 2025. I subsequently asked for the Government’s assessment of the Living Planet Report 2018, which says there has been a decline of 60% in species population sizes between 1970 and 2014. In his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said that the Government,

“have called for at least 30 per cent of the oceans to be in Marine Protected Areas by 2030. The UK is also leading the fight against plastic pollution”.

I welcome that and I hope that the Minister can tell us what progress is being made in galvanising the international community to combat the tsunami of plastic that contaminates our oceans, endangers and kills. It is our duty to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us, a duty which too often we fail to honour.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 8:59 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe on getting this debate, which has been very interesting. I know very little about the subject, other than from the point of view of an ordinary person with their own household rubbish. I find things extremely difficult because the rules are all different depending on where you live. My youngest daughter was chairman of the West London Waste Authority, a £61 million enterprise that covered four London boroughs, two Conservative and two Labour. They all worked wonderfully together to get the best deal that they could, but they said that we need to see less usage of things that are not recyclable, and that people need to know what is recyclable.

As an ordinary consumer, I find it very difficult to know exactly what can and cannot be recycled. When I asked my daughter to give me one comment, she said, “The answer would be to use items that can be recycled”. For example, the polymer used in a margarine container has some 54 different elements to it, whereas a milk carton has just one. The latter can be easily recycled but the former cannot, and the two cannot be put together in any way. My neighbours and other people I know never know exactly what is readily recyclable and what is not.

Many years ago, I put it to the then Labour Government that we could provide national guidance. They were very opposed to that, saying that they did not want to create a nanny state. It is not a question of a nanny state now: we all want to know how to do more about recycling. We need to return to paper bags and to less complex plastics because, as I said, many of them cannot be mixed together. They have to be separated, which costs a great deal of money.

The West London Waste Authority has worked very well, but even so, we need to go back to an older system when less plastic was used in the first place. I support what my noble friend Lord Vinson said about incineration. The energy generated by a big incineration system in Enfield—which I think I may have represented on the Greater London Council at that time—was converted by the national grid and was recycled to hospitals and to various other authorities. That was a very good use of the recycling system.

It is very difficult for people to know what to do with these bottles. Everyone is keen to have them, but the formulae are different for each type of bottle. There must be some way for an approved list to be drawn up by an authority so that an assessment can be made. For example, aluminium cans are part of a disposal scheme and no longer appear in household bins.

There is also a great deal of dumping of rubbish, which is a very serious issue. We are getting a bit of it in London. When the Airbnb people leave, on whatever day of the week, including days when the council is not doing a collection, they just dump their rubbish outside the front door. As a result, birds peck the bags open. If there was an obligation to have a bin, at least the birds could not peck their way through that. Rubbish is being strewn across many London councils—it is London that has this problem; I cannot speak for other areas.

This is a very worthwhile debate. People genuinely long to know exactly what is recyclable and what is not. It is very complicated to work out. A lot of thought and action are needed, and I hope that we will see them come out of this debate.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 9:04 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate. I have spoken about plastics before, and particularly about the Great Pacific garbage patch. This brings me on to what the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, which was absolutely right: we are small players in the world list of plastics misuse. It is a global problem, and particularly acute in the Far East and Africa. But my noble friend Lord Lindsay was right to say that we have contributed to that by exporting so much of our rubbish; that has been bad.

We all know that there are environmental downsides with plastic. I think pretty well every country in the world has signed up to monitoring the amount of plastic it uses and is trying to diminish that use. But do not let us all fall into the trap of condemning every single plastic. Plastic per se is not the problem: it is we human beings and how we mishandle that plastic. We need plastic until a suitable alternative that is not so economically damaging can be found. To create a lot more houses we will need plastic. The building and construction industry depends on plastic. The electronics industry depends on plastic, as do microwaves, fridges and all our wiring: we need that plastic. Transportation has benefitted the environment hugely because it has plastic in it. Aircraft are using much less fuel than they used to. Our cars are much more economical as a result of having plastic. Do we really want to turn the clock back and use other materials before we know whether they are less damaging?

I move quickly on to packaging, which has been the subject of much debate. Agricultural products in world trade terms were worth about $964 billion in 2006. By 2016 that had jumped to $1.61 trillion. Why do we need all that packaging? Because we buy food that is imported from all around the world. One has to think of who has handled that food. It has been handled by the producers, the processors, the manufacturers, the distributors, the traders, the retailers and by us in the shops. We pick it up and then put it down again because we do not like the bit that we picked up. Plastic is stopping a whole lot of pathogens travelling around the world. That is why plastic is such an important ingredient in the food industry—and until we find something that is more environmentally beneficial, we will have to continue to use it.

The World Health Organization says that nearly 3% of deaths are due to malnutrition, from not having enough vegetables and fruit. That figure would shoot up considerably if we stopped plastic packaging.

Another benefit of plastic is recycling. Most polymers can be recycled, thank goodness. My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe mentioned clothes. I challenge every one of your Lordships who has condemned plastic to take off any clothes of theirs which contain plastic and throw them away—not it in the Chamber, my Lords, because you will not be left with very many, but when you get home.

My noble friend also mentioned that yoghurt pots can be recycled, which is wrong: only 50% of yoghurt pots can be recycled. The problem, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes mentioned, is that we do not know what we can recycle. I will come back to that in a minute.

I want to turn to what my noble friend Lord Hayward said about plastic Coca-Cola bottles. I congratulate him. He has done a phenomenal job in introducing plastic—providing they are PET bottles, because they are better than cans. They are more environmentally friendly. Cans produce higher greenhouse gas emissions when they are created. They are better than tetra cartons, because tetra cartons use six times as much water in production. Let us not just look at plastics by themselves. We must look at the whole environmental situation before we condemn it.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned that there was only one site in the UK that was recycling PET plastic. Well, of course we do not recycle enough, and we contaminate a lot of plastic that we should not contaminate, which means that it cannot be recycled.

While we are on recycling, I congratulate the Government—three cheers for yesterday’s strategy paper. It is very good, but when will the consultation end? Will my noble friend give us a date for when we will get to the action?

We need consistent collections, consistent labelling and a good deposit return scheme, which I remember from when I was young. That will help the situation enormously.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:10 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for securing this rescheduled debate and her inspiring speech. I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests as a district councillor and a vice-president of the LGA.

Yesterday, the Government published their Resources and Waste Strategy. I have not had the opportunity to study it in depth, but at a first glance it is encouraging. Plastics have long been the saviour of the housewife as the ultimate convenience packaging in keeping food fresh and making it look attractive in supermarkets. Long gone are the days of the local grocer who sold loose biscuits, which were weighed out and taken home in a paper bag. These were often very soft. However, we have now reached the stage in the UK and other countries whereby we are swamped by discarded plastics and packaging. This is unsightly, damages our environment and is a threat to animals and other wildlife. Many noble Lords referred to this.

There have been campaigns to encourage householders and individuals to recycle. In many areas this is successful, but there is no uniform system across the country. While it is important for local authorities to be able to adopt a system that best suits their area, this is leading to confusion and poor rates of recycling, with more rubbish ending up in landfill than is necessary, as has been mentioned.

Efficient kerbside collection of recyclables is a key element to reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. Asking the consumer to separate their waste before putting it out for collection is not an arduous task. In Somerset, we separate out cardboard, paper, cans, foil, glass and plastics. We also have caddies for kitchen food waste. Recyclable and putrescent waste is collected on a weekly basis by a single-pass vehicle with compartments for the various items collected. Only by encouraging the council tax payer to separate their waste themselves can we ensure that recyclables do not end up going to landfill. Our residual waste used to be collected fortnightly, but it is now about to move to three-weekly. There has been no public outcry about this.

Not all plastic food packaging has a number on the bottom within the recycle symbol, nor does everyone know that plastics marked one to three are easily recyclable, numbers four to five are slightly more problematic and anything over five is not recyclable in the usual way. There is a great need for more information to be available to the public. Do the Government plan to ensure that all plastics, whether bottles, containers or pots, are to be marked on the bottom with the number indicating how safe disposal should be carried out?

Most people want to act responsibly and dispose of their rubbish in a way that does not harm the environment, but not all. It is important that the rest of us challenge anti-social waste disposal behaviour whenever we encounter it. It is simply unacceptable to walk along opening a packet of sweets or cigarettes and to throw the packaging on the ground for others to pick up.

As others have mentioned, the waste industry is on board with various initiatives, including generating energy from non-recyclable waste. Viridor is one such company. Each year it processes around 1 billion pieces of post-consumer plastics into quality new materials to be sold back into the manufacturing chain. It is also a founding signatory to the UK Plastics Pact and is now one of the leading processors of domestic plastics in the UK. It works with major brands. The whole aim is to increase recycling. As has been said, the UK Plastics Pact aims to make 100% of plastic packaging recyclable by 2025 and 80% of plastic packaging collected for recycling. These targets appear way ahead of the Government’s. Why have the Government not set higher targets?

Glass production has almost reached a totally circular process, but we are a long way behind with plastics. Recycling rates rose sharply from 2010 until 2016, but have now stalled and reached a plateau. This now needs to be kicked back into action. There are several reasons for this plateau and some solutions.

The UK’s waste recovery sector has ageing and increasingly obsolete recycling technology and systems. Significant investment is required. Will the Government’s new policy enable this investment to take place?

Often, packaging is poorly designed. I hope that this week’s strategy has incentives, as opposed to sanctions, for companies to produce easily recyclable product packaging. Currently, there are neither incentives nor penalties for not doing so.

Similarly, there are no effective fiscal measures in place that incentivise using secondary materials; for example, recycled plastic in shampoo bottles. This area is governed by the packaging recovery note, or PRN, system, which is outdated, does not incentivise the use of secondary materials and fails to shift the cost of recycling away from local authorities.

As my noble friend Lady Parminter and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, have said, a step change in line with the UK Plastics Pact is possible to deliver major improvements by 2025. This would see 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted; an average of 30% recycled content in all plastic packaging; and 100% of plastic packaging reused, recycled or composted. However, the Government’s target is only 75% by 2030. This again demonstrates a lack of ambition.

Now is the time for targets to be shifted away from simplistic recycling percentages and tonnages to smarter material-specific, carbon-based or resource-efficiency targets, balancing the benefits of reuse, recycling, and recovery—I was heartened by the number of Peers who used that phrase.

I am pleased that the Government are including a deposit return scheme for single-use plastic bottles. Initiatives are taking place with existing DRS vending service suppliers. Any scheme has the potential to attract media and political attention but would target only a fraction of the waste generated in the UK. Many of these bottles are often the chief culprits in litter.

Black plastic is currently not recyclable. However, again, progress is being made whereby it could be collected with mixed-coloured plastic, separated and recycled into new black products. This has huge potential to divert large volumes of plastic away from landfill and prevent virgin plastic being used.

As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, a useful destination for plastic that is not recyclable is also key. Up and down the country, there are many waste-to-energy plants which heat the waste to a very high temperature. This heat is then converted into electricity which can be either sold to the national grid or used to provide power to nearby industrial units or housing developments. I visited one such plant in Exeter recently, run by Viridor. The quality of the air emitted from the top of the chimney is tested regularly and is always found to be cleaner than the general air in that area. This reuse of plastic in this way is a win/win situation. Does the Minister agree?

The mounting problem of plastic waste must be tackled from a variety of angles, with everyone playing their part: government encouragement for industry to invest in new plant; resources for local authorities to switch from mixed-waste collection to separated recyclables; information for consumers on which materials are easiest to recycle, enabling them properly to play their part; and heavy penalties for those who wantonly ignore legislation and continue to pollute our planet. Many strands are needed to ensure a successful outcome. It is a question of balance. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:19 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for securing this debate today and for her considerable energy and hard work in championing these issues. It is great to see them being taken so much more seriously than in the past by this House, by consumers and indeed by the Government.

As noble Lords have said, it is good to have so much agreement around the House during this debate, although I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who I see has not re-joined us, that I do not think Mrs Thatcher’s legacy will be as a champion of the environment. Of course, we welcome yesterday’s publication of the Government’s long-awaited waste and resources strategy: it brings together a number of resource policy challenges into one coherent whole, which was long overdue. The fact is that the Secretary of State has generated a lot of good headlines on this issue since his appointment, and I do not doubt his sincerity in wanting to make a difference on this, but I agree with many noble Lords that he needs to match ambition with action on all the issues we have been debating today.

Somewhere in Defra there is a black filing cabinet with the results of all the consultations already launched with great publicity to tackle the environmental pollution and plastic waste issues we have been debating. Many of these issues are recycled in the waste strategy again today, but rather than legislation we are expected to be satisfied with more consultation. So we are promised further consultation on a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers, which would indeed cut down on the 3 billion plastic bottles which are currently not recycled, but of course further consultation will result in more delay in addressing that problem, and we are still awaiting details of the latte levy, which would cut down on the 2 billion single-use coffee cups thrown away each year. And how soon do the Government intend to introduce a ban on plastic straws and cotton buds? It would be an easy win and they are already committed to it.

Of course, we also welcomed the announcement in the Budget that a new tax will be introduced in 2022 on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic. It is a promise repeated in the waste strategy, but why the delay? It means that an additional 700,000 tons of plastic packaging will be dumped in landfill before the new tax is introduced. Meanwhile, once again the European Parliament is ahead of the game on this, having voted for a complete ban on single-use plastics to come into effect by 2021. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government will introduce the ban if it becomes an EU directive before the end of the Brexit transition period?

There is clearly a need for much bigger incentives across the supply chain if we are to drive market demand for recycled plastics rather than cheaper virgin plastic products. Sadly, all too often producers of recycled products find that they simply cannot compete on price with virgin oil and plastic and therefore cannot sell their recycled materials. We need to address that market failure. We also need, as noble Lords have said, to invest in fast-track technological advances for more sustainable alternatives. I hope that the Minister will send a message to companies that remain intensive plastic users or producers that, if they do not change, they risk not only possible government intervention but reputational damage and liability risks from the impact of plastic pollution in the future, which could affect their bottom line.

We need action on recycling too, as a number of noble Lords said. The reality is that all four UK nations, as well as the EU, have signed up to meeting a recycling target of 50% of household waste by 2020 but, as we have heard, the latest figures show that England’s recycling rates have flatlined way below that target, while Wales, for example, is doing considerably better. We need to address the reasons for that disparity. Of course, reducing unnecessary waste in the first place clearly helps, so I very much welcome the Government’s new plans on producer responsibility, which will begin to address the issue of unnecessary packaging, for example. We need to make sure that everyone in the supply chain takes responsibility for minimising waste in the first place. This includes, but is not limited to, plastic packaging. There is so much more that can be done by suppliers and supermarkets. Currently initiatives are taken on a voluntary basis, with supermarkets such as Iceland, Co-op and others announcing ambitious targets for their own stores. But at the same time many other supermarkets are refusing to divulge how much plastic packaging is used, claiming that the information is commercially sensitive. Can the Minister clarify whether the Government are considering greater transparency of data and an end to supermarkets hiding behind confidentiality agreements, so that we can all see who the real culprits are? Can she also confirm what the target date of 2019 for extending producer responsibility means in practice and whether it will indeed be a compulsory scheme?

Several noble Lords identified that recycling levels would increase if local authorities had consistent collections of domestic and business materials. Clearly, we all agree that we need a common set of rules for what should be collected, including bottles, pots, tubs, trays and food waste, with clear signage and labelling. When I raised this in an Oral Question recently, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, reiterated his faith in localism and said that,

“local authorities are the best people to look after these matters”.—[Official Report, 9/10/18; col. 8.]

But this approach has blatantly failed us and there is now a desperate need for a national system for recycling, with standardised rules which will help consumers understand how to use recycling services to maximum effect—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, made with great effect. This change will occur only if local authorities are fully funded to implement these requirements to cover the costs of new equipment and, indeed, early release from long-term, inefficient waste contracts. Can the Minister confirm that this is indeed the intention?

We also need to capitalise on the clear mood of change among local residents and consumers. The Treasury’s consultation, Tackling the Plastic Problem, received an unprecedented 162,000 responses. Consumers clearly want assurance that the materials they set aside for recycling are genuinely going to good use. We know from the plastic bag initiative that consumers will embrace change if given the right incentives. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who said that she would not pay the extra 5p—that is not my experience and most people I have talked to certainly would do that. Campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste have been highly effective in raising awareness. Can the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking with WRAP and others to harness the genuine consumer concern that exists about recycling, landfill and pollution, by making sure that they become the champions of change?

Will the Minister please clarify the current state of negotiations on recycling targets at a European level? She will have seen press reports that the UK Government were opposing a new target to recycle 65% of urban waste by 2035, as agreed by the European Council and Parliament earlier this year. Can she clarify whether this is the case and what this says about our ambition to be a world leader in this field?

Finally, it is clear that unless we act decisively, both domestically and globally, we are going to start running out of resources. We have to put a new value on materials which can be used again and again in a circular economy. Some radical thinking is taking place among enlightened businesses and Governments about how we can add value through reuse, repair and closed-loop reprocessing. I was very pleased to see the waste strategy begin to address those issues. The Minister will know that in the short term a detailed circular economy package is being drawn up at European level and has received provisional political agreement. I would be grateful if she could confirm that the Government intend to embrace that package if it is agreed at that level. The truth is that, on the environment, the EU is streets ahead of us. I hope she is able to reassure the House of the Government’s determination to match, if not exceed, the EU’s ambitions so that we can have some hope that we will be able to take pride in our clean environment in the future.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 9:29 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe for securing this important and long-awaited debate on plastics. It comes at a timely moment, following the launch of our resources and waste strategy yesterday, and I apologise to all noble Lords who have had to redraft beautifully crafted speeches. It has been an excellent debate and I am saddened only by the scoresheet. Excluding the Front-Benchers, we have heard from 10 Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats, one Cross-Bencher, one right reverend Prelate and not a single partridge in a pear tree, or indeed a single Labour Back-Bencher. I hope they are enjoying the Christmas festivities.

On both elements of my noble friend’s debate, the Government wholeheartedly agree: we must tackle the threat that plastics pose to the environment and we must impose recycling. Since the invention of man-made plastics in the mid-1800s, plastic has become increasingly pervasive because it is versatile, cheap and malleable. It has revolutionised essential sectors such as healthcare, from providing 3D-printed plastic prosthetics that are cost-effective and comfortable to providing a sterile, flexible material that can be used to transport blood.

However, in recent decades it has become ever more evident that we are not managing this resource as we should. Plastic straws wash up on our beaches; plastic stirrers and cotton buds run along our waterways; plastic wrappers litter our environment. More than 1 million birds, and over 100,000 sea mammals and turtles, die every year from eating and getting tangled in plastic generated by humans. In 2017 fishing vessels belonging to a scheme called Fishing for Litter, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Byford, which supports fishermen to bring the litter they catch during normal fishing back to the shore, retrieved 166 tonnes of litter from UK waters. I will write to her with further details about future plans.

The adverse impacts of plastic have been understood for years now, far predating the illuminating series “Blue Planet II”. The growth of plastics worldwide continues apace, as does the pollution, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. Plastic pollution is projected to increase threefold by 2025 compared to its 2015 levels. We must act now to prevent further environmental degradation.

The Government have already acted to protect the environment and in many cases have gone beyond the action taken by other countries. Domestically, this Government have introduced a charge on plastic bags in supermarkets and larger retailers. Thanks to the public’s support, this has taken 13 billion plastic bags out of circulation and resulted in millions of pounds donated to local causes. The Government are going further. In August, the Prime Minister announced a consultation on extending the plastic bag charge to all retailers, and possibly increasing the levy to 10 pence. We expect that this increased levy, too, will benefit local charities. The consultation on extending the charge will be launched shortly and I agree with my noble friend Lord Hayward that we need to resolve this quickly.

We have consulted on ending the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds where there are alternatives. Our response is due to be published by March 2019, which I am sure will please the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. If noble Lords cast their minds back just a year, in 2017 we published our litter strategy. It made it clear that it is everybody’s responsibility to make sure that they dispose of materials responsibly.

It is not just large plastic items that damage the environment; microplastics are harmful too. We have therefore introduced one of the world’s toughest bans on rinse-off cosmetic and personal care products that contain microbeads. We have also launched a research project into the impact of other microplastics, including those from tyres and from textiles such as clothing, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, so that we can identify where to intervene.

Internationally, the UK is a global leader in co-ordinated action on plastics. In April the UK signed up to the Commonwealth Blue Charter, together with 52 other Commonwealth countries. Furthermore the UK, together with Vanuatu, is leading one of the nine blue charter action groups, the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. Over a third of Commonwealth countries have joined the alliance, its numbers having grown from just seven to 23 since its launch in April this year. The Prime Minister has announced up to £66 million to support research, waste management and sustainable manufacturing in countries across the Commonwealth to prevent plastic waste entering the oceans in the first place. As part of this package, the World Economic Forum, with the support of the UK and Canada, launched the global plastic action partnership. This helps to deliver the goals of the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance and those of other countries around the globe.

At the Global Environment Facility conference this year, the UK pledged up to £250 million to reaffirm its commitment, together with 29 other international donors, to help developing countries tackle global environmental degradation, including plastic pollution. Finally on international action, UK aid can be invested in Asian ODA-eligible countries. The UK has invested £6 million of UK aid in the Commonwealth litter programme to tackle marine litter in six countries in the Pacific, Asia and the Caribbean. Defra is also working in partnership with Indonesia to address marine litter and support its ambitions to reduce marine plastic pollution.

The Government have already achieved all these things domestically and internationally, but of course we want to go further. Our 25-year environment plan states that over its life we will eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. The plan sets out action at every stage of the product life cycle, from production to consumption and end of life. Our strategy on resources and waste sets out further measures to support these aims, bring plastic pollution under control, improve recycling and work towards a more effective circular economy, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dundee.

Turning to the first life stage—production—we will reform the current producer responsibility system to incentivise sustainable design, including the use of more recycled materials, and require packaging producers to fund the collection and disposal or recycling of their packaging products. To aid this, the Chancellor announced a new world-leading tax on plastic packaging. This tax, which is subject to consultation, will apply to plastic packaging that does not contain at least 70% recycled plastic. This will transform financial incentives for manufacturers to look at packaging design and to produce more sustainable packaging by reducing the amount of virgin plastic that they use. A tax to promote recycled content will improve our already-strong recycling rates for packaging. In 2016, 44.9% of UK plastic packaging was recycled. This is not unfit for purpose, as noted by my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Byford, but it perhaps requires improvement.

On the 50% target noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, we are working very hard with local authorities to make sure that we achieve it. Importantly, the tax will increase the value of and demand for these recycled materials and support a circular economy for plastics.

The actions of the Government are being supported by the work of industry and beyond. In April, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, commonly known to all noble Lords as WRAP, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published their UK plastics pact with support from Defra and more than 80 NGOs, government organisations, businesses and service providers covering more than 80% of plastic packaging sold in UK supermarkets. The pact brings these organisations together with the aim of making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Black plastic has been a consistent theme in today’s debate. We are pleased that several UK plastic pact members, including Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl, have committed to reducing or eliminating black plastic packaging, while other companies are using detectable pigment that enables black plastic to be recycled. We hope and expect that members of UK plastic pact will do what they can to support innovation in the production and deployment of plastic. I also hope that the producers and retailers among them will have heard contributions by noble Lords today expressing surprise at the unexpected cost differential between packaged and unpackaged goods, particularly fruit.

The Government are playing their part in supporting plastics innovation. In June, we launched the £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund, which will support UK scientists to innovate and create more environmentally friendly plastics.

I move from the production phase to the next life stage, which is consumption. Understanding how we as consumers use and discard materials is central to attacking the scourge of plastic waste. As my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe noted, we need to work with the grain of human nature. I noted with interest the plastic-free Lent mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury, which goes to the heart of the matter. It is up to all of us and all organisations to work to reduce consumption and encourage people to do the right thing. Our strategy outlines measures that we will take to incentivise consumers to purchase sustainably, including a new review of eco labelling and work with WRAP to assess the benefits of plastic-free supermarket aisles.

Turning to the last life stage, end of life and, more specifically, recycling and collections, where reuse is not plausible we want to recycle as much as possible, and we have made progress in this area, but there is much more to do. Our resources and waste strategy will deliver significant and comprehensive change to achieve a 65% recycling rate by 2035—I believe that is the rate that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned.

We plan to make recycling easier and clearer by ensuring that more householders can recycle the same set of materials wherever they live—something that has been mentioned so many times today and on which we need to act. We will publish a consultation document in the new year on measures to support consistency in recycling, including to reduce the risk of contamination. We want all local authorities to collect a consistent range of materials for recycling. This is to make it easier for all households to recycle and do away with current confusion over what can be recycled.

It was noted that local authorities might not have the resources to put in place any new requirements, but it is too early to talk about resources, as clearly we cannot confirm what the outcome of the consultation will be or what changes will need to be made to the system. We already work with WRAP to promote the framework for greater consistency in recycling and to encourage local authorities to extend collections to include all plastics and food waste. WRAP works with local authorities to improve communications. Recycling should rightly include tins, as my noble friend Lady Byford noted. Together with the clear labelling of packaging, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, this is something that we plan to improve through our proposed producer responsibility reforms, which will enable clearer communications and ensure that all households can confidently recycle more.

It is not just households whose recycling rates need to improve. It is essential that businesses recycle more and use less. I note the nod of my noble friend Lord Hayward towards the hospitality industry in this regard. WRAP has published advice to businesses on recycling, and we will publish plans to help businesses recycle more, including by funding research into shared collection services.

Recycling is one aspect to end of life, but perhaps the biggest change we want to make, subject to consultation, is the introduction of a deposit return scheme in England. We know that well-run deposit return schemes work. The consultation will be published shortly. In the last Budget we provided £20 million to support measures to tackle plastics and boost recycling, £10 million more for plastics R&D—the innovation referred to by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe—and £10 million to pioneer innovative approaches to boosting recycling and reducing litter, such as smart bins. This is in addition to the £20 million in the plastics research and innovation fund.

I turn to a topic raised by a number of noble Lords: energy from waste. I particularly thank my noble friend Lady Bloomfield for her instructive contribution in this area. Energy from waste has a role to play in directing waste from landfill to produce energy. We do not want it to replace recycling and reuse, but it will continue to play a role and is a proven and safe technology. Emissions from incineration and energy recovery facilities are closely monitored and regulated by the Environment Agency, and plastics are burned in an energy from waste facility only as part of the mix of waste that cannot be reused and/or recycled.

On carbon dioxide release from energy from waste, I understand that Public Health England’s position remains that modern, well-managed incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. Although it is not possible completely to rule out adverse health effects, risks from modern, well-regulated municipal waste incinerators are likely to be very small, if detectable at all. Innovation in energy from waste is an important area, and Defra is working with other governmental departments to achieve this. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has a heat networks investment project, with a capital fund of £320 million, and we are working to ensure that this project helps to utilise energy from waste plants as a source of heat.

The export of waste to developing countries was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Lindsay. We are clear that waste must be properly managed, whether processed at home or abroad, and we work closely with the waste industry, the Environment Agency and local authorities to achieve this. We state in our strategy:

“We want to promote UK-based recycling and export less waste to be processed abroad”.

We also include measures that we will take to increase the monitoring and enforcement of exports, which should create a more level playing field for domestic recyclers. However, waste exports will still play an important role in resource management. There must be a balance. Where the UK cannot currently recycle materials economically, exports can help to ensure that those materials are recycled rather than landfilled.

On enforcement, the Government are serious about tackling fraudulent international exports of waste. In 2016-17, the Environment Agency bought 138 prosecutions against businesses and individuals for waste-crime offences, yielding more than £2 million in fines.

My noble friend Lord Lindsay asked how the waste strategy would be joined up across the UK. It is true that many aspects of waste within the UK are covered by EU legislation and policy implementation is devolved. For example, each of the four devolved nations has the ability to manage its own municipal waste and set its own recycling targets. Some aspects of waste management policy are managed at a UK level, but always in close co-operation with the devolved Administrations. For example, the UK Government lead on tax measures to encourage recycling.

My noble friend Lord Lindsay also mentioned the fact that we need to base our policy on science-based evidence, and I completely agree. The evidence annexe accompanying the resource and waste strategy provides the underpinning to the document. It is positioned within the policy analysis framework provided by Her Majesty’s Government’s Green Book, and its primary purpose is to explain the rationale for intervention and to provide transparent evidence behind the actions in the strategy. Our upcoming consultations on consistency, the deposit returns scheme and extended producer responsibility will also be accompanied by robust impact assessments. That goes to the point raised by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe about information on costings and the impact on consumers and business being available as we consult on these matters and take them forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the recycling of PET. It is of course our strategy and our policy to promote recycling of all types of plastic, including PET. We believe that reforms to producer responsibilities and the plastic tax will encourage more recycling of PET. As the value of the recycled PET rises, we expect the number of domestic recyclers to increase.

Finally, on questions raised about timing and resources, a certain number of noble Lords were not happy about the timing. This is a broad and quite complicated area, and many of the elements are interlinked. However, I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, in particular, that more details on timing, particularly over the short term and what we plan to do next year, will be available shortly. Certain noble Lords have talked about consultation as if it is a bad thing. I understand that it causes a delay and that it does not mean that action can be taken immediately, but sometimes action should not be taken until we have consulted and made sure that the action is absolutely right. The consequences of taking action that has not been properly consulted on, particularly in these sorts of areas, are not worth the risk.

The Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, both in the UK and abroad, and that statement is as true now as it will be after we leave the European Union. Our resource and waste strategy spells out how we will ring the changes and ensure that our actions and decisions no longer come at a cost to future generations.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative 9:49 pm, 19th December 2018

My Lords, it has been a rich and entertaining debate, and I thank all who have taken part, despite the two postponements and this evening’s delay. I particularly thank my noble friend the Minister for her lively and positive responses, including on the important issue of international action. I believe there is a shared sense of urgency across the house in the battle against plastic waste, and a shared determination to make things simpler and better, so that they cut through. I very much look forward to seeing a clear single system for recycling and for packaging —and, indeed, to our debating the Government’s waste strategy more fully, and the various consultation documents that have been promised.

Motion agreed.