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

I agree with my hon. Friend. However, we both worked in industry for some time, and the idea that a strategy could be changed based on temporary changes in exchange rates is unlikely, owing to the required amount of capital investment. Nevertheless, if there is an opportunity appropriately to design products so that it does not matter whether virgin or recycled materials are used, I am sure companies will take advantage of those short-term measures to do so.

A great deal of work is being done by some local authorities to improve their recycling facilities and collection, and I congratulate those that are doing well, but I challenge the view that recycling in densely packed urban areas is difficult, or that local authorities cannot do more to improve recycling rates. We know that they can, and that many are delivering high levels of recycling and are actively exploring what can be done to extend services, even in challenging circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby referred to energy from waste. I caution against some of what he said. In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it. The opposite is true of food—it is better to burn it than bury it. We need to be careful about what incentives we push.

I will try to come to some of the shadow Minister’s questions—if I do not cover them in my speech, I will ensure I refer to them before the end. I reassure her and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South that a lot of work has been done over the past 20 years to improve the recycling, and the recyclability, of packaging. We have largely worked through the Waste and Resources Action ProgrammeWRAP—for many years to increase the quantity and quality of materials collected for reuse and recycling, including through campaigns like Recycle Now and through implementing the Courtauld commitment.

We continue to work through WRAP to develop and deliver activities to support the use of recycled materials in new products, and to encourage activities to stimulate its demand. Its industry advisory group recently published a framework for greater consistency in recycling. The vision is that, by 2025, packaging will be designed to be recyclable where practical and environmentally beneficial, and will be clearly labelled to indicate whether it can be recycled. Actions from that framework aim to identify opportunities for rationalising packaging, and for more and steady end markets for recyclable packaging, and to help local authorities to recycle a greater variety of materials, particularly plastics.

The hon. Lady referred to what is happening with that programme. WRAP is working with a number of local authorities. My top priority in the Department is air quality and my second is tackling urban recycling. It matters that we try to encourage more of our councils. She referred to Wales, which has taken a regulatory approach in this regard, but we are not yet persuaded of that. I do not want just to apply a stick to councils, but for all of us—it does not matter which party we represent—using fewer resources in the first place and being able to recover, recycle and reuse them is the right thing for our environment. There are other incentives and we want to encourage not only businesses to play their part, but councils to make the process as easy as possible for householders.

One of the biggest things I have learned since coming to my role is how much our recycling rates are due to organic waste. Much of it is due to garden waste. People do not think that putting their garden clippings out is part of recycling, but that is how it is counted, and it is where we saw a drop last year. Nevertheless, we want to continue encouraging councils to extend the number of products they will recycle by making it as easy as possible.

It is ultimately for businesses to decide what packaging materials they use to supply products to customers, and for customers to make choices on the products they buy. I am delighted to see the recent pledges by a number of multinational businesses to significantly improve the recyclability of their packaging. As has been outlined, more than 40 companies have signed up to a global action plan to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging. The recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation analysed the problem well and will help to galvanise companies into further action on this issue.

I used to work for Mars and I am pleased that it is part of this initiative. Mr Sheerman referred to coffee capsules. The report stressed that they are part of the 30% of packaging that is challenging to tackle. Nevertheless, I hope that Nestlé, which makes some of the finest products in the world, will apply some of the finest brains to make sure that it addresses the issue. Otherwise, we need to increase consumers’ awareness that Nespresso capsules, which are marketed by the gorgeous George Clooney—I know he is a married man, Mr Bone—are not recyclable today.

Unilever gave a commitment to ensure that all plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. I commend it on that and I note its commitment to reduce packaging weight by one third by 2020. It has made a commitment to use at least 25% of recyclable plastic content in its packaging by 2025. It would be good to see even more than that.

These commitments and future products will need to be matched with the right recycling infrastructure, the right consumer buying and recycling behaviour, and the right end markets for recycled materials. We will continue to work on our policies to encourage all these things, and to encourage others to do the same. I am pleased that waste is one of the six infrastructure priorities being focused on by the National Infrastructure Commission; I know that senior waste industry figures also welcome that. It will help to inform our longer-term policies but, most importantly, we should all be striving for less waste being produced in the first place.

Most of what I have discussed refers to packaging that can be recycled and I am conscious that the petitioners also referred to compostable packaging and the use of bioplastics. While attractive on the surface, this is a considerably more complex issue. Biodegradable materials must be properly disposed of if the benefits of such technologies are to be fully realised. If biodegradable packaging is put in the domestic waste bin, it is likely to end up in landfill and break down to release methane, which is obviously not good from a carbon emissions point of view. If biodegradable packaging is mistakenly recycled with other plastics, it has the potential to damage the quality and integrity of the new products made from the recycled plastic—for example, damp-proof courses in houses.

However, biodegradable or compostable plastic that degrades fully without causing harm in the natural environment would clearly be desirable. My colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are currently seeking input to help to shape a UK bioeconomy strategy, including how standards for new materials, such as bioplastics, could be used to help promote growth and innovation in the bioeconomy.

Reference has been made to litter, which is part of the petition’s message, by speakers today. The Government are developing a litter strategy for which my noble friend Lord Gardiner is the responsible Minister. As was indicated in the House last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is personally interested in the issue of marine litter, and I am sure there will be opportunities during the development of the strategy to address such matters.

Another question raised today was the EU and environmental law. I assure Mary Glindon that our intention is to bring existing EU law into UK law on the day we leave the European Union.

On the circular economy package, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister laid out several times, while we are members of the European Union we will negotiate in good faith; I am approaching the negotiations on the eventual outcome for the circular economy in a way consistent with that. On the timing, it is likely that we will still be in the European Union, which will mean that we are required by directive to introduce it into law, but we are approaching the matter in good faith while negotiating quite hard on behalf of the United Kingdom and what we think is achievable and realistic. First, we must agree a definition of “recycling”. There are many different views.

On additional plans for recycling targets, I have laid out some of the work by WRAP, but I am conscious that, as I visit more and more councils and discuss air quality regularly, another issue is their approach to achieving their recycling targets.

Gavin Robinson referred to the coffee cup incentive. Several retailers offer an incentive for people to use reusable cups. I must be careful not to endorse one company’s products, but in my constituency a company, Frugalpac, which I have visited in my capacity as an MP, does well and there may be other sources of coffee cups for retailers. I am pleased that Frugalpac seems to have created technology to make recycling easier.

There are regulations on producer responsibility. We will be looking at that in future.

We have referred to the circular economy negotiations. The Government are absolutely committed to hit the 50% recycling target. When we leave the European Union, I genuinely believe that what the hon. Member for North Tyneside refers to as the circular economy and we call resource efficiency could be a genuinely competitive advantage for UK plc. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has referred to that. Some companies are already showing a lead. The best companies are achieving these things because it is good for the company, good for consumers and good for the environment.

We have seen a tremendous transition over the past decade from a throwaway mindset to one that focuses on extracting the value from resources more than ever before, but we must continue with this trend, finding new and innovative ways to extract even more value from our resource assets and protect the quality of our environment. Companies, consumers and the environment will benefit. That is the triple crown for which we all strive.