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.

Alert me about debates like this

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

In certain instances, that is the right thing to do. For example, where a coffee company serves coffee for consumption on the premises, a reusable cup that is then properly disinfected and washed is entirely the right thing to use, but not many coffee companies are happy to serve their coffee in a cup that has not been cleaned properly. If someone takes a reusable cup around with them, how does the coffee company know that that cup has been cleaned properly? What happens if a consumer, having presented a dirty cup and been provided with coffee by a coffee supplier, falls ill because the cup had not been cleaned properly? One of the great things about disposable packaging is that people use a unique, fresh product every time. It is the most hygienic way to serve coffee. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of a restaurant environment, but I will not carry a cup around with me for takeaway coffee, and if I were to present a cup to a coffee supplier, I would want to be satisfied that it had been properly and thoroughly cleaned.

The e-petition refers to packaging that goes to landfill. We need to understand why goods collected by local authorities that were intended to be recycled sometimes find their way into landfill. That is in part to do with poor communication between local authorities and waste providers. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South referred to the variation between local authorities. As waste collection is a devolved matter, we leave it to local authorities to determine the right thing to do in their area. As a Conservative, I am a great believer in devolving power down to the lowest available level. That engages people more effectively, but recycling rates vary as a consequence. In 2014-15, South Oxfordshire had a recycling rate of 67.3%, but the rate in Hammersmith and Fulham was 20.7%. That may reflect the different challenges in rural environments, where people are perhaps more likely to comply, and more gritty urban areas.

When we recycle plastic, it has to go through a sorting system, because there are various grades of plastic, and it then has to be cleaned and disinfected and put into granular form so it can be reused. One problem with the relatively low oil price is that virgin material has been less expensive than recycled material. What incentive has there been for manufacturers to use recycled material? As oil is traded in dollars, the recent fall in the value of the pound may mean that the economics change somewhat, but those economics exist. Why would a manufacturer take the risk of using recycled material, which may contain contaminants, when virgin material is available at a lower price?

The petition also refers to packaging making its way into our waterways. My hon. Friend Scott Mann, who is no longer in his place, is concerned about the marine environment. The question that we need to address is: how does that packaging get where it does? Litter is simply packaging that happens—usually after it has been used—to be in the wrong place. It should of course not be in the waterway, at the side of the road, on the footpath or on the football field. How does it get there? It gets there because of human behaviour—because as a mass of people, we do not do the right thing. I did some travelling last summer. I went to Japan, and I was astounded at how clean the city of Tokyo was, despite it having no bins. There is a culture in Japan that if someone consumes something in disposable packaging, they take that packaging home with them and put it in their household waste. This is a behavioural issue; clearly, we need to effect a change in our behaviour. That really starts at school with getting a message across to our young people.

Lots of innovative projects encourage people to reduce their litter. A social action organisation called Hubbub carried out a five-month experiment to reduce litter in Villiers Street here in London that included different types of bins. Hubbub wanted people to put drinks cartons and cans in the appropriate containers, and one of the innovative ways it got them to do that was by encouraging them to vote. It put two footballers’ names on the bins and asked, “Who’s the best footballer?” People put their rubbish in one bin or the other, thereby casting a vote for their favourite soccer player. We need more innovation like that. I know of a bin that has been used to encourage young children to put more litter in the bin. It is in the shape of an animal, it has an opening on the front and when packaging is put into its mouth, it burps. The children find that funny, so they are encouraged to use it. We must effect an attitude change. Notwithstanding what the petition says, it is not the packaging industry’s fault that packaging often ends up where it should not be. We can all agree that it ends up in the wrong place.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall mentioned the 5p levy on carrier bags. That has certainly reduced the number of carrier bags in circulation—of that there is no doubt—but Keep Scotland Beautiful recently conducted a survey and found there were more carrier bags littered on the streets than there were before the introduction of the 5p levy. Some people talk about a levy on coffee cups. I am not at all certain that that 5p levy has been particularly effective.

What are the solutions? The first is to ensure that we deal properly with packaging waste and make it easier for people to recycle. But recycling is a good thing only if it delivers a net gain. It concerns me that we often drive material around the country to recycling centres without sufficient regard for the environmental impact of those journeys. The hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to packaging as a resource. It can of course be a source of energy. Household waste is used to generate the heat that enables the cement company based in my constituency to manufacture cement. That strikes me as a much better use of the calorific value of packaging than sending it to landfill.

I have spoken about the challenges of using recyclable material, and I want to address what the petition says about compostable packaging—packaging made from material that might at some point in the future break down. Over the past 10 years, compostable packaging has been used in the food service sector by operators that believe they are doing the right thing, but compostable plastic—if I can use that term—looks exactly the same as PVC material, so how do people know which bin to put the compostable material in? If that material ends up getting into the plastic waste stream and being sent for recycling, it is effectively a contaminant. The reverse also applies: we do not want plastic to find its way into the compost stream. Clearly, there needs to be effective separation in the waste stream. Compostable material can work in closed environments such as schools and colleges, or even festival sites, but ensuring that people put used products into the right container across the board is a real challenge.

If composting is to be the solution, we need to understand the process by which the compostable material breaks down. There are those who think that a compostable bag can simply be put on a compost heap or in the compostable waste stream and it will break down in days. That is not the case. It will hang around for some time. The time taken for it to break down depends on the composition of the material and the temperature of the composter in which it is put. Some litter groups are concerned that the attitude of, “This product is compostable and will break down,” will lead to even more litter being thrown from the car window, because of users’ belief that it does not matter as it will break down and return harmlessly to nature. It does not.

The petition refers to “big business” but, as I have said, both small and large packaging companies respond to consumers’ needs and what consumers want. If we want change, we need to get the message across to them. The call for action in the petition is to “ban all non-sustainable packaging”. I do not know what the authors have in mind by that, or how it would be banned. If we do not know what it is, we cannot do that. I have already spoken about the challenges of using compostable materials.

We need to make sure that alternatives are available, and the industry has done a huge amount. I have mentioned light-weighting. There is now significantly less resource in a plastic Coca-Cola bottle made of PET; it has been reduced by 25%. The advantage is that through the weight reduction, Coca-Cola has saved $180 million over two years through the distribution chain. It has managed to reduce the weight of the glass bottle by 50%. There is no incentive for the manufacturer to put more material in the product than necessary.

The sentiments in the petition are well intentioned, and the industry is striving towards the same things, which everyone wants. I saw on a truck going around Parliament Square this morning the message, “Reduce, reuse and recycle”, and we certainly want more of that. The industry supports it and takes the issues covered by the e-petition extremely seriously.