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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 4:12 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, my Twitter profile reads,

“Hates waste of all kinds”,

and I have always done what I can to keep my carbon footprint low. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for this opportunity, and will address my remarks to individual action and behaviour change, and urge the Government to do more to nudge the public in a greener direction.

People motivated by Sir David Attenborough’s message that

“the moment of crisis has come” are keen to improve their carbon footprint, but are confused by the message and the messaging. They want simple tips on what to do. For me, it is a virtuous circle. I take the stairs rather than the lift or the escalator, saving the electricity and keeping fit. I was brought up in a cold house and I think that it is better for my health and the environment to turn down radiators, as we did in the 1970s. The Committee on Climate Change recommends that we keep our thermostats set at 19 degrees. Many people today keep their homes far warmer than that, while wandering around in a T-shirt.

Talking of which, it takes 2,700 litres of water, often from drought-ridden countries, to grow cotton for just one T-shirt. The average European buys 24 new items every year, many of them fast fashion, at least 30% of which sit unworn in people’s wardrobes. This takes into account only the clothes that we buy and does not include the appalling waste from fashion brands of clothes, shoes and bags before the products are even sold. Who can forget that fashion brand Burberry burned £90 million-worth of its own clothes, shoes and bags between 2013 and 2018 in order to “protect its brand”?

It has become popular for people to say they will not buy any new clothing for a year, but what is a year? Other than underwear, I have pledged never to buy a new item of clothing again. When I do buy, it is from charity shops and eBay, or at swishing parties—that is swapping, for the uninitiated. For those not as extreme as me, the next time you buy an item, challenge yourself to commit to wearing the garment 30 times and do not then send it to landfill. By the way, this is not a new habit for me: I even rented my wedding dress, 31 years ago.

It is not just clothes and textiles where we are wasteful. If food waste were a country, the carbon footprint associated with the production, processing and landfill emissions would be the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gasses—methane in this case—behind China and the US. An estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. For those who are not motivated by the environmental impact, it is worth considering that each family throws away the equivalent of £60-worth of food each month, which is around £700-worth a year. As a former board member of WRAP, I commend its Love Food Hate Waste and Spoiled Rotten campaigns for giving ideas on how to use up leftovers or the scraps left in the fridge.

Talking of WRAP, may I put in a plea for clarity and consistency around recycling? Household recycling rates in England increased significantly from 11% in 2001 to 45.2% in 2017. However, in recent years, progress has slowed and rates have stuck at around 44%. While many local authorities continue to make improvements and introduce new services, some have seen a drop in recycling rates and do not collect the full range of materials that can be recycled, or do not collect food waste separately. Householders who want to recycle more are increasingly confused about what can be recycled. I myself study packaging, confused and annoyed, moving rubbish from one bin to another—here I congratulate Iceland on taking the lead in banning black plastic trays which cannot be recycled. I take stuff from our London flat to our Essex home, because I am more confident that it will be recycled there. I even take my food waste back home to compost. We should make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing.

On plastic, in 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion people produced 1.5 million tonnes of plastic. In 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tonnes of plastic. That is set to double by 2034. Increasing numbers of people are giving up plastic for Lent, but why just Lent? We should all be using as little plastic as we can all the time. What is the point in not being given plastic bags in supermarkets when each family apparently buys 54 bags for life each year? I use my mum’s string bags from the 1960s for unexpected purchases. Twice as much water is used to manufacture a plastic water bottle as the amount of water in the bottle. Do not buy bottled water; fill up with tap water.

Like many, watching “The Game Changers” on Netflix convinced me to stop eating meat. The focus of the programme was mainly improvements in health, rather than the environment, but for me it is a double tick. Meat, especially factory-farmed, damages our planet and, I believe, our bodies. If it is too hard to give up, try cutting down; I have found it remarkably easy to make the transition. One recent study said that if the UK cut its meat consumption in half, we would save 19 million tonnes of carbon emission. The enormous consumption of water in meat production is primarily due to the watering of the plants which livestock animals feed on. Formerly, cattle and sheep basically ate grass, which cannot be eaten by man. Now, they are mostly fattened with corn or soy, often produced by cutting down rainforests. Add the water which these animals need to drink, together with the amounts of water that are needed for cleaning the fattening units, and you reach the calculation that the production of one beef burger uses as much water as 100 days’ worth of showers.

While on the topic of water, here are some simple ways we can change our habits to help the planet. Every single day, more than 3 billion litres of perfectly good drinking water is wasted in the UK. That is enough to make 15 billion cups of tea or to hydrate the entire population of Africa—I accept that getting water from here to Africa is not easy. Only run your dishwasher or washing machine when they are full; an average washing machine uses 113 litres per wash, regardless of how full it is. Make sure that clothes are actually dirty, rather than washing them every time you wear them. Turn the tap off while you brush your teeth, shower instead of having a bath, and use your washing-up water to water the garden or your pot plants. I know that after such a wet winter it seems rather ridiculous to be focusing on water waste, but we are not good at collecting it and there is bound to be a drought on the horizon. I would have liked to talk more about housing, transport and other areas where individual change is possible, but time is too tight.

There are many ways that we can change our behaviour to have a positive effect on the planet, and there are better ways to make a political point than Extinction Rebellion, which apparently left 18 million individual pieces of rubbish during its last disruption, including two tin baths in Trafalgar Square. I do not believe that bringing our city to a standstill or digging up historic bits of Cambridge are going to make any difference, but I believe in the power of each and every one of us to make changes that will help our planet and mean that we embrace resource efficiency. For everyone, and especially Conservatives—the clue is in our name—all our actions should be about conserving resources, our oceans and our planet. Let us all commit to doing something to change our behaviours. We can all do more to waste less.