We must be careful not to demonise all plastic. Plastic packaging has many beneficial properties, such as prolonging the life of food, which reduces harmful carbon emissions from food waste. Plastic packaging not only protects food from damage but is very light and significantly reduces the transport-related climate emissions of the many food items that are shipped around the UK. That said, DAERA has joined the other UK Administrations in becoming a member of the UK Plastics Pact (UKPP). In contributing to the pact, the Department is directly funding the work of its organisers, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), to develop and disseminate approaches to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging. Membership of the pact also enables the Department to use its contact networks to share innovations, data, analyses and reports with businesses.
Packaging technologists at DAERA's College for Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) have assisted the local food and drink sector with 50 knowledge and technology transfer projects this year. As well as helping local businesses to select the most appropriate packaging type for their product to optimise its quality, shelf life and cost-efficiency, CAFRE's technologists actively support businesses wishing to explore sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging. CAFRE is working with food and drink processors from the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) to facilitate better engagement between the manufacturing sector and policymakers to help create an improved, shared understanding of the use and potential reduction of plastic in food packaging.
A further significant area of work by the Department is on the reform of the UK-wide packaging system, leading to an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. That places responsibility on producers for the full net cost of managing their products once those products reach their end of life. Producers will be incentivised through the introduction of modulated fees to reduce unnecessary and difficult-to-recycle packaging and to design and use packaging that is recyclable.
As a shopper, I am becoming increasingly aware of the overuse of single-use plastics and of aluminium cans that we use every day. We all have a responsibility there.
My Department has consulted already on a deposit return scheme. We have asked for further evidence and analysis to inform a decision on the way forward. I want to make sure that any deposit return scheme is right for Northern Ireland, draws on the evidence and on what works elsewhere in the world and achieves our goal of reducing litter from drinks containers and improving their recycling. Specific details on a scheme will be developed and presented in a second consultation.
I know that there are concerns in the industry about the DRS. I have seen evidence of other ways of doing it. For example, a barcode could be put on an item. You could then deposit it in your green bin, but that would mean that it was going to be recycled.
There is potential to do it other ways, such as returning the barcode to reclaim your deposit. It may not be about sending all the material back to the initial manufacturer. There may be other and better ways of doing it.
Considering that, globally, we dump 8 million tons of plastic into our oceans each year and that, unless we act decisively, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, is the Minister willing to go a step further and consider a total ban on all non-essential plastics?
I would consider it, but, as I indicated in the first paragraph of my initial response to this question, plastics are not exclusively bad. Nonetheless, we need to reduce the amount of plastic that we are using, particularly plastic that is used from virgin materials, and we need to ensure that that plastic is recycled and reused and does not end up in our oceans or landfill. It is important that if we are going to use plastic, perhaps on occasions when there may not be a better alternative, that we ensure that it is used appropriately thereafter and does not end up in our oceans.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The thread of what he is saying is that it is important that businesses are informed and incentivised, as is happening, thankfully, through CAFRE. Has he considered the third option, which is where Ms Mullan was taking us, of enforcing a reduction in the use of plastics that are not required?
Absolutely. That is something that the Department will look at. CAFRE provides the most amazing services to businesses, including in food development. We are privileged to have the facility at Loughry college in Cookstown, which is in the Member's constituency. A lot of work is done there on packaging, because it is critical that we do packaging well and in a way that has least impact on the environment. That is the goal of everyone in the House.
I thank the Minister for the range of information that has been provided. I do not think that I missed this piece of information. Is there a date or time frame in which we can expect to see a proposed plan to eliminate plastic pollution, as promised in New Decade, New Approach over eight months ago?
There is no date as yet, but it is a course of work that the Department is doing. There has been a considerable reduction in the use of single-use plastic bags, for example. I need to consider the reusable bags, because there is a fair bit of evidence that a lot of people are not using them a lot more than once. They may buy a reusable bag but use it only once. I need to look at those issues and consider upping what we are charging for single-use plastic bags, as well as putting an additional charge on reusable bags so that we can encourage people to reduce the number of bags that they use. That has been a big success story so far, and I trust that we can build upon it.
People and businesses are looking at a range of products, including hemp and eucalyptus, and the opportunities that they offer. Some of the alternatives will use huge volumes of water, which is not good, and some will be considerably heavier and therefore have a greater impact on the transport industry, take up more space and, in turn, be less efficient. All those things will be looked at. Some larger companies are working hard to ensure that they can meet their environmental obligations. We will support, chivvy along and encourage — and seek to enforce, where necessary — companies to do their bit to ensure that we produce a better environment.