Amendment 40

Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 13 September 2021.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

40: Schedule 9, page 188, line 39, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—“(b) are made of plastic or any other single use material, and”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would broaden the proposed power in Clause 55 to enable regulations to be made about charges on all single use items, including plastic. This would provide a tool for Ministers to address single use culture and prevent existing materials being replaced by alternatives which cause similar levels of environmental harm.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I am moving Amendment 40 in my name and that of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. This amendment broadens out the powers in Schedule 9, which currently allow charges to be levied against sellers of single-use plastic items. Our amendment would make it clear that a new charging regime should be for all single-use materials, not just plastic. It would ensure that single-use plastics are not simply replaced with other single-use materials that also cause environmental damage.

This is a simple but important amendment. It goes to the heart of the throwaway culture. There is a real concern that an inability to charge for single-use alternatives to single-use plastic might see the market switch to those alternatives rather than driving down consumption. We have seen evidence that the switch from plastic to single-use alternatives made from wood, paper or compostable materials is already happening, even when reusable options are already available. Far from helping to save the planet, these materials risk adding to our carbon emissions and depleting precious materials and forests elsewhere. For example, the Green Alliance has already calculated that switching consumption of plastic packaging to other materials used for packaging could triple carbon emissions.

These concerns were echoed by the businesses involved in the Aldersgate Group, which have written to noble Lords to say that the risk of plastic substitution in the Bill, as written, could undermine the drive towards a more circular economy and ending the throwaway society. The Commons EFRA report of 2019 concluded that

“reduction is the most important way to reduce waste, and … A fundamental shift away from all single use food and drink packaging, plastic or otherwise, is vital”.

We believe that the current wording in Schedule 9 is flawed and will encourage behaviours which the Government have not intended. If the Government are serious about resource efficiency and the circular economy, they must address this anomaly.

In response to a debate in Committee, the Minister stressed that plastic was a particularly pernicious material which persists for hundreds of years, and that this is why particular measures were necessary to address its unnecessary use. Of course we recognise that, but these provisions, as they stand, address only one element of the problem and do not address the inevitable move towards substitution which is bound to occur when charges for single-use plastics are introduced.

The Minister has also said that the Government already have wider powers to tackle alternatives to plastic through other measures, such as the extended producer responsibility scheme. But as we debated in Committee, the introduction of the extended producer responsibility scheme is already delayed, with the first such scheme on packaging already two years behind. Would it not be easier and more straightforward to introduce this simple amendment, which is properly scoped and provides for a precise power?

It is also worth noting that the delegated powers memorandum says of Clause 54:

“While these powers would be new, the provisions are modelled on existing powers to make regulations about carrier bag charges”.

Nevertheless, it stresses that these are new powers. Our amendment would simply extend these powers to all single-use materials.

In a previous debate we highlighted the need for a holistic approach to tackling the throwaway society and encouraging reuse of materials. This is exactly what is needed here, and it is what our amendment would achieve. I therefore hope that the Minister will reflect seriously on our amendment and commit to bringing back a government amendment along these lines at Third Reading. But if he is not prepared to make a concession along these lines, I give notice that I am minded to press for a vote on Amendment 40.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing forward the amendment, and also my noble friend the Minister for the work that the Government have done in this regard. May I take this opportunity to press my noble friend on one issue? The Government have been quite clear on single-use plastics and a potential returnable bottle scheme, as well as cotton buds. I am not clear what the position is on wet wipes, which I know cause huge problems for water companies and can block cisterns quite badly. Another growing problem, which may not be addressed by this amendment but appears elsewhere in the Bill, is fat balls from cooking that uses large amounts of fat. Where are we are on those issues?

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:30, 13 September 2021

My Lords, I rise to offer support to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and others, on this cross-party, broadly backed amendment and to encourage noble Lords to press it to a vote if we do not see progress.

We are in a situation rather like the “dieselgate” scandal, where we saw encouragement of a shift to diesel vehicles, with severe deleterious effects on human and environmental health. Those effects were multiplied by corruption and fraud in the car companies, but there was an underlying error in the decision being made. We need systems thinking to look holistically at the environmental impacts of laws, regulations and policies. The waste pyramid tells us that the first thing we should be doing is reducing the use of all materials—plastic is particularly pernicious, but all materials have an environmental cost—and then looking to reuse, with recycling a poor third choice.

It is important that the House offers strong support for this amendment in light of the article that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday. We were told—indeed, we seemed to be pressured by the Government—that too many amendments might embarrass Alok Sharma as chair of the COP 26 talks. Well, it is terribly important that we acknowledge—I hope the Minister will—that just as a puppy is not just for Christmas, the Environment Bill is not just for COP. A strong Environment Bill to show the world at COP is a positive side-effect, but what we are actually doing is creating the framework for the next decade and beyond in the UK. The Government’s focus must be on getting the strongest possible Environment Bill, as has clearly been the focus of this House.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Colville has today had to go to a family funeral, so he asked me to deliver his speech. I am very happy to do so, and I absolutely support this amendment. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and I completely agree with her about the shocking revelations in the press yesterday.

My noble friend Lord Colville says that many of our single-use items, particularly drinks containers, are made of aluminium. Not only does the manufacture of aluminium create 1% of global carbon emissions but the mining of bauxite, from which aluminium is refined, leaves behind a toxic waste called red mud. Its high alkalinity is extremely corrosive, damaging soil and destroying life forms. Aluminium smelters generate an additional 150 million tonnes of red mud each year. We must work to reduce such emissions; I believe this amendment would do that.

On the first day of Report, the Minister said:

“Globally, we extract three times the amount of resources from nature as we did in 1970, and that figure is set to double again within a generation”.—[Official Report, 6/9/21; col. 706.]

The Bill has so many laudable aspects, but it still does not bear down hard enough on the problem of our excessive and wasteful use of the planet’s resources and our careless discarding of single-use items. The attention the Bill gives to recycling is crucial and very welcome, but I urge the Minister to be more ambitious.

Like many noble Lords, I welcome the power in Schedule 9 to charge for single-use plastic items, but the Government already have plans to confront much of that problem, through the existing ban on plastic stirrers and cotton buds and the launch of a consultation this autumn on banning plastic cutlery and plates. If these are successful, the power in Schedule 9 to charge for single-use plastics will hardly be needed, but it does not deal with the threat of the substitution of single-use plastics with aluminium, wood or other precious materials.

The extended power put forward in the amendment for a charge to cover plastics or any other single-use material would deal with the problem quickly and reduce our resource use dramatically. When asked to support the amendment in Committee, the Minister responded that it was not necessary and said:

“Items that are not captured by Clause 54 could be captured by other measures, such as EPR or resource efficiency.”—[Official Report, 30/6/21; col. 914.]

Resource efficiency can do much to make producers responsible for the reduction in the use of raw materials, but to implement a scheme for each category of single-use item will take an amazing amount of work to design and a great deal of time and difficulty to implement. Look at the excellent ecodesign that introduces resource efficiency into energy-related products; it has taken four years of consultation and co-operation with stakeholders to get to a final scheme. That is a long time when we are threatened with the facts.

I am concerned that, as the Government progresses through resource efficiency schemes for big product areas such as textiles, they are never going to get round to the efficiency of wooden stirrers or paper plates. So will the Minister explain why he believes the amendment would not deal with this problem much more quickly and efficiently?

Wildlife and Countryside Link, representing a wide range of environmental organisations from CPRE to Keep Britain Tidy, said in its response to the consultation that there needs to be

“a clear focus on reduction and waste prevention to meet the UK’s ambitious climate change targets.”

The EPR policy could change its focus to emphasise further reduction of single-use items, or the Government could just accept this amendment, which would quickly and effectively mitigate many of these concerns. I ask noble Lords for their support on the amendment, because I do not want the good work of the Bill to be undermined by unintended consequences.

That is my noble friend Lord Colville’s excellent speech, which I was very pleased to deliver. Before I sit down, I would like to add a couple of points myself about the involvement of the fossil fuel industry in the world of plastics, which I think is often missed. The raw materials used to make fossil fuels and plastics are one and the same, but demand for fossil fuels is now on the decline in many parts of the world, so we see these two industries coming closer together. In fact, in the face of decreasing profit margins and the increasing demand for renewable energy, fossil fuels are finding new ways to keep themselves afloat—and, unfortunately, they have found plastic production.

Plastics are the fossil fuel industry’s new plan B. Most plastic is made from fossil fuels: we extract oil or gas from land and the seabed and transport it to something that is known as a cracker. Crackers are plants that use huge amounts of heat and pressure to break fossil fuels into the molecules that become the building blocks of polymers. For instance, propane gets cracked into propylene, which is turned into polypropylene, and then you have a plastic bottle. In the past, the industries were fairly separate, but now they are trying to integrate. Both face challenges.

According to UNEP, more than 127 countries have introduced regulation, but way more is needed. Every day it seems we can learn a new thing about what bad stuff plastics do. I did not know until recently that plastic aids the transmission of antibiotic-resistant genes, or that traces of plastic are found in human wombs—so babies can be swimming in microplastics. No country has fully banned it to my knowledge. There are so many kinds of single-use plastic that it is like cutting one of Medusa’s snakes just for three more heads to pop up. But we need something more systemic, and the Bill puts us on the right foot. We need to halt subsidies for petrochemicals, internalise the cost of plastics through taxes and extended producer responsibility, and consider the climate and biodiversity aspects of the plastics lifecycle before we grant permits for the construction and operation of these plants. We need to pass this amendment, and I am very happy to support it.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I have campaigned against plastic and support most of the Government’s plans because of the permanent damage that plastic can cause, especially to our seas and rivers. I support the wide powers that the Government are taking in this area. However, focusing on single use is not sensible. I remember that, when I was in retail, a single bag for life needed to be used 80 times to match the efficiency of the light single-use plastic bag. We also need to think about the consumer. I feel there will be similar nonsenses if we try to ban the single use of other items. What is wrong with a coloured paper straw or a paper spoon to eat an ice cream? It will rot afterwards. I am also happy to see cans of Coke, especially if they can be recycled, as they would be if we made it a great deal easier for people to recycle. So I may be in a minority of one, but I think this amendment goes too far.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, on single-use plastic and other single-use material. As I indicated last week, we have become a throwaway culture and seem unable to motivate ourselves out of this. We as a country, therefore, need additional help for this to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, has introduced this amendment with her usual depth of knowledge and experience. On Monday, we had an extremely informative debate, with contributions on a number of aspects of the harm caused by different types of plastic to the environment. There are amendments for later days, when we will return to some of these aspects. Then, as now, we will refer to other single-use items that cause harm to us and our environment. Great care is needed in finding alternatives to single-use plastics so that we do not create a greater problem of carbon creation. The problem is with the throwaway culture, not with plastic alone.

According to a 2018 study by the Danish Ministry for Environment, environmental and social impacts associated with the paper supply chain are considerable, and include ozone depletion, human and ecosystem toxicity, and air and water pollution. The study found that a paper bag would have to be used 43 times to have an overall impact lower than that of the average plastic bag. Although its degeneration rate is far higher than that of plastic, it is the creation of the paper that has the carbon impact. It is important to be clear that we cannot move away from plastics to other non-sustainable, one-off alternatives, such as paper, without fully assessing the consequences.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, speaking on behalf of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and in her own right, made some very powerful points. The Government are currently consulting on banning further single-use plastic items, such as plates and cutlery. What are the Government intending to use in place of plastic? Will it be bamboo? What effect will using bamboo in this way have on the supply and growing of bamboo? This is just one example.

I support completely the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. We as a nation should have regard to the overall impact of single-use items, such as disposable nappies, which we will debate later. If we are to be a world leader on environmental issues, as the Government want us to be, reducing the use and impact of single-use items is key. We on these Benches fully support this vital amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, which will ensure that the overall impact of the Environment Bill has a chance at being successful.

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)

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government are committed to promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy. Before I start addressing Amendment 40, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, I feel obliged to add my comments on the article that appeared yesterday in the Telegraph. I do not think any names were attached to the article, so it is very hard to know who to take this up with, but it certainly seemed to me to be almost entirely mischievous and not true. We do want to get this Bill done by COP 26—we do not have to, but we want to, for obvious reasons that we discussed in Committee—and we feel that it is in the national and international interest that we should pass the Bill in the strongest possible form before COP 26. No one involved in the passage of this Bill would put their name, privately or publicly, to the comments that appeared in the newspaper.

Turning to Amendment 40, the noble Baroness is absolutely right to highlight the impact of materials other than plastic on the environment. A number of other noble Lords have done the same. I will not go into all the reasons why that matters, as we have covered the issue well during the passage of the Bill, and it has been covered again today. We know that our reckless and wasteful use of resources is putting the natural world under intolerable pressure. However, there is a particular and acute need to reduce consumption of single-use plastic and the particular and enormous environmental harm that it causes. That is why we have included specific powers in the Bill to impose charges on single-use plastics. These will provide a powerful and targeted tool to specifically address the issue of single- use plastics by directly incentivising consumers to use fewer of them.

That is not to say that we do not recognise the impact that other materials can have on the environment—of course we do. Other powers in the Bill will be targeted at reducing consumption across all materials. For example, new powers to introduce extended producer responsibility and deposit return schemes will encourage more sustainable design of products and increased reuse and recycling. There are also powers to provide consistent recycling and to set specific requirements regarding the design and material usage of products. We are also working with international partners to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution in the ocean, including through the Plastic Waste Partnership, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, and the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance.

From April 2022, a new tax on plastic packaging of £200 per tonne will apply to plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. It is estimated that the tax will lead to around 40% more recycled plastic being used in packaging in 2022-23, saving nearly 200,000 tonnes of CO2. Beyond plastic, the Government already have extremely broad powers, through the Environmental Protection Act, to ban single-use items made from any material harmful to the environment or human and animal health. More recently, we have been proactive in using these powers and have introduced one of the world’s toughest bans on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, and restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers. As outlined during Monday’s debate, we have also recently announced that we will extend those bans. We will be carrying out a consultation this autumn on banning single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene drinks containers.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about wet wipes. I cannot give her a specific answer, other than to say that our teams in Defra are working very hard on this issue as I speak. We recognise the problems that she has identified, but I cannot give her timelines or specific plans yet, other than to say that this is a live issue in Defra.

We will use an evidence-based approach to determine which material has the most significant environmental impacts and where we should consider further bans. This could include plastic, but it could also include any other material. In the round, the Bill—in addition to existing measures—provides us with the policy apparatus that we need to get very tough with the reckless use of resources. The area we are discussing today, however, relates to specific powers to tackle single-use plastics and all the unique problems that they cause. In the light of this, I beg the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45, 13 September 2021

My Lords, since we have raised the subject of the Telegraph, I want to add my quick twopenneth to that. I thank the Minister for what he said. I think we are all pleased to hear that he disassociated himself from its comments, because it is fairly clear to everyone involved in the Bill that we have been dealing with it in good faith and that nobody is trying to score any political points. I would also say that we are working to a timetable that the Government themselves set, and there is indeed plenty of time if we work together to get the Bill through in time for COP 26. We all understand the advantages of that, but we want to go there with a Bill that we genuinely feel proud of. I think that that is what everyone here is attempting to do.

I thank all noble Lords for their comments. My amendment is very simple and is about substitution. Businesses themselves are beginning to flag up and identify their concerns about that. That is why they have written to noble Lords on this subject, because they are seeing that this is the likely conclusion if we focus just on plastics. As noble Lords have said, there is a real danger of unintended consequences if we are not careful, so let us make sure that we drive down the use of single use overall. That is the way to deliver a reduction in consumption. We will do that only if we have a consistent approach across the board.

Either the powers already exist to deliver the ban on not only single-use plastics but other materials, in which case I do not quite see why Schedule 9 has been put in the Bill in the first place, or new and more simplified powers are needed, as per Schedule 9, in which case that is what we are attempting to do: to add our amendment to that schedule to make sure that the powers apply equally to plastics and plastic substitution. We have rehearsed the arguments as to why that is very well. So if we are in favour of the circular economy and reducing consumption, one step towards doing that is by supporting our Amendment 40. I therefore would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 203, Noes 167.

Division number 1 Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) — Amendment 40

Aye: 203 Members of the House of Lords

No: 167 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 40 agreed.

Clause 57: Separation of waste

Amendment 41 not moved.