Packaging Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 5th July 2011.

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Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 11:00 am, 5th July 2011

Absolutely. Cross-cutting and working together through voluntary agreement is entirely the way forward. That is the main thrust of the waste policy review, and I am delighted that the Minister has said with regard to the review:

“This Responsibility Deal with the waste management industry is most welcome. It is a good example of the way alternatives to regulation can work to achieve better waste management and recycling services for SMEs”— small and medium-sized enterprises—

“and encourage better sorting of recyclable material to help the recycling industry.”

Voluntary arrangements are certainly the way forward and they are arrangements that industry that will respond to. Perhaps the carrot will always work better than the stick.

It is not possible to talk about the regulation of business without making some reference to Europe. European legislation and regulation is already in place under the European packaging directive, which requires the packaging industry to meet strict requirements to prevent the use of excessive packaging. Since that directive came into place, the total amount of packaging waste recovered and recycled in the UK increased from 3.3 million tonnes in 1998 to more than 7.1 million tonnes by 2009.

On recycling, my experience as local councillor before coming to Parliament led me to conclude, first, that most people are pretty sympathetic to recycling and see activity by their local authority to improve recycling rates as a good thing and, secondly, that individuals are prepared to put time and effort into sorting out waste streams, so it is important for the industry to make it as easy as possible for people to identify the materials used in the manufacture of each product. For example, most Members present here today will know that plastic is not just plastic; there are many varieties, some of which are recyclable and some of which are not.

How local authorities go about waste collection and recycling leads to a concern that the industry has about localism, which of course is a key objective of the Government. Localism is appropriate in many sectors, but occasionally it has a downside. The packaging industry takes very seriously what happens to its products at the end of their life and, consequently, regularly engages with the authorities that are responsible for the collection and disposal of waste. Of course, for consumer goods, those authorities are local authorities.

The Food and Drink Federation has referred to the difficulty for the packaging industry of responding to the localist agenda given that there are 398 local authorities, each with a different approach and different priorities with respect to waste planning and disposal, including whether it is right to recycle or incinerate. The industry believes that the lack of uniformity across local councils makes life difficult for it in terms of establishing contact and liaising with local councils. It also believes that it might be helpful if the Government suggested some form of unifying strategy and that, in addition, such a strategy might be of benefit with regard to dealing with litter. I recognise the conflict between that objective of the packaging industry and the broader objective of the Government to enable local people to have the right to decide, through their elected representatives, the best way forward in their area.

Given the problems that I have referred to—problems that fall into three categories—how is the packaging industry responding to the challenges that I have outlined? First, regarding its image, the industry recognises the need to convey the benefits of the products that it produces and to put forward examples of positive development and innovation. It is very clear that modern packaging solutions have enabled a huge change in the way that we shop and go about purchasing our goods, but the industry recognises that it needs to do more work to convey its message more effectively and to get across the benefits of packaging. For example, eliminating packaging from fresh produce would lead to massive food waste. The Cucumber Growers Association has conducted tests that show that unwrapped cucumbers are unsalable after three days, whereas just 1.5 grams of plastic packaging can keep the same product fresh for as long as 14 days. The industry recognises that it needs to get that type of message across.

The second response of the industry to the challenges that it is facing is innovation. The industry has been designing products with waste prevention in mind for years. Improvements in packaging design and production techniques have resulted in huge reductions in material use, which have been referred to by hon. Friends. For example, a pint glass bottle is 65% lighter today than it was in 1940; a 330 ml steel drinks tin has been reduced in weight by 63% since 1950; a 1 litre plastic detergent bottle is 58% lighter than it was in 1970; and cardboard outer packs are typically 14% lighter than they were in 1970. Given all that improvement in efficiency and despite growth in the quantity of consumer products over the years, the quantity of packaging material has increased at a slower rate. Between 2006 and 2008, when the economy was growing, there was zero growth in grocery packaging.

Innovation has not been just about reducing the quantities used but about making greater use of recycled material. In March, The Mail on Sunday reported that Coca-Cola, one of Britain’s biggest users of plastic packaging, had agreed a 10-year £200 million deal with Britain’s biggest plastics recycling firm, ECO Plastics, to turn old bottles into new ones. It is hoped that the Lincoln plant will produce enough recycled plastic to achieve the company’s target of 25% of its packaging being made of such material. That will help the Government to achieve their objectives of reducing the volume of plastics sent to landfill sites and of stopping tonnes of material having to be sent to China, as happens at present. Such development and innovation not only benefits the environment, but goes some way towards making the industry competitive. The challenge for the industry, however, is that innovation is often recognised and copied, making any competitive advantage short-lived.

I have spoken about the industry’s support for recycling. The Save a Cup scheme to collect used plastic and paper vending cups was established some years ago, and its range has now been extended to include cans and pods. In connection with the point made by David Simpson about food safety, the scheme has an online shop where people can buy trays, bins and stationery items such as pencils and rulers that have been made from the recycled material.

Although development costs are high, the packaging industry—in particular, the food service packaging industry—has looked to embrace new materials such as polylactide—PLA—and recycled polyethylene terephthalate—rPET—along with coating developments, and encourages UK companies to participate in efforts to increase local manufacturing.

We have spoken about how litter is created by individuals rather than by companies, but most companies take part enthusiastically in litter-reduction schemes. Many industry participants attended the recent parliamentary launch of the “Love Where You Live” campaign, at which Keep Britain Tidy’s ambassador, Kirstie Allsopp, acknowledged the responsibility of end users of packaging:

“Being part of Love Where You Live is a chance for the big brands to become the heroes instead of the villains in the fight against litter. Those who mindlessly chuck their fast food or cigarette packet on the floor cost our country millions and destroy the places we call home.”

Individuals create the problem but industry can help, and is doing so. In its simplest form such help can include, as part of its design, reminders to dispose of packaging responsibly, and the new “Love Where You Live” logo will start to appear on large amounts of packaging. The industry already includes information on materials used in manufacture and on how and where to recycle.

I shall draw my remarks to a close with a shopping list for the Minister of things that the industry would like the Government to consider. The first is action to stop further erosion of the UK’s manufacturing base and to ensure that packaging manufacture is not exported outside of Europe to economies that can live with a more carbon-intensive environment. The industry is keen to see greater recognition of its contribution to the UK economy, as a major UK manufacturer with £11 billion of sales and 85,000 employees, and it is keen to see support for action on ensuring a level playing field with overseas competitors, particular regarding the cost, supply and taxation of energy. It also wants there to be an understanding that carbon impact is created only by responding to consumer demand for products and that pursuing a low-carbon economy by squeezing manufacturing without addressing that consumer demand might lead to substantial UK manufacturing job losses.

The industry would like to see an acknowledgement that unilateral action by the UK Government on carbon floor pricing might end up putting the UK packaging industry and its customers at a disadvantage compared with international competitors. It also wants recognition of the progress that it has made in supporting recycling and in decoupling packaging growth from growth in gross domestic product, and it wants greater recognition of packaging’s pivotal role in protecting products and providing safe and secure supply chains for a variety of products. The industry would like acceptance that the measurement of environmental impacts must be based on sound research and scientific fact rather than on the emotive language that we occasionally hear. Finally, there is the benefit that would accrue from a little national guidance on local waste and resource management strategies.

The industry recognises that there is a need for greater dialogue between itself and the Government, and I hope that this debate will form part of that. The industry argues that it is vibrant, successful and economically important and that it makes products that safeguard the environment, conserve resources and enable modern living. It has worked hard to address many challenges and has developed into one of the most innovative industries of its type in the world. It believes that the fears about viability that we heard expressed in the all-party group for the packaging manufacturing industry might not be as serious as presented at the outset, but that it is important for the Government to recognise the challenges.

To sum up the importance of the sector, I can do no better than to quote Steve Kelsey, the founder of PI Global, a company that developed a lightweight bottle for Stella Artois and saved carbon dioxide production in manufacture and distribution:

“Packaging is the forgotten infrastructure that is as important as clean water, electricity and highways.”