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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:45 pm on 12th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

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.