Non-recyclable and Non-compostable Packaging — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:22 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:22 pm, 23rd January 2017

It has been a very interesting debate on the petition, which was created by Teja Hudson and secured more than 74,000 signatures. It was chosen for debate by the Petitions Committee, and was introduced by my hon. Friend David Mackintosh with his usual aplomb. My hon. Friend Mark Pawsey extensively shared his professional experience, which has helped to inform the debate.

Packaging is critical in allowing the sale and distribution of products in a safe, secure and hygienic manner. It allows us to be able to eat a huge range of fresh food at any time of year and to extend the shelf life of products. As we have already heard, a cucumber can now remain edible for 14 days thanks to plastic wrapping. Packaging has also become key to supporting our lifestyles, in which we enjoy products in a convenient, consumer-friendly and appropriately portioned format. It allows retailers to provide us with a choice of products, and allows us to make choices about what products are right for us based on the information on the packet, through labelling and similar.

As a result of significant change in our lifestyles, and to both our purchasing and consumption preferences, the amount and types of packaging has increased dramatically in modern times, alongside the need for responsible disposal. Technically, most packaging is recyclable. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby pointed out, the challenges are more evident for certain products than for others. Nevertheless, the essay question becomes, “Why is it that our recycling rates are not sky high?”

Businesses are encouraged to reduce waste in the first place by using appropriately sized packaging. Our regulations require businesses to ensure that packaging does not exceed what is needed to ensure that products are safe, hygienic and acceptable for both the packed product and the consumer. Those regulations apply to those responsible for the packing or filling of products into packaging, and to those importing packed or filled packaging into the UK from elsewhere.

Christmas presents and Easter eggs have been discussed extensively. While some of the packaging for Easter eggs is clearly for branding purposes, a considerable amount is functional. A hollow chocolate egg is somewhat fragile, and the packaging allows for a product to be presented to the consumer intact. Of course, many brands of egg are available, but the challenges of packaging, for example, a Dairy Milk egg are quite different from the challenges of packaging a Creme Egg, which is solid and has substance inside.

Our regulations already place a legal obligation on UK businesses that make or use packaging to ensure that a proportion of the packaging they place on the market is recovered and recycled. Each activity throughout the packaging supply chain, from the original producer to the packager to the retailers, carries a different proportion of the responsibility to reflect the potential impact that a producer may have. For example, sellers of goods have 48% of the responsibility for recycling packaging, with packers or fillers having 37%. Those regulations create an incentive for companies to use less packaging, and to ensure that their packaging can be recycled at the end of its life, because it reduces their costs of complying with the regulations. In 2014, almost £20 million of revenue from the obligations paid by businesses was used specifically to help plastics recycling. Our targets for plastic packaging recycling are set to increase by 2020, which should provide a further incentive.

Why is our recycling rate not sky high? Consumers need to be able to dispose of waste responsibly, and many do so at home, while on the move and while at work. As we have heard, plastics come in all shapes, sizes and formats. While all councils are required to offer recycling of plastic bottles, several councils inform us that it is not economically worth while for them to collect and recycle some formats, such as yoghurt pots or ready meal trays. They also inform us that local reprocessing infrastructure may be limited; that the type of reprocessing needed could create different environmental impacts that outweigh the resource efficiency benefits; and that there may be a lack of end markets for some types of recycled materials. There is also the problem of contamination, which can make the contents of an entire recycling bin unfit for recycling.