Amendment 119

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 30th June 2021.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:00 pm, 30th June 2021

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this debate. It is a rare area of almost complete consensus—the shared horror at the horrific legacy our throwaway culture has left us and every society on earth. I think the World Economic Forum said that by 2030, if trends continue, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans, as measured by weight, than fish, which really is almost unimaginably horrible to think about.

The resources and waste provisions in the Bill introduce much-needed reforms to tackle waste of all kinds and increase our resource efficiency. The measures look across the product life cycle, from design to use to end of life, ensuring that we are maximising our resources and adhering to the waste hierarchy.

I thank noble Lords for their amendments. I will begin with Amendment 119, for which I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Our recent consultation on extended producer responsibility for packaging committed to the implementation as soon as possible and proposed a phased approach commencing in 2023. These are, rightly, major reforms—almost revolutionary, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, suggested—and we need to listen to those who are going to be impacted by them and ensure that they are able to adapt.

I am pleased that stakeholders have welcomed the measure, such as the Food and Drink Federation, which said:

“Food and drink manufacturers want to be accountable for the packaging they place on the market and an effective and cost-efficient system has the potential to be an enabler for increased investment in recycling infrastructure.”

We are currently analysing responses to the consultation and will publish our response as soon as we possibly can. We also remain committed to introducing these reforms as quickly as we can. But, unfortunately for those, like me, who are impatient for this change, the system is such that, because we are introducing individual schemes, and because those schemes have a significant impact on products and the producers of those products, each one of those schemes needs consultation and will require an SI. There will be process, and that process is largely unavoidable.

All I can tell the noble Baroness and others who support the amendment is that I and my colleagues in Defra are committed to doing this as quickly as possible. We want to go as quickly as we can, but we also want extended producer responsibility to be extended as far as it possibly can. We want an extensive programme, because we recognise that extended producer responsibility, taken to its logical conclusion, is a really significant part of the solution if we want to get to a zero-waste or circular economy.

On Amendments 120 and 120A, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Bradshaw and Lord Chidgey, respectively, the Government echo the concern around the Committee surrounding the damage caused to sewerage systems and the wider environment by the incorrect disposal and abundance of wet wipes and the use of inappropriate cleaning products, a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. Small sewage discharges from septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants in England are already regulated under the general binding rules, which specifically state that the discharge from septic tanks must not cause pollution of surface water or groundwater.

Nevertheless, I assure the Committee that we have a number of additional possible routes to tackling this issue through the Bill. Powers in Schedule 5 to the Bill could require wet-wipe producers to pay for the disposal costs of discarded and used wet wipes. Schedule 6 allows us to mandate for wet-wipe producers to put information on packaging regarding their correct disposal, including “do not flush” directions or clearer alternative text on products not suitable for those with a septic system, to answer the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. I would like to advance progress in this area as well, as quickly as possible. That ambition is shared by all my colleagues in the department.

Closely related is Amendment 292 on nappies, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The powers that we seek in this Bill will enable us to act, if necessary. We explicitly outlined this on page 161 of the Bill’s Explanatory Notes to make it clearer in response to discussion on this important issue in the other place. We have also commissioned an environmental assessment looking at the waste and energy impacts of washable and disposable products. This will bring our evidence base up to date, putting us in the best possible position to decide what action to take. That report will be published within a matter of months and certainly this year.

The noble Baroness is right to highlight this. She almost apologised at the beginning on the basis of it sounding marginal, but, as she pointed out, it is not. The amount of residual waste that is made up of used nappies is staggering. Clearly, we must move to a situation where the incentives are such that people by default use genuinely biodegradable alternatives, if they have to use disposables, or even better, washables, although they come with inconvenience that not everyone can accommodate. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I believe that I was dressed in throwaway nappies as a child. It was a long time ago—it feels even longer after a few weeks trying to get this Bill through the House—but we were all guilty, without a doubt, and we need to see a shift in the right direction. We have in this Bill the tools that we need to foster that shift.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for Amendment 124, which calls for a scheme in relation to disposal costs of single-use plastics. Clause 50 enables regulations to require those who place specified products on the UK market to pay disposal costs. While the clause could technically be used for a scheme on single-use plastics, the Government are already undertaking a lot of work to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastics and, therefore, do not think that a specific scheme under Clause 50 is necessarily the right course of action. Instead, Clause 54 provides powers for charges to be applied to any single-use item containing plastic. We also have powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to prohibit or restrict the use of certain substances. Noble Lords will know that last year, we used these powers to restrict the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, cotton buds, et cetera. In May, the single-use carrier bag charge was doubled to 10p.

In answer to questions put to me by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Humphreys and Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, we have the tools to extend that ban, and very much hope that we will extend it, because clearly straws, stirrers and cotton buds need to be a start, not an end, if we are to phase out the use of unnecessary single-use items. The consultation that I mentioned earlier covers proposals to ensure that businesses pay the full net disposal costs of all packaging, including single-use plastics.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe raised a number of issues and appealed for a cleaner and simpler system. I sympathise with her. We are bringing in a tax system so that products which are made without a threshold of recycled plastic will be taxed a virgin plastic tax, which, I hope, will stimulate the market for recycled plastic.

However, in addition to that, I do not think it is possible through taxation to get to where we need to get to. That is why extended producer responsibility is such an important part of this, as it requires producers to shoulder the full lifetime cost of a product. Equally, no matter how sophisticated extended producer responsibility, or the virgin plastic tax that I mentioned, and some of the other measures that we have talked about today, may be, there is no escaping the need for bans in certain circumstances. That is why we have introduced some bans, and we will certainly be introducing more.

On Amendment 127, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, before making regulations under the powers in Clauses 51 and 52 and Schedules 6 and 7, the Government will consult stakeholders as appropriate. As part of this, the Government will carry out and publish impact assessments in accordance with standard practice and the requirements of the specific provision. I hope that the noble Lord is somewhat reassured by that. I note his return to the theme of transparency, and bringing the public with us, and he is right. That is a challenge that we need to bear in mind every step of the way. The impact assessments that I just mentioned will cover the resource efficiency benefits of the proposed regulations, having regard to the underlying environmental goals of these provisions.

Finally, on Amendment 128, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the existing provisions in Schedule 6 already allow us to include requirements about the design of labels, and in exercising these powers the Government will encourage the use of clear and consistent labels that consumers will be able to recognise and act on. That, of course, will include information on whether a product is recyclable. The precise design of future labels or other means of communicating product information will be subject to further policy development, including evidence gathering, analysis and consultation with all the obvious stakeholders. So I hope I have been able to provide clarity and some reassurance to noble Lords, and I ask them to withdraw or not move their amendments.