It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bone. There may not have been many contributions to the debate, but they have all been relevant and informative. I thank the Petitions Committee for putting the debate forward and David Mackintosh for his opening remarks, including his stark comments about the future of the oceans and what our not tackling the issue will mean to future generations. We must agree that my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman is passionate and knowledgeable about every issue on which he speaks. It was good to hear his interventions challenging some of people’s conceptions about recycling. It is good to follow Mark Pawsey, who chairs the all-party group for the packaging manufacturing industry, of which I am a member. He gave us the other side of the coin, and was very positive about why we have packaging.
The petition calls for a ban on the use of all non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging, but the Government, as shown by their response, clearly do not share that view and argue that it is ultimately for businesses to decide what packaging materials to use. My party takes a different view from the Government’s. We realise that the problem is a complex issue, but believe that the Government could make more direct interventions. When the last Labour Government were in power, recycling rates quadrupled. It is worrying that the latest figures show that, across the UK, household recycling rates fell from 44.9% in 2014 to 44.3% in 2015.
As waste policy is a devolved issue, perhaps the Government could look for lessons from the Labour Administration in Wales, which is the only part of the UK to have met the EU’s 50% recycling target. In 2010, the Welsh Government committed to the principles of a circular economy in their “Towards zero waste” strategy. Since then, recycling rates in Wales have increased dramatically from 44% to almost 56%.
Regulations introduced in 2007 by the Labour Government placed a legal obligation on UK businesses to increase the amount of packaging waste that is recycled and reduce the amount that goes to landfill, but last year those regulations were substantially watered down, as the Government claimed that there was a need to reduce regulatory burdens on producer businesses. The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007 and the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003 have been important in ensuring that where businesses make or use packaging, a proportion of it can be recycled and the amount of packaging is not excessive for keeping products safe, hygienic and acceptable to the customer—something that the hon. Member for Rugby spoke about eloquently.
The regulations apply whether items are packaged in the UK or abroad, but there are plenty of examples, particularly in this age of online shopping, where it is clear that they are not adhered to. I am not a great one for shopping online, but in my limited experience of doing so, as well as shopping in stores, I have noticed how much excessive packaging there seems to be, which leads me to agree with Dr Colin Church of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, who, in recent comments on the fall in recycling figures, pointed out that perhaps the packaging recovery note compliance scheme is in need of revision.
Experts and organisations agree that the biggest problem discouraging the public from recycling is uncertainty and confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. Indeed, perhaps that is one of the reasons for the popularity of the petition, even if the public do not think its ultimate aim can be achieved. That confusion has already been discussed in the debate. I hope that different local authorities’ inconsistent approaches to what can be recycled will be addressed to some degree through the work done by WRAP, recyclers, waste management companies and local authorities on developing national recycling guidelines. Those were published last autumn. However, as with the plastics industry recycling action plan, which was launched in 2015 with the aim of co-ordinating action across the supply chain to improve recycling rates, it relies on a voluntary approach. It is not clear whether those initiatives will deliver the necessary improvements within the timescales required under the regulations. WRAP will keep the guidelines under review, but it would be helpful if the Minister commented on the progress of those initiatives.
Although 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions made at the design stage, there is little incentive for businesses to take environmental issues into account at that stage. That must change and a number of proactive steps could be taken to encourage businesses to make more efficient use of resources in designing new products. For example, to help make eco-friendly products more appealing, the Government could set variable rates of VAT based on recycled content.
Much more action is surely needed if the Government and EU target to increase the rate of plastic packaging recycling to 57% by the end of 2017 is to be considered realistic. As has been mentioned, a new global action plan announced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was launched at the World Economic Forum last week. It has been endorsed by industry leaders and aims to increase the global reusing and recycling of plastic packaging from 14% today to 70%. That and other initiatives are a welcome step forward. Given the involvement of companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Mars and the People’s Postcode Lottery, I sincerely hope that the work done under the global plan will have a great influence in the UK.
The impact of Brexit on much of the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is still not clear. The most immediate questions relate to the EU’s circular economy package, which will include updates to key directives on waste disposal and packaging. Some of the details of those changes are still to be negotiated, and once finalised, will need to be implemented at national level. While the Government have said that existing EU law will be carried over by the great repeal Bill, it is not clear what will happen to EU laws that have been passed but not yet implemented in UK law at the time of our leaving. Will the Minister give a specific answer on whether the circular economy package will be implemented before we leave the EU? Will she tell us how we will enforce those laws outside the current EU framework? Will she also say what additional plans the Government have beyond the circular economy package to bring the UK closer to those ambitious recycling targets?
Embracing the circular economy is something we should all agree on. We need to see more action from Ministers if they are genuine about recycling across the UK and if they take seriously the views of the people of the UK, as expressed in the petition.