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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:52 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell, with his wealth of experience. I also thank my noble friend Lady Parminter for securing this extremely important and timely debate and for her extremely eloquent speech in opening it this afternoon. As the many excellent contributions have illustrated, the green economy is a very wide-ranging subject, but I will address my remarks to the issue of plastic, in particular the bottled water industry and its impact on our environment in the UK and internationally.

As a regular sea swimmer since moving to Broadstairs on the Kent coast six years ago, I regularly see at first hand the impact of plastic waste in our seas. The Broadstairs Town Team organises beach cleans. During one clean last year, we filled more than 15 bags of rubbish, predominantly plastic, including plastic fishing ropes and netting. The big pieces of plastic rubbish and waste are worrying enough, but if you look more closely at the seaweed on our beaches you will see tiny sections of disintegrating plastics and these have now entered the marine ecosystem. According to a study by Oxford University, it takes an average of 450 years for plastic bottles to decompose.

As other noble Lords have said, David Attenborough and TV programmes such as “Blue Planet” have done much to raise public awareness, and there are good local community as well as government initiatives. Indeed, the Government’s initiatives on single-use plastics should be welcomed, as should yesterday’s Budget announcements about the introduction of a plastic tax and the extended producer responsibility scheme, but, as ever, the devil will be in the detail once these initiatives are introduced.

Globally, approximately 42%—146 million tonnes—of plastic produced is used as packaging. The UK alone produces 2.26 million tonnes of plastic packaging every year. In 2017, only 46% of this packaging was recycled. It is a horrifying statistic that only 10% of the plastics ever produced in the world have been recycled. The current Environment Bill is a genuine opportunity to change how we think about plastic and its disposal. All sectors of the economy should be encouraged to think differently and to use recyclable materials.

Like many people, though perhaps not as successfully as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, I have tried to change my own behaviour and I am doing my very best no longer to buy water in plastic bottles. A survey by OnePoll in 2016, however, found that the average Londoner uses 175 single-use plastic bottles every year.

Changing habits requires a cultural shift. I remember clearly that when the ban on smoking in public places was introduced, many people were highly sceptical and thought it would be unenforceable. Today, the very idea of smoking in a cinema or on an aeroplane is virtually unimaginable. A similar cultural shift is now required on plastic packaging—a shift towards recycling and reusing whenever possible. This will require political leadership as well as the development of strong public policy.

The provision of clean drinking water fountains, particularly in railway stations and airports, would make a rapid difference and much more could be done to encourage their provision. At the moment, retail outlets often encourage the purchase of plastic bottles at their cash desks, but I feel strongly that they should be encouraged to provide accessible public drinking fountains instead, particularly in our railway stations and airports. What further incentives can the Government give to encourage the availability of clean water fountains throughout our towns and cities, as well as in our airports and stations?

In the UK and countries within the EU we at least have a choice: we can fill up our reusable water bottles with clean water from our taps. In many developing or fragile states, this is not a choice that ordinary people have; in many countries, bottled water is their only option. This is particularly true in the Middle East and north Africa, the world’s most water-scarce region. It has been projected that the global market for bottled water will reach over $307 billion by 2025.

For the last 18 months, I have been working on a project in the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad. We are currently working with the health and environment committee there on an inquiry into the provision of clean drinking water. Iraq faces great challenges to the provision of clean drinking water, problems compounded by a combination of climate change, conflict, population growth and limited environmental awareness. Nearly half of Iraqi households still lack adequate access to safe and stable water supply, and in some governorates this figure is as high as 60%. Twenty-five per cent of all deaths of children relate to preventable water-related diseases. In the summer of 2018, more than 100,000 people fell sick in Basra from polluted water. Throughout Iraq, many cities dump waste, including millions of plastic water bottles, which then leak into the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, producing greater pollution further downstream in these great rivers before they reach the sea. Similar stories can be told across all continents, with so many rivers being desperately polluted by the time they reach the sea.

As we know, environmental crises do not recognise international boundaries and waste produced by fragile or developing states can become our problem too. It is extremely welcome that there is now cross-party recognition of and consensus on the scale of the problems caused by single-use plastics for our seas and our global environment.

It is welcome, too, that we are beginning to question the very concept of exporting our plastic waste to other countries—in other words, making our problem someone else’s. It is surely preferable to concentrate on reducing our own waste plastics in the first place.

This is a complicated global issue that requires a global response as well as greater support and encouragement for effective local initiatives. It requires much greater public investment in research and development for sustainable alternatives. Just as we have done on development assistance, this is a sector where this country could and should take a global lead.