Amendment 119

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 6:15 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. I rise chiefly to speak to Amendment 292, which appears in my name and has the backing of the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I thank them all for their support and note that a number of other noble Lords would have signed this amendment had there been space.

I was simply going to speak to my amendment, but I must briefly and strongly commend Amendment 119, which was so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, highlighted in a previous group that I had focused on the word “urgent” a lot. With this amendment the noble Baroness has really driven home the need for urgent action. We have a plastic and waste-choked planet and nation that cannot take any more: it cannot take the volumes we are imposing on it every day.

Amendment 292 is about nappies. That might sound like a minor issue but I hope that by the time I have finished, noble Lords will understand that it is not. Before I begin, I declare my position as vice-president of the Local Government Association, since that will become relevant. For full transparency, I declare that I have worked on this amendment with, and many noble Lords will have received briefings from, the Nappy Alliance, which represents makers of reusable nappies. Supporting a green industry and working with it is not something I am going to make any apologies for, but I think it is important we acknowledge such ties and where the resources come from.

On average, each single-use or disposable nappy generates 550 kilos of carbon dioxide throughout its whole lifecycle, from production to disposal. From birth to stopping using nappies, an average child will use the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags and half a tree in fluff. This is why the Local Government Association is relevant: at a local level, single-use nappies account for some 4% of residual waste in England. That is 3 billion nappies each year, and it costs local authorities £600 million a year to dispose of them. When such nappies are sent to landfill it takes 300 years—roughly 12 generations—for them to break down. Incinerating them gives rise to significant carbon emissions and local air pollution levels, an issue we keep coming back to. This is where my amendment links to that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw: single-use nappies often end up contaminating waste for recycling because of misleading labels and consumer confusion. Many people do not realise they contain plastic, and think they are a kind of paper.

By way of contrast, reusable nappies use 98% fewer raw materials and generate 99% less waste. They save the equivalent of 17 plastic bags per day. Here, I think I need to dispel some misunderstandings. As we have seen in many other areas of health and environment where there are powerful industry interests, there has been a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about environmental impacts and comparative environmental impacts. In March 2021, in a report I would be happy to share with any noble Lord who is interested, the United Nations Environment Programme published a comparison between single-use nappies and reusables. It concluded that reusable nappies had a lower environmental impact across all trial scenarios when compared to single-use nappies.

Michael Gove seems to be coming up a lot this evening. Back in 2018, he did actually suggest that disposable nappies might be banned. In a very rare occurrence, I am not going to go as far as Michael Gove did in 2018. When people are travelling or when there is a new babysitter, for example, there may be an argument for the occasional use of single-use nappies, but it should not be the norm.

This brings me to some other aspects of the amendment that really start to address how we change the situation. There are some really good local authority small-scale practical schemes that are helping people change to using reusable nappies and get away from single-use nappies. Often, they are based on nappy libraries—frequently run by volunteers, most usually women—which have a range of nappies that families can try out. People can see which ones are suitable before they spend money. Many local authorities—by no means all and by no means extensively—offer schemes that can help families to purchase reusable nappies. The problem is, of course, that when you have a new and growing baby, you need a set of nappies, which is a big initial outlay beyond the reach of many people. Subsection (8) of my amendment would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations for a levy to be paid by nappy manufacturers to fund a scheme to help people use reusable nappies. We are talking about ensuring that people can afford to buy them and that they have access to understanding and knowledge—nappy libraries also share information about how to use nappies and what the best ones are.

There is a comparison here. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, talked about energy labels on packaging, and that is partly what this amendment calls for. But in fact, it is a bit like cigarette packets, for which we have labelling and pricing that acknowledges the cost of the product that applies to all of us.

So, I strongly commend this amendment to the Minister. I point out that I have probably been approached by more noble Lords on this amendment than on any other I have tabled—and I have tabled some with very wide-reaching effects. This issue is of great interest to people for many reasons. One, of course, is something I am sure we will be referring to a lot in the next few hours: litter. There is a big problem with litter from single-use nappies. It is a deeply unpleasant thing. I am sure most noble Lords have been volunteer litter pickers in some form or another, and it is not a pleasant thing to encounter when doing that.

What we are talking about here is changing things to make life better. It is about the kind of systems thinking that I very often refer to. This is the Environment Bill, and when we talk about the environment people ask if we can we afford the cost of this or that measure. If we can help most families to use single-use nappies, that would save them, on average, £11 a week. That is a lot of money to many families—money that could be spent on healthier food or on taking off some of the stress and pressure. This amendment has environmental and social benefits: it is a win-win. If the Minister is being pressured to offer some yeses, here is an easy win.