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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:30 pm on 12th November 2018.

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Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 5:30 pm, 12th November 2018

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.