Amendment 130A

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 30 June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:15, 30 June 2021

My Lords, I speak to Amendments 141 and 142 to 145, which are in my name. Amendment 141 relates to the plastic packaging tax, which was placed in law by this year’s Finance Bill and will come into effect next year. The tax is welcome in principle, but my amendment seeks to probe the Government on the detail. Manufacturers of innovative compostable packaging solutions are aghast that the tax makes no distinction between their products and old-fashioned polluting plastic. Members of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association have attempted to engage Ministers in Defra and the Treasury on this point but are hitting a brick wall, since the Government are interested only in a single threshold —namely, the amount of a given product that is recycled.

It is of course a fine public policy objective to encourage the use of recycled rather than virgin plastics, as the tax attempts to do, but that single criterion fails to recognise a few facts of life. First, packaging that is to come into contact with food cannot be recycled, for food hygiene reasons. Secondly, plastic films are extremely hard to recycle and, even if they are recycled, are seldom if ever recycled into new films. The idea of a circular economy on such packaging is just an illusion.

By contrast, compostable films can be an appropriate substitute and are more sustainable than conventional films from recycled sources. Compostable packaging can never contain 30% recycled content because its destined end of life is to disappear completely in the soil, leaving no microplastics behind. The unintended consequence of the tax as it stands is that these innovative solutions are perversely penalised.

The amendment asks the Government to recognise that treating independently certified compostable films as separate and distinct from conventional plastics would not create a free-for-all or a loophole. The compost quality protocol sets out clear safeguards for waste-derived compost, including by specifying that any compostable packaging and plastic wastes accepted must be independently certified to meet composting standards. Among these is BS EN 13432, referenced in the amendment, which is a strong, internationally accepted British and European standard for determining which bioplastics are industrially compostable or biodegradable when processed through anaerobic digestion or in-vessel composting. As I said in the debate on the first day in Committee, these materials are not a silver bullet but they are rightly recognised by the recent report Breaking the Plastic Wave as part of the picture when it comes to tackling plastic pollution.

Amendments 142 to 145 are related to Amendment 141. If we believe that compostable alternatives to conventional plastic have a place, particularly in food-contact packaging, it follows that we should make provision for those compostable materials to be collected so that the end-user knows that they are indeed composted. Alternatively, householders can mix them with their garden and kitchen compostable waste. As a consumer, it is baffling to pick up something that is labelled “compostable” if you have no obvious means of composting it.

The Bill rightly places in law the necessity for separate food waste collections, and my Amendments 142 to 145 simply seek to establish that independently certified compostable materials should be collected alongside this waste stream. The films that we are talking about here are of low density and can easily fit in a food-waste caddy. Indeed, in certain applications, such as the compostable bags containing bananas in Waitrose, the packaging can be used as a liner for a food caddy.

The present custom and practice of local authorities and their waste management firms is rather variable when it comes to these compostable items. Some faithfully ensure that compostable films are properly processed. Others actually strip out compostable items, treating them as contaminants. It cannot be right for consumers to be sold products that are compostable but for the waste management system to let them down at the end of the process by incinerating or landfilling these items. I shall refer to this issue in later amendments.

Approximately 45 composting plants in the UK are approved for composting inputs that include food waste at present, but the current network processes only 20% of what will be necessary from 2023 onwards. In consequence, much of the 80% extra capacity that must be built will be entirely new or revamped plants. Waste managers need a clear steer now that anaerobic digestion plants must have a composting phase in which compostable materials, such as BS EN 13432-certified packaging, are properly processed. Handling this issue properly has the potential to reduce the contamination of soil from normally polluting plastics, which is why it has the support of the National Farmers’ Union. With these amendments added to the Bill, it would be clear that as composting infrastructure is expanded across the UK, all composting plants must make provision for ensuring the proper processing of compostable packaging materials.

Finally, I turn to Amendments 130A, 130B and 141A, also in this group and capably moved and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I fully support her in these amendments. As the adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Transparency about the sheer amount of plastic used by supermarkets would catalyse consumer pressure on the big players to kick their plastic habit. I commend the work that Iceland has done, which the Minister mentioned on our first day. The transparency clause in Amendments 130A and 130B would push other firms in a similar direction. The Minister will by now have received the message that I am not going away on this issue, and I look forward to his response.