Plastic-free Packaging (Fruit and Vegetables) — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 12th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 4:30 pm, 12th November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 222715 relating to plastic-free packaging for fruit and vegetables.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. It is an honour to open this debate on an important matter, in which I have taken a great deal of interest during my time in this House, particularly as chairman of the protect our waves all-party parliamentary group. I thank the petitioner Edmund Pendrous and the more than 120,000 people who signed this e-petition. The e-petition states:

“In response to the problem of an ever-increasing amount of plastic waste polluting our environment, we need to make supermarkets offer an option of no packaging or eco-friendly packaging for each item of fresh fruit and vegetables they sell.”

There is no doubt that plastic pollution is one of the biggest global environmental challenges of our time. As I am sure we are all aware, in recent times the issue has attracted a great deal of public awareness and increased concern about the damage we are doing to our environment through the amount of plastic waste that we are creating.

It is little wonder that plastic has become so popular: it is lightweight, versatile, moisture-resistant, durable and cheap to produce. Those benefits mean that Britain is not alone in developing a strong appetite for plastic goods. Annual global plastic production has soared in the past 60 years. In 1950, the world’s population produced about 1.5 million tonnes of plastic; by 2016, global production of plastic had risen to 335 million tonnes, with 60 million tonnes produced in Europe alone. The rapid rise in production and subsequent disposal of plastics have brought devastating consequences to all aspects of the environment, particularly to our marine life.

The majority of single-use plastics, which include non-recyclable and non-biodegradable plastic packaging found in shops and supermarkets, are disposed of within minutes of being used. Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. Every piece of plastic can take decades or longer to degrade, and will simply break down into smaller and smaller particles. We then find plastic entering the ecosystem, where it has the potential to kill seabirds, fish and animals through ingestion, releasing harmful toxins as the plastic breaks up. Larger pieces of plastic can be a threat to the life of marine mammals and seabirds. It is estimated that there are now around 5 trillion macro and micro plastic pieces floating in our ocean, with a weight of over 250,000 tonnes.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is making excellent points about this excellent e-petition. Does he agree that any responsible Government would not export any used plastic for recycling? There is credible evidence that even when plastic is certificated in other countries as having been properly disposed of, it actually ends up in rivers and oceans. We should stop such exports.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which is directly related to the subject. As a country, we must ensure that when our residents do the responsible thing and recycle their plastic items, we do all we can to ensure that those items are actually recycled. There are disturbing reports that that may not always be happening. I believe that we—the country and the Government—have a responsibility to do all we can to ensure that it is.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech about this important subject and great e-petition. Does he accept that one problem is what and how we manufacture? Organisations such as the Institute for Manufacturing in Cambridge believe that we have to totally redesign the way we make all packaging to make it safer for the environment and human beings’ health.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

That is indeed a huge challenge, which needs to be addressed from all angles. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are great challenges, particularly for developed countries, to reduce the amount of plastic that is produced and in circulation. We also need to ensure that we dispose responsibly of any plastic that is produced and ensure that it is not contributing to the environmental pollution that we have seen for far too long. That challenge has to be addressed from a number of different angles; I do not think there will ever be one simple solution.

The amount of plastic entering our seas is now a matter of huge concern for many people. As is well documented, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. That is of concern not only because of the damage it is doing to the marine environment, but because that pollution is being ingested by humans as we eat the fish from the sea. We should really take the issue seriously and seek to address it.

It is right to acknowledge the steps the Government have already taken in reducing the amount of plastic pollution. It is well documented that the 5p plastic bag charge, introduced by the previous Conservative-led Government, has dramatically reduced the amount of plastic bags in use: by 83%. About 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used since the introduction of that simple 5p charge. The Government have brought forward a comprehensive 25-year plan for the environment, including measures to look at reducing plastic waste and disposing of waste more responsibly. That should be welcomed. I want to join the many environmental groups that are calling for an introduction of plastic-free aisles and products in our supermarkets.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Does my hon. Friend think that we are spending enough money on research to develop the products that will still have plastic’s advantage of retaining water, but which are not plastic and are biodegradable?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I guess the only answer to that question is no. We could always spend more on research, to reduce the amount of damage we are doing to our environment. I know there are a number of innovations coming forward in other forms of packaging that can provide the benefits of plastic without the damage to the environment. We should do all we can—I encourage the Government to consider anything they can do—to support and invest in those measures, to ensure that we are seeking not just to cut back on plastic, but to come forward with other answers to packaging that provide the benefits of plastic, but do not damage our environment.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman is making such a good speech and responding well to interventions, so I thank him. A great friend of mine, Barry Van Danzig, the CEO of the Wastepack Group Limited, believes that the only way we can get past this problem is to make waste valuable. As soon as that happens, somebody will collect it. Money—the cash that it is worth—is at the heart of what we are all trying to achieve.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for another good intervention. I largely agree that recycling needs to become commercially viable: something that businesses invest in because they can make money from it. There are ways in which we can encourage that to happen—and we should, to get to the point where we do not send our plastic elsewhere to be recycled because its being recycled here has a value for our economy, as Graham Stringer said. Clearly, we would all love that to happen.

I also acknowledge the recent Budget announcement of a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic products that do not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. That is another important message from the Government, and it shows that they are taking the issue seriously and seeking to introduce solutions.

I turn to the specific issue of plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. The petition rightly points out that it can be incredibly difficult for consumers to avoid purchasing items packaged in plastic, especially in the fruit and vegetable aisle. It is all too common for people to accept the fact that all our fruit and veg is wrapped in plastic, but several hon. Members present will admit to being old enough to remember when that was not the case. That our fruit and veg comes in a plastic wrapper is a relatively modern development, which we have accepted. It is right to challenge that now. We do not have to accept that norm: there could be alternative ways to reduce the amount of plastic used to package our food.

We have to strike the right balance, however. We do not want our desire to decrease plastic packaging to create another problem by increasing the amount of food waste produced. That is where innovation and other types of packaging that can protect and preserve our food should be encouraged and would be hugely welcomed. We need to acknowledge plastic’s benefits in preserving food, extending its shelf life and keeping it clean for consumption, while being aware of the damage it causes.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on food waste. I acknowledge that some packaging helps to preserve food’s shelf life, but in many cases it is unnecessary. It has been brought to my attention that in supermarkets it is often cheaper to buy the packaged-up produce, because it is on special offer, so buying a couple of avocados in a package might be cheaper than buying them loose. It seems ludicrous, but if people have to pay extra for loose produce, I understand why they feel inclined to buy the packaged produce, even if they are trying to avoid plastic waste. Do supermarkets not have a role to play in changing that?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

The hon. Lady makes a good point. The amount of fresh-food plastic packaging that is created contributes hugely to the amount of plastic waste that we as a country produce. It is estimated that about 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste are produced by supermarkets selling food in plastic packaging to households.

I am sure that we all have a favourite fresh-food item that is packaged in unnecessary plastic. I will not steal the thunder of other hon. Members who will comment on theirs, but mine is the cauliflower. When I go to buy a cauliflower from my local supermarket, I am astounded that it is in a plastic wrapper that does not even completely wrap it, so it cannot be argued that it is keeping it fresh. I am pretty sure that it is there simply for the supermarket’s convenience, so it can put a barcode on the wrapper. There are many examples where plastic is used not to keep the product fresh but for the supermarket’s convenience in transport and display. In those cases, a lot more could be done to reduce the amount of plastic packaging.

Another important factor is the change in British shopping habits. A few years ago, most of us would go to the supermarket once or perhaps twice a week and buy enough for several days, but according to many reports, two thirds of UK shoppers now visit the supermarket at least once a day. Many people shop daily, on their way home from work, to buy food for their meal that evening. Buying food that will stay in the house for several days and has to be kept fresh is no longer necessarily the key driver that it used to be for British supermarket shoppers.

I am greatly encouraged by the awareness and understanding of this issue among our young people. I often visit the local schools in my constituency and I am always pleasantly surprised by young pupils’ understanding of the issue of plastic waste, and the need to be responsible and to reduce the amount of it. That came through in the work that the House of Commons outreach and engagement team carried out in the lead-up to the debate. The team sought to engage with the public, particularly young people, to seek their views, and of the 1,000 students from 19 different schools that it contacted, 76% agreed that supermarkets should offer plastic-free options for fresh produce, and about half said that reducing plastic packaging was one of the biggest ways that we could reduce the amount of plastic waste. I thank all the students and schools who engaged in that process and helped us to gather those views. We appreciate their input.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Parliament has conducted an excellent education process. I visit schools to talk about the subject too, but it is complex. For children and adults, looking at what comes into the house and goes out through the kitchen is difficult. They have to look so carefully at what is recyclable and what is not. Companies such as Tetra Pak, the global company from Sweden, have made it even more difficult. Clarity about what can be recycled is surely at the heart of education.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that complexity is part of the challenge. Supermarkets can help by ensuring that as much as possible of the plastic packaging they use is recyclable, and that if it is not, it is clearly labelled accordingly. That would help households and consumers to make informed decisions. Consumers are key to the process. The Government can perhaps do more to reduce plastic waste from food packaging, but ultimately consumers will drive change by making informed choices and by making the responsible choice—whenever they are given a choice—of the option with the least amount of packaging, and of plastic-free packaging if possible.

Many supermarkets have sought to take action. I believe that much of that has been driven by consumer choice and by consumers’ desire to reduce the amount of plastic packaging, and we should welcome that. In September, Lidl announced that it would cease to use black plastic packaging on fruit and vegetable products by the end of that month. As we know, recycling black plastic is challenging. Morrisons, the fourth-largest UK supermarket chain, announced in April that it will bring back traditional brown paper bags for its fruit and veg aisle as part of a range of measures to cut plastic waste. I am sure many of us read the reports over the weekend that a north London supermarket is the first independent supermarket in the country to introduce plastic-free aisles, and is now calling on others to follow its lead. There are signs that retailers are starting to get the message that consumers want less plastic waste from their food packaging. I encourage all consumers who feel strongly about this matter to continue to drive home that message.

I believe that there is a role for the Government, but most of the change will come from the consumer. The introduction of the 5p charge for plastic bags shows that the Government can nudge people to make the right choices. We can use a combination of carrot and stick to drive good behaviour from retailers, with the threat of taxation if steps are not taken, but there are other measures that could be used. One idea I would like to explore is a reduction in business rates if retailers commit to reduce the amount of plastic in their packaging. That is just one way of encouraging the right behaviour from retailers.

We in Parliament clearly have an important role to play in setting an example. We have started to do that by taking steps towards a plastic-free Parliament and reducing the amount of single-use plastic in this place. It is important that parliamentarians continue to set an example and take a lead for the rest of the country to follow.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

The hon. Gentleman and I are both involved in the protect our waves all-party parliamentary group, which deals with ocean conservation, so he knows that Surfers Against Sewage did brilliant work in pushing for a plastic-free Parliament. The sauce sachets have disappeared, and that is partly down to Surfers Against Sewage. I have got my plastic-free Parliament water bottle, which it provided. I think it will be giving them to all MPs. If hon. Members have not got one yet, they should try to get hold of one—they are free. Advert over.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She has stolen my point. I was going to praise Surfers Against Sewage, with which we both work very closely, for the significant role it has played not only in advancing a plastic-free Parliament, but in mobilising people across the country. It clears up plastic in our seas and on our beaches, raises public awareness and provides education in schools to drive home the message that we cannot continue to use and dispose of plastic as we have done in recent decades. I join the hon. Lady in congratulating Surfers Against Sewage for its excellent work.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. May I make the blindingly obvious point that we could immediately get rid of disposable plastic cups? It is a slight embarrassment in a debate like this that most of us are drinking out of them.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I think the one that the hon. Gentleman is holding up is biodegradable. There has been a commitment to use up the current stock of single-use plastic items and replace them with biodegradable ones. That is part of the single-use, plastic-free measures.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Order. Plastic is not being used to wrap fruit and vegetables at the moment.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I take the point, Mr Hanson.

We must get the message across to retailers—particularly food retailers—that there is growing demand among the public to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging our food, and particularly the plastic that is used unnecessarily to wrap our fresh fruit and vegetables. Parliament should continue to set an example, but I encourage the Government to take more action. I look forward to the Minister’s comments about the measures the Government can take to encourage responsible behaviour and reduce plastic packaging and plastic waste, which damages our environment.

I am happy to have introduced this debate. I am sure there will be some interesting contributions. There is a clear message from the public, and we must take notice of it.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 4:56 pm, 12th November 2018

I thank Steve Double for his speech. He expressed many of the sentiments that I was hoping to express, but there is always repetition in debates. I am glad we all agree that we need to reduce the amount of plastic used in supermarkets.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the world has manufactured more plastic in the past decade than in the whole of the previous century. That is a startling fact. In 2015 alone, 292 million tonnes of plastic was produced, and that figure is expected to double by 2025. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes ends up in our oceans each year. Even more startlingly, that figure is expected to triple.

As the hon. Gentleman said, plastic never degrades completely, and it becomes part of our water supply. The UK’s tap water is now 72% contaminated with plastics. The public are more aware than ever of the problem, which is why this petition is so important. People are rightly demanding action.

Some 82% of people in the UK are worried about the impact of plastic pollution in our oceans. My constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn share those concerns and relate them to me daily. They do not want future generations to grow up in a world in which there is more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Last week, I was proud to hear that Belsize Budgens in my constituency has shown serious leadership and announced dramatic cuts to its plastic packaging, at no extra cost to its consumers. I hope other supermarkets around the country will follow suit. I am pleased that the two borough councils in my constituency take recycling, which is obviously linked to the amount of plastic we use, very seriously. Camden Council has committed to boosting its recycling rates to 40% by 2020, and its recycling reward scheme, run in partnership with Local Green Points, has been shortlisted for two national recycling awards. Brent Council, which is also in my constituency, recycles 36% of its waste and is in the top half of London boroughs for recycling.

We should applaud that good news, but recycling is only part of the solution, as several hon. Members said.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that recycling is only part of what we should do. We all recycle in our own homes. In my house, recycling has overtaken the disposable stuff in the black bin—the blue bin has overtaken the black bin. Does she agree that one thing that has happened is that we have started to educate children at a very early age—at primary school and secondary school—and they take that back home to their parents? If we have an education programme, we have a good chance of changing the thoughts of everyone in the country through our children.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will mention schoolchildren later in my speech. It is important that we educate children and put recycling into the education system—I grew up not learning anything about recycling—so I will call on the Minister to do that.

Plastic can be recycled only a finite number of times. Recycling stems the tide of plastic waste going into landfills and oceans, but it will not completely stop it. We must acknowledge that recycling is expensive. Our cash-strapped local authorities spend £700 million a year collecting and treating packaging. Much plastic waste, including the film that is often used for fruit and vegetables, which the e-petition alludes to, is not currently recyclable.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned checking cauliflower packaging. I always check avocado packaging before I throw it in the bin, and it says it is not recyclable. We buy things that tend to be cheaper or say they last longer because they are in packaging, but when we go to do our bit to try to save the environment by recycling that packaging, it turns out that we cannot. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy mentioned that in supermarkets across the country, fruit and veg sold without packaging tend to be more expensive than packaged fruit and veg. I have certainly found that. That seems to be a contradiction, which should be looked at.

Some people suggest that rather than cutting down our plastic use, we should change the plastic we use. Bioplastics such as polylactic acid have been touted as a solution. They are made from maize, sugar cane, wheat and other crops, and are said to be compostable. However, such forms of plastic are not the magical solution that they appear to be. For a start, they can be composted only at specialist centres—importantly, they are not compostable for the vast majority of people—so it is not easy to ensure that we put them in the right place, and they take between 100 and 1,000 years to biodegrade in landfill. I think it is safe to say that if we go down the route of using those different kinds of plastic, none of us will be around to see them biodegrade.

Every time such alternative solutions are offered, we should think clearly about their implications. Crops such as corn require huge amounts of land, risking deforestation. That threatens our environment, our wildlife and our planet, which is already under threat. Technologies are developing and more environmentally friendly solutions are appearing all the time. Seaweed-based and even edible plastics may offer a better solution, but they may not be available for some time. On a planet with finite resources, we should be wary of replacing over-consumption of one kind of plastic with another.

The difficulties with those alternatives suggest that the real solution is dramatically to cut down our use of plastic, as the petitioners demand. As elected representatives, whichever fruit or vegetable we prefer—cauliflower or avocado—we need to support people to lead plastic-free lives and encourage future generations to realise the impact of plastic on the environment, wildlife and our planet.

With that in mind, will the Minister commit to increasing funding for plastics innovation? Will she work with local councils to improve recycling rates across the country, and with supermarkets to provide incentives for plastic-free packaging for fruit and vegetables? Will she commit to teaching children about the effects of using plastic and promoting a plastic-free life? Finally, can she give any update on the Prime Minister’s pledge in January to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042? Does the Minister agree that that deadline is wholly inadequate?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 5:03 pm, 12th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. My hon. Friend Steve Double and Tulip Siddiq set out clearly the environmental aspects of the issue. I will not repeat what they said, but I acknowledge the enormous impact that plastic has on our environment.

We had a bit of a tour of people’s favourite fruit and vegetables—my hon. Friend mentioned the cauliflower and the hon. Lady mentioned the avocado. Let me add the cucumber to the list. My biggest bugbear with the cucumber is the plastic it is wrapped in. I do not know where my hon. Friend got his figure that most plastic lasts only minutes. It takes me minutes to get the plastic off the cucumber, let alone to dispose of it. I often end up having to extract bits of plastic from the salad I make with the cucumber because I was not able to get it all off.

The difficulty is that plastic plays an important part in the life of the cucumber. Without plastic the cucumber would probably last for a maximum of three days—that is the time it would take the water in it to evaporate—whereas with plastic it can last up to 14 days. I repeat what I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend: we need much more research and innovation to replace the sorts of plastics we currently use with new forms of covering that keep some of the characteristics of those plastics.

That leads to a number of other questions, including about the quantity of food we buy and the fact that there is little seasonality in the market. We can go out and buy anything the whole year round.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I know that the hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about this subject. I beg everyone involved in this area to think holistically. We all know that we can get any fruit or vegetable at any time of the year, but it will probably have been flown 500 or 3,000 miles to get to our kitchen. I feel sympathy for him. I would hesitate to accept an invitation to eat a salad at his house. If he popped into a local farmers’ market, he might find something a lot fresher with no plastic.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I was going to invite him to dinner, but since that would be refused—

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

As long as it’s not salad, I’ll come.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

That is fine.

The hon. Gentleman is right that by popping into a farmers’ market one can get a cucumber raw, as it were. Like anyone else, I like to eat the things I like the whole year round, but I take the point that the economics of delivering them may mean they have been flown 3,000 or 5,000 miles. I question whether those economics are sound and sustainable in the long term. If that means I have to cut down on certain foods, I shall probably be none the poorer in health terms.

Turning for a moment from the cucumber to other fruit and veg, I notice that there has already been quite a development in fruit packaging, even in supermarkets. I think innovations have already been made in packaging for fruit, a lot of which is recyclable. Berries are a good example of that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Most of us in the Chamber—there are a few exceptions—are probably of a vintage that means we can remember when everything was put in paper bags. Mr Sheerman is right—there is a fruit and veg store on every high street and a farmers’ market in every town, so there are still lots of opportunities in that respect. Does John Howell agree that we should look at what more we can do with recycled newspapers, for instance? The resulting paper product may well be the answer. We can look at changing how people shop, but there may also be ways of changing packaging.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The way we look at this issue is important. My district council always does very well on recycling, but it needs to look at non-recyclable elements such as plastic, which represent its biggest cost.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman touches on a very interesting area. Does he know that the evaluation we have done in the all-party parliamentary sustainable resource group looks at the quality of local authorities’ management of waste management? I beg him to consider what has happened in Oxford. The whole place has been transformed by good management and the city now makes money out of recycling rather than its being a cost to the local ratepayer.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. It is no problem at all for me to look at Oxford City; it is the next district council to mine. Both councils have very good recycling. I shall certainly look at that and see how it gets on.

I recently returned from a visit to Israel, and there were enormous markets everywhere with enormous quantities of fresh food and vegetables. People took along bags, ordered what they wanted—if they knew the seller very well, even feeling the product first—and simply put it in their bags. There was no packaging whatsoever. I do not yet claim to be so old as to remember some things, but I remember when that was the normal way of purchasing fruit and vegetables in my area. There is something about that that we should go back to.

When we go to markets overseas, there is an instant smell—almost as soon as we get off the plane—that is characteristic of that country and which comes, to a large extent, from the raw fruit and vegetables and the herbs and spices that are produced there. They are not wrapped up and placed where they cannot be smelt. Smell is an important part of the debate, because if we cannot smell a product, how do we know whether it is fresh or ripe? The colour is perhaps an indication, but I have always gone by smell and touch. Those two things are two very important things, and it is insane, therefore, that we use so much packaging, for the environmental reasons but also because of our experience of and relationship with food.

A number of options are available, one of which is to buy smaller portions. We do not need to buy eight tomatoes if we are perhaps going to use only four. I also like the idea of the boxes of vegetables that are produced. I know that they are relatively expensive, but the vegetables come unwrapped. They are all the better for that, and you can get a good feel for them.

I know that plastic has a role in keeping food fresh and keeping dirty hands off it, but it would still be nice occasionally to see vegetables with the soil attached, before taking them home to wash and cook them. Plastic keeps sweat away from the vegetables and prevents contamination, but there must be other ways of doing that, using technology to overcome the problem.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very important point. Housewives want to see nice, clean products, with no soil or other materials in the bag. I cast my mind back to when we were all young at home and my mum would get 10 half-hundredweight bags of potatoes—there was a big family of us. They came in October and sat in the coldness of the shed until the following March—the whole winter—when they were finished. How is it that that could happen in those days, but today we cannot even keep a potato for a week?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The hon. Gentleman asks a very valid question. Research done in schools showed that no one quite knew where vegetables came from. No one had ever seen vegetables with soil on, so no one knew that they came from the ground. Everyone thought that vegetables always came from the shop, and no one had a clue about where they came from before that. That is terrible, in terms of our relationship with food. I like to think of myself as a great foodie, and I like to have a relationship with food. Jim Shannon smiles and nods at me. He is very welcome to come and dine with me; I promise there will be no salad.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay made the point that consumer must take the lead. After the initial flurry of interest that got consumers thinking, there is great fear that consumer interest may have peaked. We must ensure that that peak remains high and that interest in what is right continues. I am sure that many things can be done. Education and the role of children are vital in maintaining that interest, but we can all do a lot to set a good example. I was pleased to see the royal family taking a lead in banning single-use plastic from the palaces.

That is probably as much as I wanted to say in this excellent debate. I will certainly do all I can to encourage people not to use plastic, and I hope that my problems with the cucumber will be well and truly solved in the near future.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 5:17 pm, 12th November 2018

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate Steve Double on securing this extremely topical and very important debate. I admire his consistency on issues of environmental pollution and its effects on our everyday lives. His involvement with Surfers Against Sewage and many other organisations is to be commended.

The petition asks for supermarkets—we have not yet touched on the huge problem of commercial catering supplies—to offer customers an eco-friendly option of no packaging: a gesture of libertarian paternalism is required from major retailers, to offer their customers the choice of buying fruit and vegetables with or without plastic wrapping. Plastic-free aisles are a great nudge to focus all our minds on a waste and pollution-free environment. The petition has received nearly 125,000 signatures, and the number is growing, which shows that a great many people are very concerned about the issue.

There are several recycling initiatives out there, looking at how to recycle different products. That is always good to observe and hear about. For example, some companies are making efforts to solve their own packaging problems. Recently, the huge brand name of Kellogg’s announced a scheme whereby Pringles tubes can be posted to TerraCycle using freepost labels. Additionally, Colgate and TerraCycle have announced the launch of a Colgate oral care recycling programme, which is an interesting development. At face value, they seem to be good initiatives, but then confusion enters the dialogue.

Confusion comes by way of Simon Ellin, the chief executive officer of The Recycling Association, who has described the schemes as a fudge that does not solve the issues. The statements and initiatives are confusing and contradictory, and they beg the question of whether the organisations are unable to have difficult conversations with each other. Do the Government have to initiate or host talks between these important corporations and organisations to resolve the aforementioned issues? I look forward to the Minister telling us whether she hosts any conversations between those organisations.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He has highlighted some of the difficulties with recycling, which I think we understand, but does he agree that, for those reasons, focusing on reducing the amount of plastic used in the first place is better than trying to recycle what is used?

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will come to that point later.

Plastic food packaging that is not recycled is costing Scotland an estimated £11 million annually. That needs to change, and the Scottish Government are taking appropriate measures to address that problem. I congratulate the Westminster Government on following the example of the devolved Governments by, for example, introducing a plastic bag charge. Wales introduced a charge in 2011, and over the first year that the ban was in place, it achieved a 71% reduction in the number of bags used. Northern Ireland achieved a two-thirds reduction in bag use over the first year. Scotland achieved an 80% reduction in bag use in 2014, and after England introduced its 5p bag scheme, it achieved an 80% reduction in the first six months. Those are all good strides forward, and the absence of blue bags on our streets is probably the most visible achievement. We do not see those bags anymore.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, faced with the dreadful dilemma of global warming, a plastic bag charge is a small part of what we can do? We are in the foothills. Should we not raise our game and look at the environment in the holistic sense? At least we should have a Government who see the damage. The hon. Gentleman knows, as I do, that we in this country were still burying our waste in holes in the ground until we became members of the European Union, which made us stop. As we come out of the European Union, we are going to be dragged back into the dark ages.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes good points. I assure him that we on the Environmental Audit Committee were warned about becoming the dirty man of Europe once again, and I hope that we will be given a reassurance today that we will not go down that path. I share the hon. Gentleman’s anxieties. We are at a pivotal moment when we can change these things, and the world is with us—probably through the work of the great Mr Attenborough, who has beautifully highlighted all the problems. I ask the Minister to reassure us that all retailers, rather than just a select few, will be charged accordingly, as happens in all the other home nations.

In 2017, the Scottish Government launched an initiative to develop a fit-for-purpose deposit return scheme to tackle everyday waste problems, such as single-use plastic and single-use items that are disposed of. I praise the UK Government for attending the summit in London in July this year, organised by the Scottish Government, to discuss how the home nations can co-operate to develop deposit return schemes that are fit for purpose, and nudge everyone into better habits when disposing of plastic and single-use items.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

I apologise for arriving late to the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the deposit return scheme involves substantial investment in reverse vending machines, costing upwards of £10,000, £15,000 or even £20,000, and that we would be better off spending that money on improving our recycling infrastructure to get more products recycled, which is what we all want?

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and there are two sides to the argument. We have to start somewhere—that is a certainty—and the way we are recycling at the moment is not the best way, which is a point that I hope to touch on later. I know that deposit retail schemes involve some complicated systems, but there may be ways to make them commercially viable that would get more people involved.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment)

Exactly—why not do both? We would like to hear how those schemes can be developed, and that will have to happen across all the home nations and probably across the whole world.

We are all aware that there is a problem with how we dispose of, for example, plastic cotton buds. Those have been banned for years in America, but we are still using them here, which is unacceptable. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention, I know those buds are a constant problem: they are used in schools and colleges, they go down waste pipes and plug holes, and they cost a fortune. They cause problems, including for insurance companies, so at the end of the day we all have to pay for them. Those problems are totally avoidable. We do not need those buds, and action has to be taken. In Scotland, we are trying to ban the manufacture of plastic stem cotton buds. We announced our plans in January this year, and the UK Government followed in October. I believe that Wales is behind in this area, which is surprising: it has been leading on a lot of these policies, but it is behind the curve in this area.

I have visited supermarkets and other retailers in my constituency of Falkirk. They all recognise the need to reduce the quantity of plastic used in packaging for the sake of sustainability, and without a doubt customers also feel a desire to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they buy. Although that is a challenge, it could ultimately be a win-win situation for retailers: they could improve sustainability and cut packaging costs.

Those retailers are tackling that problem in creative ways, which is extremely encouraging. For example, they are seeking to eliminate the use of black plastic, so the plastic they do use can be easily sorted and recycled. Familiar items such as milk bottles and plastic trays are being redesigned to make them lighter, increase the use of recycled plastic in their manufacture, and eliminate the use of unnecessary and unrecyclable items.

However, I visited Dobbies in Perth last week—I was at a funeral in that city, and went for a cup of coffee with my wife—and there was an advert on a screen about how to use plastic when building up Christmas decorations. I thought, “How on earth can they be doing that in this day and age?” That should not have been on the screen at all.

Falkirk Council is phasing out single-use plastics in its offices and introducing initiatives to help communities recycle. TerraCycle, a UK-wide company, is helping communities arrange convenient pick-up points for recycling. Through Keep Scotland Beautiful and Zero Waste Scotland, the Scottish Government have funded initiatives such as Revive Falkirk, teaching people what they can do to reduce food waste and make low-carbon dietary and life choices as well as the skills they need to upcycle or repurpose discarded goods.

Small, often family-run companies such as Forth Valley Recycling & Packaging and Nathans Wastesavers in my home town of Denny are establishing themselves at the forefront of this new economic sector. The many ethical companies across Scotland and the UK need certainty that standards will be maintained and aligned post-Brexit. Will the Minister comment on whether the new policies that are coming forward will be aligned to those standards?

Plastic packaging is only part of the story. Making a concerted effort to effectively tackle this problem requires addressing issues such as fly-tipping and lack of public waste infrastructure—what we on the Environmental Audit Committee have called “binfrastructure”. It surely cannot be beyond the wit of manufacturers and local authorities across the UK to harmonise colour-coded bins to match colour-coded products. Why can we not have a green label to match a green bin, an amber label to match an amber bin, and a red label to match a red bin, as Mr Sheerman touched on earlier? It is so confusing; nobody seems to know what to do when they get all their material together. We need to prevent waste going into our bins unnecessarily.

Last year, environmental prosecutions in England were at a record low. Responsibility for that was laid at the feet of local authorities in England, while simultaneously, those authorities’ funding was being slashed. That is short-termism at its absolute worst. The UK could learn a lot from Scotland’s collaborative approach, bringing together enforcing agencies and other stakeholders to tackle fly-tipping. The Scottish Government set up a national Environmental Crime Taskforce in 2013, which co-ordinates the efforts of local authorities, regulators, police and other stakeholders in tackling environmental crime, including waste crime. There are tools, and there is guidance to support them. For example, Zero Waste Scotland has created the FlyMapper tool for local authorities and land managers, which lets stakeholders report and map fly-tipping, identifying growing “grot spots” in real time.

Those are all good initiatives, but the petition to stop waste and plastic misuse gives a better option for the consumer by highlighting the need to prevent the problem from happening in the first place by going to the source: the manufacturing stage. I love that the petition acknowledges that change is required and suggests that supermarkets be put under scrutiny to ensure they are taking their corporate responsibilities seriously. That would be welcome.

To finish, I want to offer something personal. In my family, we like dirty carrots. My mother is 97, and when I go out she wants dirty carrots brought back. She does not want anything wrapped in plastic. We try to do exactly the same: we use locally grown produce, particularly from farm shops, markets and our local independent greengrocers. It is good practice. We know it cuts down on emissions and helps the local economy thrive. I am all for enabling local, independent greengrocers to thrive.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich 5:30 pm, 12th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate Steve Double on leading an excellent debate and bringing it to the Chamber today. As he says, pollution from plastics is one of the biggest global pollution issues of our time. Although Britain is not alone in producing and using plastics, I believe that this country can and should be a beacon of good practice. What we in the developed world do will have real influence on what happens in the rest of the world.

The hon. Gentleman took an intervention from my hon. Friend Graham Stringer on having proper checks on our plastics exports, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment in respect of alternatives for packaging and reductions in the amount of packaging. In particular, I welcome his support for the points that my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman and Jim Shannon made on education and simplifying packaging, so that we can maximise recycling.

I also welcome the speech made by my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq. We are all well aware of the news that has come out about plastic contamination of tap water. Alongside our worries about the natural world, public health worries are at the forefront of public concern about plastic pollution. It is leading to a real public move towards doing something about the scourge. I reiterate what my hon. Friend said about Camden Council’s recycling rewards scheme. Will the Government investigate using national financial incentives to roll out best practice across local authorities? Whatever we do about recycling and waste minimisation, it has to be done with central Government working in conjunction with local authorities. Whatever we do musts be founded on knowledge and a scientific appreciation of what happens to different types of plastic. We need the Government to take a lead on that.

John Howell mentioned cucumbers. I must admit that at first I assumed that he was saying that cucumbers do not need to be wrapped at all. I have a greengrocer just across the road from me in my constituency; none of its cucumbers are wrapped, and I have never seen a rotten cucumber there. The hon. Gentleman may well be right that cucumbers last a bit longer when they are wrapped up, but plenty of fruit and vegetables do not last longer wrapped. I have always thought that bananas come in the perfect natural wrapping and really do not need additional wrapping, and I suspect that in many other cases wrapping contributes nothing to the fruit or vegetable’s keeping.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

In fact, cucumbers are probably an example of the most effective use of polythene wrap. It is a tiny amount of packaging, but it can prolong the life of a cucumber by up to 10 days. The hon. Gentleman says that he has not seen cucumbers in plastic wrapping, but he will almost certainly have seen significant amounts of food waste where fruit and vegetables that are not appropriately wrapped are allowed to rot.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I said that I had not seen cucumbers wrapped in plastic at my local greengrocer; obviously in supermarkets they are. My suspicion is that that is because the cucumbers in my local greengrocer never stay there for more than a day, as he only gets in as many as he is going to sell.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

If the hon. Gentleman has ever seen bananas growing in plantations, he will have seen that the fruit is wrapped in blue plastic bags to keep animals and insects away from it. Its natural state is not always enough.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I have actually seen bananas growing in their natural habitat; not only that, but I helped plant them out, maintained irrigation systems and chopped the plants down at the end of the year when they were finished and the new sprouting plant needed to grow up. I have eaten bananas fresh off the plant, as well. That was in the 1970s, and I have to say that the bananas were not wrapped up in blue plastic and did not seem to suffer much as a result. I very much agree, however, that we need more research into what does and does not work and how we can ensure that best practice is used to reduce waste, not only of plastic but of the thing being wrapped.

The world faces a pollution crisis from plastics. Some 400 million tonnes of plastic will be produced this year; as we have heard, it is estimated that 12 million tonnes of that will end up in the ocean, and the problem continues to grow. Pollution is not the only problem; the use of plastics contributes to climate change, as most plastics are made from fossil fuels. Approximately 6% of global oil production is used for making plastics, and that figure will grow. The Chinese plan to increase their use of coal as the main feedstock for plastics, and the US has extensive plans to increase the use of shale gas extracted by fracking for making plastics. According to DEFRA’s modelling, in 2017 the UK’s 42 incinerators released a combined total of nearly 5 million tonnes of CO2 from the incineration of fossil-based materials, predominantly plastics. Even if the incinerator generates electricity, burning plastic in an incinerator produces around 2.5 times less useful energy output for that CO2 than would have been obtained from the direct use of the original fossil fuel as fuel.

Public awareness of the issue is strong. I urge the Minister to consider that the time for action is now. The Government could make a regulation now that met the demands of the petition, which has about 125,000 signatures. A further petition organised by Friends of the Earth calling for Government action on plastics pollution now has 187,000 signatures. Any action must deal with the actual problems. If we are to have effective action, we need to understand what the problems are.

In response to the petition, the Government say:

“Packaging has an important and positive role to play in reducing product damage, increasing shelf-life, and reducing food waste.”

However, plastic packaging on fresh fruit and vegetables may contribute to food waste: by offering a fixed packaged quantity, people may be induced to buy more than they need, as the hon. Member for Henley mentioned. Also, the amount of waste may be disguised. Rather than damaged food being thrown away by the supermarket, the customer may well find damaged fruit or vegetables inside the plastic packaging and then throw them away in the household. Also, I question whether most fresh fruit and vegetables are given an enhanced shelf life by being wrapped in plastic.

Even when fruit and vegetables are offered loose to the general public, often the only way of taking them to the checkout is in plastic bags because no paper bags are provided. I support the comments made by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy, who is no longer in her place. Providing paper bags for people to choose to use if they want to avoid using plastic is something that every supermarket could do. I am glad to hear that Morrisons is doing just that.

The Government have promised,

“a four point plan taking action at each stage of the product lifecycle—production, consumption and end of life.”

However, recycling is only a part of any solution to the problem of plastic. Eunomia, working for Friends of the Earth, estimated that only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. The Guardian has published estimates that about 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year emanates from supermarkets, so our No. 1 priority must be to reduce the amount of plastic used in the first place. The best way to start is to identify applications that are unnecessary, and I suggest that wrapping fresh fruit and vegetables in plastic is one such application.

Local Government Association analysis published on 4 August 2018 suggests that only a third of plastic used by households is capable of being recycled. Most waste collection and sorting systems are unable to deal with film and bags, which are the main plastic items associated with the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables, so the expectation is that almost none of the plastics that the petition addresses are recyclable. The answer, surely, is to prevent them from being used in the first place.

What do the Government intend to do? Labour will support actions that reduce harmful pollution from plastics, but I am not clear that the Government know what those actions might be. Will a tax on packaging with less than 30% recycled material actually reduce the amount of plastic getting into the environment? I am not sure. We have still to see the details. Whatever the Government do, they need to act before 2022, when the proposed “30% or less” tax would be implemented, if they are to meet their stated aim to recycle 70% by 2025 and eliminate plastic by 2042.

The Government also talk about encouraging voluntary selective plastic-free aisles in a small number of supermarkets. Of course that would be a good step forward, but it is not enough. When The Guardian surveyed the major supermarkets, none was willing to commit to setting up plastic-free aisles, despite the Prime Minister’s optimism last week, and only two supermarkets—Aldi and the Co-op—were open about the amount of plastic packaging that they put on to the market.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

The hon. Gentleman has already talked about the large number of people who are concerned about the plastic used in supermarkets, but supermarkets do what their customers want. Why does he think supermarkets have used plastic packaging as they have?

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

I do not agree that supermarkets do what customers want. They do whatever will induce the customer to purchase the majority of their food at the supermarket. Plastic is not necessarily what people want if they are given a choice, but very often, as has been said, customers in a supermarket do not have a choice, so we cannot say that the supermarket is doing what the customer wants. Clearly, if customers do not have a choice, they take what the supermarket offers them. For instance, when I go into a supermarket to buy some of my fruit and vegetables, I normally do not have a choice as to what bag to put them into. I do not put loose tomatoes into a supermarket shopping trolley; if I had a paper bag to put them in, I would put them into that, but if there is only a plastic bag, perforce I have to put them into that.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

Would the paper bag provide the protection for the tomatoes that the plastic tray with the cellophane wrap provides?

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

I do not believe that tomatoes need that level of protection. If one treats them carefully, as I always do when I am in a supermarket, I put them into a bag, and there is no way that a paper bag would provide less protection than a plastic bag. However, the paper bag is compostable and the plastic bag is not.

We need the forthcoming environment Bill, promised by the Prime Minister in July this year, to contain clear actions for dealing with plastics based on comprehensive knowledge of current problems and science-based understanding of the impacts. We are waiting to hear what the Government propose to do to ensure that the environment Bill contains effective measures to combat plastics pollution.

Too often we have seen half-hearted and piecemeal gimmicks from the Government. What is needed is wholesale, systemic change. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to take the petition seriously and to consider whether a mandatory requirement for fresh fruit and vegetables to be made available without plastic packaging would be desirable and possible.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:45 pm, 12th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank my hon. Friend Steve Double for presenting the debate. I repeat his congratulations to Edmund Pendrous on tabling the petition. I welcome Sandy Martin to his place. I believe it is his first contribution to a debate from the Front Bench. I am sure he will continue speaking in that role for some time on a variety of topics in which I know he has a particular interest.

I tend to respond by outlining the steps the Government are taking on the issues raised, but I am conscious that Members have talked today about a much wider variety of matters than were raised in the petition. The important issue of plastic waste is recognised by people across the country and around the world, so we in government will continue to do whatever we can to reduce avoidable waste and plastic pollution. I am confident that the Government will do many things, although I might have to disappoint some Members today because some of those things will emerge from the resources and waste strategy, which we intend to publish soon.

The Government share Members’ concerns. In answer to Tulip Siddiq, we set out in the 25-year environment plan our ambition to achieve zero avoidable plastic waste. That does not mean that everything waits until 2042—she will be aware of some of the actions that we are already taking on microbeads. John Mc Nally is right that it was the Welsh Government who initiated the concept of a levy on plastic bags, which we then adopted in 2015, and there has been a huge response to that around the country. We are undertaking other activities that might be small steps in the minds of some people, but are important in sending a clear leadership message, which is having an impact not only in this country but in other parts of the world.

The UK uses about 5 million tonnes of plastic every year, half of which is packaging, and demand for the material continues to rise. We particularly want to reduce demand for single-use plastic items, promote better use of materials in circulation, and increase the volume of plastic sent for recycling.

As I indicated, we have introduced certain measures already. We are looking at the deposit return scheme, which the hon. Member for Falkirk referred to. He is aware that the four nations are discussing that matter. From a consumer and industrial perspective, it would make sense to agree one scheme, but we do not want to hold up other nations that consider themselves more advanced in developing the scheme. I am having a meeting next week with Ministers from Wales and Scotland and with officials from Northern Ireland to see how far we can progress that. We recently launched a consultation on plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. We know that industry has responded well already, but going further will eliminate the availability of such items. However, we have some exemptions with regard to disability issues and a specific issue regarding the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay referred to the important measure announced in the Budget to introduce a specific tax for products containing less than 30% recycled plastic, if companies come forward in future with such products. That will stimulate a market for recycled plastics. At the moment, we are talking about two kinds of plastic that have a market in this country. Of course, plastics can be sold abroad, and we take advantage of such opportunities. Some of those markets are closing in terms of quality—probably the most prominent example is China—but other countries want our plastic to create packaging, which they often then use to send products to this country.

The timeframe that we give to manufacturers to make the adjustment and to do the research and innovation so that they can switch is important. At the moment, a good example is the classic plastic milk bottle, which has been carefully designed to try to reduce the amount of plastic and the amount of carbon generated as a result. However, owing to food safety issues it needs to have a certain kind of virgin plastic in order to prevent leaching of plastic into the milk. There are certainly areas where research and innovation are required, as has been said multiple times by hon. Members. That is why we have already announced the £20-million plastics research and innovation fund, to which we have added a further £20 million—£10 million specifically for research and development, and £10 million for getting better at ensuring that plastic that is used is recycled in a variety of ways.

Reference was made to products such as plastic cups, and the topic of biodegradable plastics came up a few times. We need to be careful about compostable and biodegradable material and ensure that any future infrastructure will be able to deal with such material appropriately, because at the moment the majority of infrastructure in this country is not set up to deal with it. Certainly people cannot just put anything that markets itself as compostable into the compost tips in their gardens; it needs to be processed in a particular way, on an industrial scale.

It is a bit like some of the challenges that some coffee cup retailers have been experiencing. At the moment, a plastic liner remains an element. It is possible to recycle those products, and there are about four of five places in the country that do it; the challenge is how we get the cups back to those recycling places. Of course, for other sorts of cartons there is really only one place in the country where recycling can be done. So far, councils seem to have been a lot more effective at using household recycling to get those products there.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

Does the Minister agree that were a manufacturer to place on the market a material that is incredibly low cost in use and capable of being coloured in a variety of colours, manipulated into all sorts of shapes, and recycled, we would hail it as a wonder material, rather than denigrating it, as has seemed to be the case in much of this afternoon’s debate?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I know my hon. Friend feels passionately about this subject. It is important not to demonise plastic entirely, but we need to consider taking the holistic approach to the environment to which hon. Members have referred. I understand what he says, but at the moment there is not a huge market for some of the products that are technically recyclable. That is what we are trying to change and to stimulate.

I have already referred to the tax that was announced in the Budget. We also intend to reform the packaging producer responsibility system, which will increase producer responsibility for the cost of all their packaging waste, including plastic. The system will provide an incentive for producers to design packaging that is easier to recycle and will penalise the use of difficult-to-recycle packaging.

Recognising the global challenge, the Prime Minister announced an unprecedented package earlier this year at the Commonwealth summit. We have come together with other Commonwealth nations to establish the Blue Charter, and the United Kingdom and Vanuatu are co-chairing the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. About £66 million of UK aid has been made available to boost global research and to help countries across the Commonwealth to stop plastic entering the oceans, which was one of the key motivations behind today’s petition.

As part of the package of support, this September we launched the Global Plastics Action Partnership alongside the Canadian Government to help to deliver on those goals. The partnership will bring businesses, Governments and other organisations together to develop country action plans to address the plastics problem. Companies such as Coca Cola, PepsiCo and the Dow Chemical Company are already supporting it, and several others are in discussions. We have invested £2.4 million in that initiative alone; the funding has been matched by the Canadian Government, and we believe that further commercial partners will come on board.

As my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey said, one of the challenges of plastics occurs when they leak out of the system. Addressing the problem is not solely about eradication; it is clearly also a question of management. However, we need a shift in how we think about how to reduce avoidable waste. One of the things that has been said today is how much consumers need to change their behaviour. I agree that we need to get consumers themselves to consider changing their behaviour, but we know that retailers are a key way of getting them to do that, as are manufacturers.

The convenience of getting all of one’s shopping in the same place has been a big driver for supermarket shopping, as opposed to visiting a local greengrocer or going to the market, so we want retailers to act responsibly. We are working with them and the Waste and Resources Action Programme, WRAP, to encourage efforts to reduce waste and to explore the introduction of plastic-free supermarket initiatives in which food is loose, giving consumers the choice.

WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched their plastics pact with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and 80 businesses, including some non-governmental organisations and service providers. The pact aims to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Participants will also work together to recycle or compost 70% of plastic packaging, while striving to eliminate single-use plastics. A week or so ago, we also supported the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new plastics economy global commitment. We are one of just a handful of Governments that have signed up to that. It is important to lead by example and support such important global initiatives.

Returning to the debate about wrapping cucumbers or cauliflowers in plastic, such practices are an important part of innovation with regard to increasing shelf life and reducing food waste. I understand that the hon. Member for Ipswich is a bit sceptical about balancing the two, but keeping food fresher for longer through innovations such as vacuum packing and resealable packs has a significant impact on extending the life of many products and reducing waste. If a product is wasted due to insufficient packaging, the costs of disposal can often have a greater environmental impact than the packaging itself. We need to strike the delicate balance between the two. Food waste in itself is a huge environmental and financial issue. It is suggested that more than 10 million tonnes of food and drink waste arise annually in the UK after the farm gate.

We are taking a comprehensive approach to tackle the problem. With WRAP we launched the Courtauld commitment 2025 in March 2016. That brings together organisations right across the food system—from producers to consumers—to try to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable. However, there may be opportunities where offering food loose may help to reduce plastic waste while not affecting shelf life. That is why we have worked with WRAP and retailers to explore the potential for introducing plastic-free initiatives. WRAP will publish a technical report on the evidence for providing fresh produce loose, and what the differences are.

Many examples have been referred to, and the cucumber is probably the classic one. My hon. Friend John Howell might have been thinking of the Henley royal regatta and the many cucumber sandwiches that are consumed on those days. He will perhaps need to talk to his local food providers, because if people know that they will get through a large number of cucumbers in one or two days, clearly plastic wrapping is not required. I appreciate that the cucumbers might get a bit bruised, but I think they are reasonably hardy.

The cucumber is probably the best example, which is why it is used so often. Instead of the shelf life being two to three days, it is extended to 12 to 15 days with packaging. Without revealing every element of the WRAP technical report, which is due to be published soon, the evidence suggests that there are other products where there is a real environmental improvement to be had from packaging. Those include soft fruits, cherries, berries, raspberries, salad leaves—the bags of salad that regularly get used when people do not feel that they have the time to deal with all that—herbs, grapes, spinach and cabbage. I have not found out about cauliflower, but I will, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay will read the report carefully. WRAP suggests that with those products, there is real evidence that packaging matters in extending the shelf life. The report indicates that there are some other products where it does not particularly make a big difference—carrots are an example.

[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

This comes back to consumer choice. I think that people have got used to picking up elements of this, and I am pleased to see that there have been initiatives; I have certainly noticed them in my local shopping experience. We are seeing a change, and the decision is now being given back to consumers for them to make a positive choice about, for example, using paper bags or collecting stuff loose, and whether produce can be conveniently grouped together—a bunch of bananas is probably the best example of that, as compared with trying to pick up six peaches.

One thing that I hope that the report will be useful in doing—we hope WRAP will publish this by the end of the month—is a bit of consultation, which will give both retailers and manufacturers an opportunity to consider the best way to take this forward, particularly with signatories to the Courtauld commitment and the UK plastics pact. Further to that, we are working with Morrisons to evaluate its current trial of selling uncut, fresh produce plastic-free or loose. The project will provide an independent, evidence-based appraisal of a plastic-free initiative and explore the effects on food waste of reducing plastic packaging. This will inform further retailer and supplier action under the Courtauld commitment and the plastics pact.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn referred to a Budgens branch in Belsize Park, which I believe is a franchise run by Mr Andrew Thornton. Understandably, he recently received some good publicity for his commitment to try to reduce plastic packaging at Budgens and at his other store in Crouch End. There may be other suppliers available, but I want to flag this as a good, local example. I think that they are trying to do something that, as has already been alluded to, people see in their local greengrocer’s. I am conscious that this is part of his community supermarket idea, which he, as the franchise operator, is bringing in to run under the broader Budgens brand.

Other retailers have made good progress with tackling plastics. Waitrose recently published two reports, one of which, on consumer research, highlighted the increase in customer awareness of plastic pollution. The other report is the Waitrose & Partners plastics plan, which has been published to communicate the company’s commitment to eliminate unnecessary plastic and to explain how they are going about it, whether it is through packaging, products, customer engagement or across the supply chain.

There are opportunities and funding for innovation and redesign, which is important. The United Kingdom has signed up to the circular economy directive, and it is our intention to continue that; I think it is a really important way to proceed. We are ambitious about recycling rates, but many Members will be aware that we are sometimes driven by the weight system instead of by the actual issue, and I expect we will consider that in the future. We are committed to making those changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay referred repeatedly to how youth have responded to the issue of reducing plastic packaging, and how they want solutions to be provided. I certainly agree with that. Black plastic has been discussed. Black plastic is recyclable, but not all councils have invested through their contracts in facilities that can identify black plastic as it goes through; there is a certain kind of pigment that can be picked out. One thing that we need to consider is how plastic is used in our food chain. There are reasons why black plastic is used. It is not just for image; it has a function, but there may be opportunities to use different things. By the end of the year, I expect retailers and manufacturers to propose a solution to improve the polymers and reduce the number of polymers that are used in a wide variety of products. Again, that is about trying to make it easier to recycle.

I am sure that many of us are lobbied regularly by our constituents about bin collections. We will have more to say on that in the resources and waste strategy, so I will hold off from talking about it further. I have largely managed to cover the points relevant to the petition that were raised today, but I want to say that we are working with the industry, which has committed to implementing solutions. These matters are on track, but there are some difficult challenges to overcome in innovation, particularly in relation to drinks containers. One of the solutions that we have identified will be taken forward through the UK plastics pact and will ensure that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2025.

I thank again the petitioners who signed this petition and helped us to have this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for opening the debate.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 6:06 pm, 12th November 2018

I want to sum up by thanking all hon. Members for their participation. Once again, I thank all the petitioners who signed the petition and enabled this debate to happen. I am sure this is an issue that we will keep coming back to—it is clearly something that many people care deeply about. There is an increasing awareness of the impact on our environment of the amount of plastic that we use and discard. I very much welcome the Minister’s response, which clearly showed that the Government are grasping this issue. As has been said, it needs to be done in balance, particularly when it comes to food packaging: we need to balance environmental concerns with the benefits that plastic offers for preserving food and extending its shelf life.

I thank everyone who has participated today. I am sure that, as we continue to engage with the public and the industry and to take a lead as Parliament, we will continue to reduce the amount of plastic waste that we produce, which can only be a good thing.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 222715 relating to plastic-free packaging for fruit and vegetables.

Sitting adjourned.