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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 23rd January 2017.

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Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 4:44 pm, 23rd January 2017

The packaging industry is doing that. It is highly innovative and the amount of material that goes into the average Easter egg pack has been reduced. The process, which I will talk about later, is called light- weighting: using the least amount of material necessary to keep the products safe.

Frankly, from the packaging manufacturers’ point of view, because their material is relatively expensive, there is absolutely no point in over-packaging, and no point in creating too much or in making the plastic or board out of too thick a gauge—that would add cost unnecessarily. I acknowledge, however, that over-packaging exists. There are interesting pictures of internet delivery companies that have delivered something the size and shape of a ruler, but it has been wrapped, put in a box and put in another box before being delivered. There is some crazy over-packaging, but my point is that there is no incentive to over-package because of the cost of the material. Many of the internet delivery companies look hard at their policies to ensure that they do not over-package.

My favourite example of what, on the face of it, looks like over-packaging is orange segments in a plastic container on a supermarket shelf. I remember seeing a photograph of that with a little Post-it note stuck on to say, “Wouldn’t it be really nice if nature were able to make some kind of outer skin to make the plastic packaging unnecessary?” I thought that was witty and clever, and it made a point. Another interesting point about that product is that it might be targeted at a consumer without much manual dexterity who would find it difficult to unpeel an orange and for whom it might be much more convenient to buy the pieces of orange in a plastic container. If there were no demand, that product would not be there, but it is a good example of over-packaging.

We often talk about the resource that goes into packaging without thinking much about the resource that goes into manufacturing the product contained in the packaging, and which could therefore be more efficient. INCPEN itself drew attention to the fact that packaging accounts for only 10% of the average energy resource used for food products, although some items are less efficient. Meat, for example, which is probably the least efficient method of food manufacture, could have much better figures. Nevertheless, the packaging element as a proportion of food cost is relatively small.

I hope I have set out some ways in which the industry acknowledges the existing situation and is therefore innovating and effecting change. I will now move on to the content of e-petition No. 167596, which starts with this country’s recycling record, although this country actually has a very proud one. In 2000, just a little more than 10% of all household waste was recycled; by 2016 that figure had risen to 43.9%. It is certainly true that between 2015 and 2016 the recycling rate fell away slightly, but a bit of that was because we have done the easy stuff. We have picked the low-hanging fruit, such as Coke cans and plastic milk bottles, which are being recycled, and we now have to deal with much harder things.

An example of a sector in which recovery and recycling are difficult is plastic film. When we buy our microwave meal, we have the moulded plastic container with a film on top. The film represents a relatively low proportion of the waste—about 10%—but it is not as easy to collect. The other problem with laminates, or plastic films, is that they are often contaminated with food. If we clean our waste before putting it out for recycling, it is relatively easy to clean the container—we can easily clean the food residue out of a container of, for example, lasagne, but it is difficult to get the food residue off the film. We will therefore probably find 10% of plastic material very difficult to recycle, although the e-petition assumes that we will manage to get to everything.

Mr Sheerman mentioned paper cups. A Multilaminate is difficult for the industry to recycle. It is made up of various levels of different materials—a paper cup is made up of an outer of board with a plastic lining on the inside. When we are recycling, we put paper in this bin and plastic in that bin. Where do we put the paper cup, which has a plastic lining on the inside? One of the challenges for the recycling industry is to separate those two materials before they can be recycled.

The industry takes seriously the low rate of recycling for paper cups. Therefore, in recent months the coffee companies and retailers, the cup manufacturers and the people who make the board have set up the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group. They are doing very good work in bringing that together. In fact, as I am sure the Minister will be interested to hear, one of the pieces of advice I have given them is: “You need to get your house in order. If you don’t, and you don’t demonstrate that you can do more work to get more cups recycled, lots of people in Parliament will get on their high horses and make life difficult—you will be obliged to do it. So you have got a choice: either do it through voluntary agreement, or be told to do it.”

The producers have the responsibility for recycling—that is in legislation—but they are also happy to do it. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, they accept that that is their responsibility.